Game #23 Review: Vegas Golden Knights 4 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Photo: Canadian Press

Wake me up when November ends.

Your game in ten:

1.  The quick and dirty game summary: It was a tightly-contested first period in which there were some half chances both ways and a breakaway apiece that didn’t result in either goalie really being challenged (by Ilya Mikheyev for the Leafs and Tomas Nosek for Vegas). The Leafs didn’t get scored on by a team that usually starts well at home, so it was a minor victory there.

The second period was rough 20 from the Leafs (40% possession, lost 14 of 22 faceoffs), and while they didn’t give one up at evens (just on the PK, as is tradition), one of a couple of lengthy own-zone spells led to the penalty that set up the goal, marking the 18th time the Leafs have trailed first in 23 games.

They didn’t go away quietly and their third-period push was encouraging, much like their road games in Chicago and Long Island, but a back-breaking giveaway by Tyson Barrie as last man back and another power-play goal against meant a Jason Spezza 1-1 tying goal and a Zach Hyman 3-2 power-play goal weren’t enough. With a final late push, the Leafs hit a post and Marc-Andre Fleury robbed them silly with a save that will be played for years to come:

Six straight losses.

2.  It was on the power play, but that Zach Hyman third-period goal showed what an effective screen actually looks like — right on top of Marc-Andre Fleury with his rear end hovering over the blue paint, preventing the goalie from claiming all the ice and sightlines he wants. Much focus has been placed on the Leafs increase in point shots and their lack of efficacy, but the other half of the story is how bad of a job the Leafs are doing at actually screening goaltenders effectively and making life hard on them in general. Maybe battle and shove a defenseman into his goalie here and there. Hell, even take a goalie interference penalty now and again. Sow some chaos and make not only the goalie but the opposing defensemen concerned about your presence in that area of the ice.

It’s easy to fixate on the muffins the Leafs are floating in for easy play stoppages, but it’s been incredibly frustrating watching Leafs forwards act like simply being in the vicinity is enough. This stuff really doesn’t come naturally to most of the Leafs forward group besides Hyman and Tavares, which is the other half of this frustrating equation where the Leafs are generating a lot of low-percentage shot attempts and it’s rarely leading to the more dangerous second/third opportunities.

Why are so many goalies playing well against the Leafs lately? It’s no mystery. They’re warming them up with muffins from the point they don’t even have to fight to see.

3.  A bit of an eyebrow-raising comment from Babcock after the game about the PK:

“Maybe earlier in the year when we didn’t skate as much in the pre-game skates, we should’ve spent more time doing it. We did that kind of because we were trying to keep our guys fresher for the science part of it, but in the end, you’ve got to execute on those things. That’s on me.”

Sounds to me like there might’ve been a debate internally as to whether to mix in more practice time with additional PK reps for the overhauled units (with Zaitsev, Hainsey, Brown gone and Hyman out for the first month and a half — their top four in shorthanded TOI last season) or to prioritize taking the rest when they could get it with three sets of back-to-back games and eight games in 14 games to start the season.

4.  There are no real excuses overall for the Leafs PK after 13 PP goals against in their last 11 games. In defense of the units tonight specifically, though, neither goal was the result of a significant breakdown — Frederik Andersen needed to hold onto the first one, and probably could’ve been more on his angle to take away shortside-high for the second, although it was a well-placed shot by Mark Stone.

In the end, Fleury came up with the save of the year candidate and Andersen didn’t make anything “big” — on the PK goals, or even the Tomas Nosek breakaway goal, where he looked caught in between on his depth, stumbled backward onto his back, and it was an easy finish for Nosek.

“I got outplayed by Fleury a little bit,” said Andersen after the game. “I wouldn’t really nitpick [the PK units on the Stone goal]. I thought I had it squeezed there, but it snuck behind me.”

5.  There are many issues with the PK, but I thought this was the story tonight, so it’s worth pointing out: Andersen’s 4v5 save percentage is .843, which is 30th of 34 among goalies with 50 or more 4v5 minutes played. He is facing more than the average number of shots (56.8 per 60 is 10th most in that cohort), but not that many high-danger shots: 12.8 high-danger shots against per 60 is better than the average (13th of 34).

His average shot distance at 4v5 is the fifth furthest away from the net of the 34 goalies at 33.7 feet. His average goal distance is right on average (17th), and he’s making 8.94 high-danger saves per 60 on the PK, which is the eighth fewest.

This is likely what Kyle Dubas was referring to when he acted surprisingly nonchalant about the PK last week and chalked it up to the percentages. It is far from the whole story, but Andersen definitely needs to be better here and do his part so that the units can gain some semblance of confidence.

6.  I wasn’t so miffed that Babcock went to the fourth line after the Leafs tied it up at 1-1 given it was the Vegas L4 out there and honestly, the goal came down to Tyson Barrie’s turnover plain and simple. But it was frustrating to see him go back to Goat-Shore again — with Mikheyev on the LW this time, and Mark Stone and Jonathan Marchessault on for Vegas — after the 3-2 goal by Zach Hyman on the power play. They’d already been scored on, had a bad shift leading to a penalty, and were getting caved in overall. Vegas almost put the game to bed right there with a Mark Stone chance in the slot.

Goat and Shore have struggled of late; it’s notable that the 1-0 goals in both the Pittsburgh and Vegas games came after fourth-line d-zone faceoffs led to shifts that ended in penalties, with the Pens and Knights scoring on the ensuing power plays.

7.  The fourth line was a 25% CF, was on the ice for the one goal against, and was on for the penalty that led to another. It appears to me that Frederik GauthierNick Shore needs a mix-up — not just a new left winger on the line — and a subsequent easing up on the extreme d-zone usage would also be in order. This team has only really had the Matthews line going consistently lately, and while the Mikheyev – Spezza – Petan unit stepped up for the team tonight, it needs more from L4 and the Tavares line. I’d try out a fourth line with both Engvall and Timashov on it and move away from the heavy d-zone starts for a couple of games, with one of Shore or Goat in the middle.

It’s one thing if the Leafs had their full top nine up and running; there is some logic to using their fourth line in a specialty role to win d-zone draws, get off the ice, and free up those Matthews and Tavares lines for more o-zone starts. But the team is desperate for 5v5 offense right now and it is without Marner, Kerfoot, and Moore. They need four lines that can potentially contribute. Nick Shore has one assist and three (3!) shots on goal in his last 16 games played.

With some tough opponents coming up on the road, though, I am certainly not holding my breath here.

8.  My frustration with Mike Babcock isn’t that I think he is coaching the offense out of the team or doesn’t appreciate skill and speed enough (just look at his lineup right now, and his teams historically, and tell me with a straight face he hates skill & speed). It’s these adjustments he’s too slow to make that can be really frustrating — the fourth line had some awesome games early on, but it was not sustainable with the current personnel and deployment. Now injuries are factoring into the equation and stress testing the team’s depth, and there needs to an adjustment.

To be clear, a good portion of the responsibility for the overall depth and PK issues falls on management.

9.  As for Pierre Engvall’s debut — the positives were that he drew a penalty that led to the 3-2 goal and had some nice moments where he used his powerful, elongated stride to drive through the neutral zone with the puck as well as to track back/close without it. The negatives were that he looked like a deer in headlights at times in terms of how little time and space there is available at this level to make a play coming out of the d-zone against a big-league forecheck, especially when he needed to make a play on his backhand. It’s tough to judge him on his debut when he arrived after the morning skate and his linemates in Gauthier and Shore looked behind the pace, though.

10.  Hard to know what to even say about Tyson Barrie’s predicament right now. Moved away from Muzzin onto a pairing with Travis Dermott, he came out with good energy and competed hard with a good box-out in front as well as a nice hit on Alex Tuch along the wall early in the first. I was reasonably encouraged, at least early on, by how Dermott and Barrie were able to snap the puck to each other and move it out. Barrie was looking for opportunities to be active jumping up offensively, which is what you want to see — the only way he is going to turn this around is if he stays true to his identity and strengths as a hockey player. The giveaway was a brutally-costly case of forcing a move at the wrong time and place, though, and the stick smash off the post afterward said it all. Barrie’s first 23 games as a Leaf in a nutshell.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Vegas Golden Knights

5v5 Heat Map

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Game Highlights: Golden Knights 4 vs. Leafs 2