The Toronto Maple Leafs exploded out of the gates, totally collapsed, and surged back to win in regulation in a wild 14-goal affair that ended in a raucous celebration on the next-gen day at Scotiabank Arena.
That’s how you make new hockey fans for life.
Your game in ten:
1. With it being the next-gen game and Jason Spezza’s entire family being in attendance, I’m going to guess that Sheldon Keefe saw this as an opportunity for a bit of a do-over on the opening-night scratch situation. He moved Spezza onto the Tavares line to start the night. Again, most of what the new coach tries with his line adjustments seems to be coming up Milhouse — Spezza scored on that first shift after a good determined effort by Tavares down low created a loose-puck situation in front for Spezza to finish off.
I also wondered if we would see this tried at some point just based on Tavares and Spezza’s affinity for one another (they’re long-time friends) and also knowing how much they train and skate with one another in the summers. Keefe liked the first shift enough that he went back to the line a couple of times throughout the game, including to start the third period.
Quick note: The impeccable finish here by John Tavares on the power play in the first period stems from a drill he works on regularly with Darryl Belfry:
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 23, 2019
2. It felt extremely predictable that the Canes were going to make this a game even after falling behind 0-3 early — for one, afternoon games are generally just weird. Two, after a four-minute double minor led to two Toronto goals, the refs were going to manage the game as they always do (see the Jake Muzzin tripping call after Sebastian Aho lost his balance; the Dermott call early in the second period was also debatable). Three, the Leafs were riding high on a four-game winning streak, enjoyed a couple of easy-ish wins over bad teams, and got out to a multi-goal lead early in this game. Four, the Canes are a really good team and the Leafs hadn’t seen one in a little bit, so they weren’t totally prepared for the push to come. Five, it was the last game before the break, and it’s easy to look past the rest of the game and ahead to the trip home to see family and friends.
What wasn’t predictable was the two teams giving up three goals apiece inside 59 and 64 seconds, respectively, and the game turning into complete and utter chaos in the second half of the game. There isn’t much sense in analyzing the blow-by-blow; everything was indeed happening — with the exception of sound defense and goaltending — and after John Tavares lit it up early, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews absolutely took over the show with a series of superstar moments.
3. The reason it felt like the Leafs were never out of this game — even after they narrowed it to 5-4 only to give up the 6-4 a few minutes later — is that Matthews and Marner were not going away quietly. You could see it in their legs and their body language that they were going to leave it all out there today; that they weren’t ready to call it a day at 5-3 or 6-4. That was enabled by Sheldon Keefe putting them over the boards 10 times in the third period, with the two breaking 24 minutes of ice time by the end of the game. That included times when they were off the ice for less than a minute before Carolina iced the puck and they were sent back on for an o-zone draw while still catching their breath. With a four-day break coming up, Keefe turned it over to his superstars to salvage the game and they rewarded that show of faith with game-breaking superstar moments.
4. A big shout out to Zach Hyman, also — he was absolutely relentless in that third period. His play to set up Matthews for the 5-4 is going to be lost in the shuffle; he drove the D back, curled up, and put it on a platter for Matthews. His play on the empty-net goal to ice the game at 8-6 was especially important knowing the Leafs‘ fragility in their own end today and that Frederik Andersen wasn’t bringing his best stuff. Hyman’s burst off the mark on the lost d-zone faceoff recovered the puck for the Leafs and ended the game.
Also worth noting that Hyman’s drive to the near post took a D with him, opening the lane for this piece of magic to unfold:
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) December 23, 2019
The Hyman – Matthews – Marner line was on the ice for four of the Leafs’ five 5v5 goals.
An unsung hero shoutout should also go to Jake Muzzin for the plays he broke up on the late Carolina power play, which looked exceedingly threatening all game. Additionally, with the game looking in danger of petering out in the third, Muzzin threw another big hit for the second consecutive game just inside the defensive blue line and it contributed to the momentum turn. There were a lot of mixed games from the Leafs tonight, particularly on the blue line, but there was no quit in their fight.
