As has been the case a number of times over the past few seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs will get off easy tonight because they won, but this was not a well-played hockey game.
There was really no excuse for the Leafs tonight. They are about as healthy as you can be in this league at this point, they were off since Saturday, and they were playing at home. The Leafs put 24 shots on net against a mediocre Kings team and for most of the game, onlookers were rightly wondering where all of their star players were.
During the second intermission broadcast, Jeff O’Neill called the Leafs’ best players “invisible,” and he wasn’t exaggerating. The Leafs won the game after Auston Matthews and William Nylander each picked up a pair of points in the third period to go along with some timely saves from Frederik Andersen. But let’s make no bones about it — this was completely uninspiring hockey.
There wasn’t much to this game, and for the most part, it was plain boring to watch. Credit to the team and their top guns for staying patient and doing enough to get the job done, but it seems like for weeks now fans have been complaining about how this group is playing and this performance did little to alleviate those concerns.
Your game in ten:
1. The Leafs, in a bit of a surprise development, used the Alex Kerfoot line versus the Anze Kopitar unit tonight. It’s a bit of a surprise given the Leafs pay the other two centers 11+ million apiece, but it was Kerfoot taking on the biggest responsibility tonight. In fairness, John Tavares was returning from injury and it’s fair to assume a healthy and in-form Tavares takes on that matchup as he usually does. In any event, Kerfoot did well in this matchup tonight — he actually out-shot attempted Kopitar 9-8 head to head. He was also crushed by a hit from Jeff Carter and had to leave for concussion protocol before returning to score a beautiful goal off a turnover he worked hard to help create.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 6, 2019
2. From beginning to end, the line of Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Kapanen was the Leafs’ best. Kapanen really struggled on the top line playing on the left side with Tavares and Marner but — and this has been noted a few times here before — since moving down to the third line and returning to his proper side, he has been in good form. Marner was the only winger who played more than Kapanen on the night as he saw over two minutes on both the power play and penalty kill. Kapanen did have a 2v1 on the PK where he literally stared at Mikheyev the entire time — predictably, it did not end well — but he’s strung together a number of good performances consecutively now and that should be commended.
3. Sometimes I think about this story former Leaf and Hab Mike Johnson told once — and I’m paraphrasing here — about the time he strung together a few really good weeks of hockey, slowly moved his way up the lineup based on his strong play, and finally made it all the way up to the top line with Alexei Kovalev in Montreal. As he told it, Kovalev did nothing that night (and I’m sure many fans remember what a disengaged Kovalev looked like). Johnson never saw the top line again.
That is how I felt watching Nic Petan play with Tavares and Marner tonight. They floated around, Petan tried hard, and the line got very little done. At one point in the first, Marner fed Petan in the high slot and he snaked his way through coverage a bit before messing up his shot attempt. That was about the only noteworthy 5v5 chance there.
4. It’s fair to wonder if the Leafs were trying to showcase Petan a bit by playing him with Tavares and Marner; Elliotte Friedman reported a few weeks back that Kyle Dubas is shopping him. Regardless of what he did with the Marlies this weekend, Petan needs to flash promise in the NHL in order to be moved. Zach Hyman is expected back by the weekend, so this seemed like a bit of a last-chance opportunity where no excuse could be given considering the quality of his linemates.
The alternative theory is that — and we’ve seen this before from the head coach — Babcock rather keep three lines together and mess with only one due to a player’s absence versus shaking up three/four lines due to an injury. In this case, the expectation is that Moore will be on the fourth line.
5. Unsurprisingly, when the Kings pulled their goalie and the Tavares line was on, Trevor Moore replaced Petan on the unit. After Kerfoot was run over by Jeff Carter, Moore was the only Leaf who threw a hit of consequence. He’s done this a few times and seems to be pretty well the only Leaf forward who will look to get physical in response to a teammate getting run.
6. I mentioned briefly in yesterday’s notebook that the Leafs haven’t been too aggressive on the penalty kill coming up the ice. Tonight, Mikheyev and Marner combined for some good pressure on LA that led to a breakaway scoring chance. The move was pretty uninspiring from Ilya Mikheyev, who pulled it to his forehand and flubbed a shot at Quick’s chest. The finish wasn’t there, but he did everything else right, which more or less sums his night up as he helped to force a number of turnovers. As we’ve said a few times here since the season has started, he has a knack for getting in the way of opponents and getting the puck back.
7. I thought that was the most confident Travis Dermott has looked since his return. He had a number of plays where he shimmied forecheckers and skated with the puck for clean breakouts. He also jumped in the offensive zone for a good scoring chance off of a pass from Kasperi Kapanen. The Leafs scored what would be the game-winning goal off of the next faceoff. The 13:32 Dermott played was modest, but it’s also the most he’s played since returning. He’s inching up in TOI and getting better each night so far, which is encouraging.
8. In case you were wondering, with John Tavares back, he was on PP1 with Johnsson still in front of the net and Tavares in the bumper role. Last season, he was the net-front player, which did neuter him of his vision and shot a bit more than he’s accustomed to (he played the half-wall with the Islanders), but he’s barely touching the puck in this bumper role. Babcock remarked earlier that he liked having a lefty in the bumper slot to act as a better release valve than a righty (in this case, it was Nylander), as he feels it’s an easier play to make. Last season, Tavares was second on the team with 10 power-play goals and recorded 19 power-play points.
9. I opined yesterday that this was a good game for Michael Hutchinson to play. While I largely stand by that, you can see why Babcock would be hesitant to do so. Frederik Andersen made a number of good saves, including a few while the game was still in the balance in the third period. This team is not clicking right now, and while I don’t think they are at all in danger of missing the playoffs, there’s also nothing wrong with getting points by putting your best foot forward right now. It’s justifiable for Babcock to say his team is playing poorly and he wants the number one goalie in for that reason.
10. Not to be forgotten tonight, the Leafs put on an excellent tribute to Jim Gregory before puck drop. RIP Jim.
A devoted husband, father of four, grandfather of 13, mentor and friend to so many in the hockey community.
Jim Gregory was as well-loved as anyone our game has ever known. He will be greatly missed.
Rest in peace, Jim. pic.twitter.com/ZN41yAO5aE
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 6, 2019
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts