With the reigning Stanley Cup Champions visiting Scotiabank Arena on Monday evening, the Toronto Maple Leafs knew they would have to bring their “A” game against one of the heaviest teams in hockey.
Jason Spezza returned to the lineup to play his first home game as a Maple Leaf, while former Leafs Tyler Bozak, Alex Steen, and Carl Gunnarsson returned to Toronto.
On paper, there are not many teams that match up better against the Leafs than St.Louis. One star defenseman can’t match up against both Auston Matthews and John Tavares, but the Blues have both Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, plus a Selke candidate in Ryan O’Reilly. Both teams have loaded rosters. It always felt like we were bound to watch a great game.
Your game in ten:
1. The Leafs got off to a strong start, outshooting the Blues 15-7 in the first period and winning the 5v5 shot attempts battle 24-12. Alexander Kerfoot had Toronto’s first good chance in the opening minutes before Auston Matthews hit the post on the power play off of a nice feed from John Tavares. Frederik Andersen was not the only reason the Leafs gave up nothing in the opening frame. All in all, it was tough to complain about the first period from the Leafs.
2. Both teams scored two goals in the second, and even though the Leafs were outshot 15-11, this was another strong period for Toronto. Andersen let in a bit of a soft one on a shot off the rush from Oskar Sundqvist before both Rasmus Sandin and Justin Holl ended up in the box for penalties that probably could have gone uncalled. The Leafs did not deserve to be losing at the halfway point. Frederik Gauthier finally changed that thanks to Spezza’s ability to bat the puck out of the air.
24, William Nylander scored a thing of beauty:
WILLIAM NYLANDER! What a move. 2-1 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/XCzZwyAnPj
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) October 8, 2019
The Leafs looked dominant for most of the remainder of the period, before blowing the lead in the final minute. Morgan Rielly committed a bad turnover, Moore and Gauthier got caught puck-watching, and Brayden Schenn was left all alone to tie the game. While it was frustrating that the Leafs didn’t carry the lead, their play during the opening 39 minutes was incredibly encouraging.
3. Trevor Moore made a stupid mistake to start the third. A strong shift from the third-line and third-pairing was about to earn the Leafs a powerplay, but Moore cross-checked Joel Edmundson in front of the Blues net to negate it.
The Blues then scored a nice goal eight minutes into the frame. Kapanen lost sight of Alex Pietrangelo for half a second, which is all it took for David Perron to deliver a gorgeous pass to Pietrangelo. The Blues defenseman did not have the best angle, but he showed why he’s a Team Canada-calibre player with a perfectly-placed wrist shot. I don’t know everything about the Blues, but I do know that having Perron at a $4 million cap hit is a steal.
4. William Nylander was amazing tonight — a consistent theme so far this season. He was so good in the transition game and he was completely deserving of his second-period goal. As Jonas Siegel of The Athletic tweeted, it took Nylander 24 games to score his second goal last season; he scored his second in his fourth game this year. His ability to gain the zone combined with his playmaking continues to make him look like the perfect complement to Matthews. That whole line played well tonight, as Andreas Johnsson combined his heavy playing style with his non-stop motor. This has been Toronto’s top line to date.
5. Jason Spezza, Nic Petan, and Justin Holl all found their way back into the lineup tonight. All three played quite well. It’s always nice when your fourth line can score the odd goal, while Sundqvist’s goal was more or less on Andersen rather than the players in front of him. Of the three, Petan was the least noticeable, partly because he only played 5:41.
Holl had a great rush halfway through the first when he anticipated a pass, intercepted it, then rushed up the ice and fired a hard shot on Binnington. He was part of the successful penalty kill unit tonight, and although he has a long way to go, I think that was exactly the type of game that he was looking for. He’s clearly a better puck mover than Marincin.
Rasmus Sandin excels at getting his partner the puck with plenty of time and space. Holl needs to keep this up to pass Marincin on the depth chart, but he’s at least earned another game or two after tonight.
6. Cody Ceci also played well tonight, and I continue to have no idea what to think of him. He’s been inconsistent game-to-game thus far — there have been a few mistakes along the way — but there wasn’t much to complain about tonight. He’s a capable puck mover, it seems, and he’s making some plays that you never would have seen out of Zaitsev last year:
This is your daily “I’m not sure what to think of Cody Ceci yet, but Zaitsev never did that” tweet
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) October 8, 2019
7. Rasmus Sandin’s ice time was a hot topic heading into this game. The 19-year old defensemen played well tonight, despite an average shot attempt differential. It sure sounded like Mike Babcock also liked Sandin’s game tonight during his post-game scrum, and he even got a chance to play on the penalty kill while Holl was in the box. For those of you who aren’t counting the seconds at home, Sandin ended up playing 15:20.
I am hoping that everyone can start to have more intelligent conversations about ice time rather than looking at the box score and yelling about the final number. I firmly believe that Mike Babcock is impressed with Sandin, but his job is to maximize the Leafs’ chances of winning, not to track Sandin’s every second of ice time on his watch.
Here’s the thing about Sandin: He’s not on either special teams unit and he has two great left-shooting defensemen playing ahead of him at 5v5. If there’s a ton of penalties in the game, he’s not going to play much. Jake Muzzin gets the first shift after a powerplay, while either Rielly or Muzzin are going to get the first shift after a commercial break. Sandin happens to play on a team with two high-end (and established) power-play quarterbacks.
Sandin continues to impress, though, and I think he’s going to be an outstanding player one day. I expect him to be in the playoff lineup, though I won’t throw a fit if the Leafs want him to play big minutes for a short stretch with the Marlies. He will continue to earn more and more ice time as he’s a high-end puck mover who is better defensively than some of Toronto’s veteran defensemen. I love the player, but I can’t blame Babcock for playing Rielly and Muzzin whenever they are well-rested.
8. Kasperi Kapanen played fairly well tonight. It looked like he was “playing guilty” in the early minutes. That line did not find their way onto the scoreboard, but St. Louis’ stars get paid, too, and I did not think that this was a bad game from Kapanen. He created a nice short-handed chance with Mikheyev late in the game, but he just couldn’t find a way to tie things up.
Kapanen looks bound to end up on the third line. I’m not overly stressed about whether he gets a five-game sample or a 15-game sample with the Tavares-Marner duo. I’m not completely sold on him on the powerplay, though, as he can’t really fully use his speed on the man advantage and I think prefer Moore or Petan there.
9. Tyson Barrie is very fun to watch, and his spin-deke in-front of his own net was perfect evidence of that. He gives the Leafs a completely different element on the right side, but I do think that he’s shooting the puck a little bit too much. Toronto had something building with the goalie pulled, but he shot the puck from the furthest location possible in the offensive zone. That’s a better strategy when you’re playing with Colorado’s middle-six forwards from last season, but you need to think pass there when Toronto’s stars are on the ice.
10. All in all, this was a strong performance from the Leafs tonight. They deserved better. Frederik Andersen was not at his best, while Jordan Binnington made a number of timely saves. The power play only had two opportunities, and the Leafs dictated play at five-on-five.
The Leafs didn’t play all that well at 5-on-5 in the early stages of last season while relying on a hot power play and goaltender to pick up wins. While it’s always nice to get two points, tonight’s game against the defending Stanley Cup Champions was certainly a positive sign of things to come, result aside.