5. This is going to be a good test for William Nylander coming up, assuming Matthews-Marner is here to stay for a while. If he stays on the third line for now, he will need to need to drive a line more himself against weaker competition, and that should be something he’s more than capable of doing. His power-play goal early on was well taken, but he struggled to take care of the puck properly on many occasions throughout the game. He and Kapanen also play the game on different wavelengths and have not shown much natural chemistry with one another.
There is no doubting Matthews-Marner was a long-overdue experiment, but the long-term question isn’t whether Marner and Matthews can play together — can an elite playmaker and an elite goal scorer really mesh together as a lefty/righty duo? Gee, I dunno… — it’s whether the team nets out better overall with Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner than they do with Matthews-Marner loaded up together.
Tavares doesn’t need elite skill alongside him to produce — he’s been dominant of late no matter who has been on his wings, which is no surprise given his track record — but the one combination we have yet to see tried for a good run of shifts/games is the C-RW duo of Tavares-Nylander. The question there is whether Keefe would trust Nylander in those situations knowing Tavares is matching up against the other team’s best line. However, with Hyman and Marner on Matthews’ wings, that’s a line you can reasonably trust in a power-on-power situation on many nights.
6. The Canes are a dogged team without the puck on the o-zone and neutral-zone forecheck and the Leafs got caught — as they have at different times in the recent past when they’ve coughed up leads vs. Calgary, Buffalo, etc — not playing smart situational hockey at times in the second period. The patience in possession, freedom to make more plays in high-risk areas of the ice, the turn-backs and reloads — it is leading to more positive outcomes (i.e. possession and controlled exits + entries) than negative ones, but sometimes you just have to get the puck moving north safely and quickly knowing the situation and momentum flow of the game. After the Canes tied the game up at 3-3, the Leafs immediately skated themselves into their own corner of the ice and dilly-dallied with the puck for a turnover. It was then 4-3 in a blink of an eye. A second bad turnover from Justin Holl in the neutral zone and it was then 5-3.
7. I don’t want to get too far into breaking down goals against — in a game like this, most players could be made to look terrible or fantastic depending on what clips you choose to isolate — but the difference in the gaps here on the 2-on-2 before the 6-4 goal (on normal days, this would’ve been the backbreaker) were stark; if you roll it forward, Ceci continues to back right off until he’s nearly on top of his goaltender. Not to excuse the Leafs’ missed assignment on the backcheck, but you if give up the line and allow this kind of time and space off the rush in the NHL, bad things are going to happen. This remains a major weakness in Cody Ceci’s game.
8. There has been a general feeling among the fan base for much of the first half of this season (not totally unjustified) that while the two (Matthews and Marner) were still giving the team elite production, their big-money second contracts have kicked in and the Leafs weren’t getting that “next step” out of either just yet. That has more to do with their play without the puck and perceived consistency to their 60-minute efforts than their overall offensive production, but it’s worth noting that Matthews is now on pace to break 90 points and 50 goals — and he has remained healthy so far — while Marner is on pace to essentially match last season’s production in 11 fewer games thanks to a 17-point run in his last eight games. Some of the early criticism was justified, but they’re putting up.
9. I was particularly interested to watch this game knowing the following:
Since the coaching change the Leafs have not faced any team ranked higher than 15th in expected goals. pic.twitter.com/aYa7rGfAk8
— draglikepull (@draglikepull) December 22, 2019
It’s not that there aren’t really good teams on that list or that the Leafs weren’t full value for their winning run, but in terms of a team that has been elite at controlling the run of play in the first half of the season, Carolina stacks up as second in the league in xGF%. In the end, I’m not sure what exactly you can take away from a game like this in either direction other than the Leafs’ refusal to quit on the game, their star players putting on a show to remember, and the team earning an important two points to remain in a divisional playoff spot at the break.
10. A lot of people have mentioned the miraculous comeback by the Raptors the previous night in Scotiabank Arena, and it’s also worth noting the Marlies scored six unanswered in a comeback win versus Belleville this past weekend in Greg Moore’s coaching debut. There must be something magical in the air around the holidays.
On that note, Happy Holidays to all of our readers. 2020 looks like it has the potential for something special in Leafs Nation after all.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts