It took 17 games, but the Frederik Andersen-led Toronto Maple Leafs have strung together their first three-game winning streak of the season after an entertaining 2-1 overtime victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.
Your game in ten:
1. A general comment on the game and the opponent: Watching this matchup was a breath of fresh air after Tuesday’s snoozer. It looked like a different sport altogether. A few years ago, I had mixed feelings about Vegas walking into the league and instantly becoming a top 2-3 team, but there is something so enjoyable about their product that I’ve had to park my cynicism. Their collective relentlessness, work rate, team speed, and physicality over four lines make for good viewing every time I catch a game of theirs. As we saw in the second period, where they speed-bagged the Leafs for almost 15 straight minutes (10-0 run in shots), they’re a well-oiled machine that can put its foot on the throat of the other team and refuse to let them up for air.
Vegas has added some high-end scoring via trade since joining the league, but with their expansion drafting, they really hit on some under-appreciated worker bees with untapped upside, all of whom lead with their work ethics. Even Max Pacioretty — who could take shifts, periods and entire games/weeks off with the best of them in Montreal — oftentimes looks like a different player now that he’s been integrated into their team culture. A team goes nowhere without enough skill, but a talented team that puts its work before its skill is one that will really go places in this league. There are lessons here for this Leafs team, and I think if Babcock were to point to one rival club he’d like the Leafs to play like — an example of a team that is both fast and heavy, brings it over four lines, has an active defense, steady goaltending, and good special teams — it may well be Vegas.
2. As bad as their second period was, I thought the Leafs’ start at home — often a challenge for them for some reason — was quite positive in terms of their overall first-period performance (Morgan Rielly affording Rielly Smith too much space to ring the iron coming in off the wing 10 seconds into the game aside). Vegas typically explodes out of the blocks to start games and can bury an opponent early if they’re not up for the challenge. The Leafs looked prepared for it and were digging in and competing in their puck races and battles, generating a slight edge in zone time in the first 15 minutes. Even though they didn’t score, it helped that they got the first couple of power plays so that they could establish a bit of a foothold in the game.
3. As much as there were some miserable Leafs power plays where the Leafs were out-chanced by the high-pressure, aggressive Vegas PK (on one power play, they entered the zone twice in a row and dropped the puck directly to a Vegas PKer who was reading it the whole way), there appeared to be more of an emphasis on actually taking shots later in the game. That was a welcomed sight. Matthews started teeing off on the third-period power play and eventually scored on an absolute bar-down snipe.
The sweet, sweet sound of ping & in.#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/S2AqPSlZDm
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 8, 2019
The second part to “shooting more” is winning battles for pucks off the goalie and back boards with hungry second efforts; otherwise, it’s a vicious cycle where the team isn’t winning pucks back and the power play becomes more and more hesitant to shoot if it means losing possession if the puck doesn’t go in. We can talk all day about the scheme and personnel, but the one feature of Jim Hiller’s power play when it was at its best between 2016-2018 was that they put a ton of rubber at the net and created outnumbered situations down there (Nazem Kadri was a real asset in this area) while generally being able to recover pucks regularly enough to sustain zone time and reload.
One final thought on the power play: I fully understand and agree with the respect Morgan Rielly has earned as the go-to point man on the first-unit power play, but if the opposition is generally going to sag off the points and Marner’s half wall and collapse on the slot to clog up the shooting lanes and east-west passing lanes for Matthews and Marner, it’d be interesting to see the Leafs put Tyson Barrie up top and kick a few back to him for some one-timers just for the change of pace as much as anything else. It might kill two birds with one stone knowing Barrie has looked like a total shell of himself confidence-wise in the first month-plus; letting him blast away and maybe break his goose egg could be exactly what he needs to get his feet underneath him.
It really stands out how rarely the Leafs rip one from the point with bodies in front if you watch other PPs around the league. The short-side snipes, tic-tac-toes into the bumper player, or cross-seam passes just aren’t going to be there a lot of the time against good PK units, who will take away a couple of your favored plays.
4. The one thing you’d really like to see from this Leafs team when they’re swimming upstream like they were in the second period — someone saying enough is enough, throwing a hit, or digging in for a determined puck battle to change momentum. They’ve taken stretches like that lying down way too often in the first month and a bit.
The second period was disappointing from the Leafs’ stars in particular, but it was encouraging that Matthews seemed to find a new level in the third (a good start and a good finish) with a big third-period goal for the second game in a row, while Marner stepped up big on the penalty kill and in 3-on-3 OT.
5. We would sure be singing a different tune right now if not for the big Leafs penalty kill on that late too-many-men call (bit of a tough call — Alex Kerfoot jumped on a bit early but didn’t touch the puck, Vegas completed the play, and it wasn’t like Matthews was way out at the center-ice dot). Improved aggressiveness, more pressure up ice, some shot-blocking sacrifices, and Andersen making saves and killing plays in net made for a 5-for-5 night on the PK. Confidence is huge on the PK and hopefully this is a confidence builder — shutting out LA’s PP is one thing, but Vegas has weapons and good numbers on the man advantage.
6. That’s two one-goal-against games in a row, but I’d caution against declaring the defensive game as on the up-and-up just yet. This one started and ended with Frederik Andersen’s superb performance — his best of the season. Vegas generated a lot of volume in the low slot and home plate areas:
It’s a massively important — if predictable, given his typical pattern — that Andersen has started to play like one of the Leafs’ best players again each night during this recent stretch. All good teams obviously need good goaltending most nights in the league. It’s also likely true that this team’s tendency to give up its fair share of shots and scoring chances isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s been the case as long as Andersen’s been a Leaf.
7. Morgan Rielly has taken flack for some of his defensive miscues in the first five weeks — much of it warranted — but I’d like to shout out an area where he really appears to have made some positive strides: defending 2v1s. I’ve been keeping a rough tally in the first 16 games and he’s played about four-to-five of these really well; he’s sweeping across to smother both the shooting lane and the pass option effectively. This one was particularly good as it was a fast-developing 2v1 that he had to read and snuff out.
8. I continue to be encouraged by the Travis Dermott – Justin Holl pairing. To be clear, the pairing took on water as badly as everyone else during the Leafs’ worst spells in this game, but in general, it’s coming out of the Leafs end smoothly with these two on the ice, as they both can either move it or lug it effectively. There is built-in chemistry here for sure and they are playing with good collective confidence.
They are both quite effective at cutting out chances and zone time before it develops by holding the defensive-zone blue line— Holl is often in the right spot and uses his stick positioning and feet to jump plays at the line. While it took place on the penalty kill, the Leafs created a 2v1 after Holl picked off a pass and nearly sent Marner + Kapanen away late in the first period (Kapanen bobbled the puck).
I’d like to see a little more leash from the coaching staff and for Hakstol to start inching up the ice time of these two. It was by no means a perfect night for them (Dermott also played just eight minutes), but they’re doing a lot more good than bad out there on the whole.
10. That OT winner felt bigger than just grabbing the extra point over a good team in game #16 of the season. John Tavares doesn’t look overly comfortable at times holding his stick post-broken finger; anyone who has suffered a finger injury before likely knows how these things don’t just heal up and spring back to normal in terms of the flexibility and range of motion in the affected digit(s). After he missed an open net and had a forgettable night against Los Angeles, his line struggled tonight overall (29% CF), particularly during their minutes against the Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone line (27% CF, 0 shots on goal). A big OT winner at home is a good boost for the captain as he tries to get himself feeling back to normal.
HIT THE JACKPOT!#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/cVpa6paAGN
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 8, 2019
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts