The Toronto Maple Leafs gave up a 2-0 lead with four unanswered goals against in the second period, clawed back within one on two separate occasions in the third, and ultimately couldn’t keep it out of their net enough on Friday night in Buffalo.
Your game in ten:
1. This isn’t an opportunistic point as I’ve said it several times in the past: I don’t think Auston Matthews’ ice time, generally speaking, was a major issue under Mike Babcock. It was more of a situational usage than a general ice-time problem— situationally, at times I’d have liked to have seen him play more with the team trailing (on a loaded line specifically). Overall, though, I didn’t see an issue with him averaging 19:50 this season under Babcock (similar as in the playoffs last Spring) with around 16:30/game in even-strength minutes, which is just outside the top 10 in the league. On a team with a pair of elite forwards centering separate lines, it didn’t strike me as unusual or unfair.
Matthews has been up over 18 minutes at evens a couple of times so far under Sheldon Keefe, and when it’s combined with a lot of power-play time (six minutes tonight for 24:48 total TOI, a career-high), it starts to look like it may be asking a lot— he was getting cleaned out on draws and turning it over frequently throughout the game (two leading to goals), particularly as the night wore on. In his other 18+ minute game at evens, he had some dominant shifts versus Colorado in the first period and then slowed down considerably later in the game along with the rest of the team. In those two cases, the Leafs gave up a multi-goal lead (tonight) and nearly did versus Colorado.
Like plenty of other elite forwards, Matthews’ sweet spot is probably a notch below Connor McDavid, whose skating engine is just different than anyone else who has ever played the game of hockey. Matthews’ build isn’t the same (he’s 6’4, 225), he’s not as much of a high-speed glider, and his conditioning isn’t the same.
2. Every start for Michael Hutchinson feels like the exact same story. He didn’t let in anything egregiously bad, but outside of a couple of solid saves after Leaf breakdowns/turnovers in the first, he didn’t come up with anything when the team needed it. The Skinner, Eichel and Olofsson shots were great finishes, the Mittelstadt goal was a deft tip, and the Vesey goal was a turnover by Matthews directly in the slot, but at some point, you have to stop something you shouldn’t and make a difference for your team. That’s just a fact of life in the NHL.
Apparently, some players on the team were asked about recalling Hutchinson again and it partially swayed the decision when the players said they wanted him back up (they probably felt like they owed him one). Not saying that is good or bad, but it’s definitely different.
Hutchinson has now been in net for a Leaf loss in which they held a multi-goal lead on three occasions and has given up four goals in a single period three separate times. The Leafs have collected one out of a possible 12 points in his starts. Not sure how you can justify keeping this going if you’re Dubas.
3. The Leafs turned the puck over a lot in this game trying to break the puck out in both the neutral and defensive zones, with multiple giveaways straight into the slot in the d-zone off of blind passes through the middle. Up the wall/off the glass, or a flip to center / in the zone, in order to create a foot race up ice still has its time and place. The breakout through the middle or the extra pass in the neutral zone isn’t always going to be there when a team is making a concerted effort to jam you up like the Sabres were. It’s about striking that balance between advancing the puck quickly and taking the time to make plays — and it’s all about time and place.
There has been a lot of talk about the Leafs emphasizing puck possession and their newfound freedom to make plays — and there is a lot to be said for that — but the quote that is relevant tonight is Keefe’s from the Colorado game:
“The most challenging thing to grasp is when to hang onto the puck a little bit longer than you would, and when to move it quickly, and when to utilize speed and get the thing moving up the ice. That is the difficult part — that decision making.”
The Leafs, in Keefe’s own words, “tried one too many passes” in dangerous areas of the ice throughout the game. In his presser, Keefe seemed almost excited to use those examples as teaching moments after the game.
4. More from Tavares and Matthews hammering this point home after the game:
“We got the lead… We were a little sloppy at times but had some good opportunities, and we just weren’t very hard on pucks and we were sloppy coming through the neutral zone quite a bit. That led to some of the transition. They started making some plays and feeling good about ourselves. We continued to give ourselves a chance but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot.
They tried to pack the neutral zone and play really patient on us. You can think you’ve got some time and space, but they were closing things off pretty quickly as we were trying to come up. We’ve got to find a way to get through that and continue to play with the speed that we can — understand what is there, take what is given, and don’t force the issue at times.”
“Especially in the second period, we weren’t taking care of the puck. I think we were just trying to look for the perfect play through the neutral zone.”
5. The Leafs’ power play wasn’t completely lifeless — they couldn’t gain the zone for a while on the first opportunity, but Tyson Barre had a good one-time look later on, and they had multiple good looks late in the second period — but they gave up two goals immediately following the end of a power play in the second period. They need to be more engaged/aware in those situations — Jack Eichel came on immediately after the end of the PPs (once coming out of the box, once off the bench), the Leafs turned pucks over/were second-best in battles, and Eichel ran them over for two goals. Those are huge momentum swings in games when the power play doesn’t score and the team falls asleep immediately after.
6. Give Jason Spezza credit where it’s due as far as the catalyst he’s provided offensively since taking over 3C under Keefe; he’s had a nice stretch of games here, including the setup for the Timashov goal tonight. However, the way he can drift around the d-zone, become puck focused, and fail to take a look around the zone for developing danger can be aggravating to watch at times — see the 4-2 goal (Nic Petan was just as guilty).
7. The Engvall – Gauthier – Timashov line gave the team outstanding energy minutes in Detroit and only played three minutes and four seconds at 5v5 tonight in a back-to-back situation. They had three shot attempts for / zero against, one shot for / 0 against, and Timashov came off the bench and scored at one point. Not sure about that one.
The Leafs bottom six should receive a nice boost in the return of Alex Kerfoot’s return tomorrow; best guess is Dmytro Timashov comes out and Pierre Engvall stays in. That’s quite the testament to Engvall’s first five games in the NHL. An interesting note from Mike Babcock shortly before he was fired — the coaching staff had Engvall on the team in the summer but he didn’t show enough in camp to justify it over other options.
8. Not too concerned about him individually so much as the Leafs’ overall unit, but Jake Muzzin’s numbers (and eye test) has taken a step back under Keefe so far — his goals against, expected goals against, shots against per 60 rates are the worst on the blue line in the last four games. The coaching staff mixed him in next to Cody Ceci a fair bit tonight and reduced Holl’s ice time to 12 and change. There is a lot more mixing and matching happening on the D-unit in general lately, and it’s hard to know if that’s going to help or hurt the situation; it might help Barrie by getting him some reps next to Rielly in the o-zone, but I can’t imagine it helps the other pairs.
Muzzin looks like he’s forcing it a little bit and may be trying to play a little outside of himself with the added emphasis on activation for the D. I have no doubt he’s going to be a big part of this team’s efforts to shut down the best players down the stretch and into the playoffs, but the team is going to need to find the right partnership, and that remains very much up in the air, as good as Justin Holl has been overall.
9. Part two to driving the net hard is sticking up for one another when the other team pushes back in response. Nic Petan — one of the smallest players in the league — did a good job of digging at the loose puck in the crease and was left alone to get double teamed by two Sabres early in the third period with a response so late from his teammates it may as well have not come at all.
Kyle Dubas answered a question on this topic last Saturday:
“I think our guys have shown here as they build their confidence and get rolling, they’ve been much better at jumping in and helping one another and supporting one another. That is really what we want to see.”
I’m not really seeing this. It was good to see Dermott stand up for himself with a good wrestling match in front of the Leaf net at one point, but the team has a long way to go in terms of stepping in for teammates.
10. William Nylander is playing excellent hockey this season — looks amazing in transition and when hanging onto pucks in the o-zone — and he has the production to match, but he’s left quite a bit on the table on breakaways. He at least mixed up his move in this game — from the usual forehand-backhand-five hole attempt to backhand-forehand with an earlier release — but there still wasn’t enough deception to it to make the goalie bite. He should talk to the veteran Jason Spezza about this — he’s a fellow righty who has been a pretty good shootout player over his career (37%). Or Nylander family friend Mats Sundin — he was lethal when in alone.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts