It’s tough to win a game if you don’t score. The Columbus Blue Jackets successfully played their brand of hockey on Sunday night, and it’s now up to the Toronto Maple Leafs to make adjustments.
Here are ten thoughts on Game 1.
Credit where it’s due
Let’s start by saying that this was vintage Columbus Blue Jackets hockey. The game was played at their pace, they limited high-danger chances effectively, and they looked like the heavier team all night.
I would have liked to see the teams trade scoring chances and power-play opportunities over and over, but Columbus stayed disciplined and put us all to sleep. Before I start criticizing the Leafs, I would like to acknowledge that the Blue Jackets executed their game plan extremely well. They deserve credit for this.
In addition, I can’t possibly blame the officiating for the lack of power plays. I wasn’t screaming at my television over missed calls, and the Leafs failed to put the Blue Jackets defenders into vulnerable positions.
I will, however, acknowledge that the ice is a factor. This felt like an Outdoor Classic game — the puck was bouncing all night — and it certainly plays into Columbus’ favour. It’s clear that the Leafs will need to make some sort of adjustment.
This isn’t good enough:
#Leafs had 0 shot attempts in the final 6:00 of the 3rd period
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) August 3, 2020
Game 1 struggles for Muzzin-Holl & Rielly-Ceci
The Leafs have expensive talent in their top-six. Given that they were shut out in Game 1, much of the criticism will be directed towards them. Some of this is certainly warranted, but we’ll get to them later, as I want to focus on Toronto’s most glaring issue first: their defensemen couldn’t move the puck.
The Muzzin-Holl pairing fumbled the puck all night long. Giveaways aren’t the best stat, but this pairing had five, while no other pairing had one. This was an effective shutdown line for the Leafs this season, but there’s not exactly a power line to shut down, and the Leafs now want to be more offense-focused when they’re on the ice.
Toronto needs to break the puck out with more urgency. While I don’t think the Matthews line was amazing tonight, part of their struggles was due to the fact that these defenders were treating the puck like a live grenade.
The Rielly-Ceci pair wasn’t nearly as turnover-prone, but the Leafs were heavily out-chanced when they were on the ice. Neither player is a particularly strong transition defender, and it felt like the Blue Jackets gained the zone with ease. In addition, Cody Ceci took two penalties, while Morgan Rielly was invisible offensively.
While the top-six forwards will receive the bulk of the criticism, it’s worth noting that the Leafs’ top-four defensemen were even worse and need to be better in Game 2.
Nick Robertson generated a high-danger opportunity in the game’s opening minutes. After that, it felt like Auston Matthews was basically Toronto’s only threat to score.
Matthews was robbed by Joonas Korpisalo in the slot and also hit the post from a distance. As the Blue Jackets eliminated high-danger chances so effectively, Matthews was one of the only players on the Leafs who felt like a serious threat to score from further out in the offensive zone.
Matthews with the best chance of the game so far. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/NBn8N94z7n
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) August 3, 2020
John Tavares’ line looked fairly good by the numbers, but that’s only because they did not allow many chances against. They simply didn’t anything going offensively. Given that the Matthews line faced the tougher matchup, that’s a bit of a problem.
If the Tavares line had this type of shutdown performance against the Bergeron line, we’d all be doing cartwheels in celebration. The issue is that they aren’t being asked to play scoreless hockey against Columbus’ middle-six lines. The Leafs need them to create chances and get on the scoreboard.
Like the Matthews line, part of the problem was the defensemen they played with. The Blue Jackets completely collapse in the defensive zone and basically dare the opponent to pass the puck back to its defensemen. The Dermott-Barrie pairing was fine, but they weren’t exactly demonstrating highlight-reel playmaking, while the top-four looked scared of the puck at points.
I liked Tavares’ competitiveness and strength down low, as it felt like he was one of the only players who had a chance of starting the cycle against Columbus’ big defenders. At times, I felt like throwing out Tavares with Matthews and Nylander over and over just so the Leafs had at least one line going.
Possible top-six line adjustments
Ilya Mikheyev, in particular, was frustrating offensively. He’s a defensively responsible player who can add some offense off the rush, but if John Tavares isn’t going to face Columbus’ top line, I might switch up the lineup there. Mikheyev didn’t generate much on the forecheck and he’s not a great playmaker, so he often settles for low-danger shots.
Like Zach Hyman, it’s Mikheyev’s job to win battles and generate extra possessions so that Toronto’s skilled forwards can get the puck with time and space. In particular, I thought he was ineffective late in the game when he looked rather fatigued.
I want at least one line that can play heavy hockey and establish the cycle. If Tavares is receiving the easier matchup, I’d strongly consider going back to the Hyman-Tavares-Marner line, as it generated plenty of offense last season. Both Hyman and Tavares play heavy hockey and putting them together feels like the best way to generate extended offensive-zone possessions.
The Leafs need to do a better job of getting Marner the puck with time and space. I think the Hyman-Tavares duo can do just that.
Mitch Marner’s forgettable Game 1
Mitch Marner was terrible late in the game, as he made a couple of passes to absolutely no one. I did like his work on the penalty kill, and he was strong defensively, but the Leafs need more offense out of him. I’ve been tough on Marner this year, but he’s usually great in big games and I think he’s probably receiving too much of the criticism. I’m more concerned with the breakouts, puck-moving, and offensive gameplan.
It felt like I was watching the 2006 Men’s Canadian Olympic Hockey Team at times, as there were plenty of skilled forwards on the ice, but their defensemen just couldn’t get them the puck effectively.
While he wasn’t spectacular, I thought William Nylander played fine, and he did manage to set-up an A+ chance for Auston Matthews. In a 1-0 game (ignoring the empty-net goal), you can look at any of the Leafs big forwards and say, “If you just got one point, the game would have been much different!”. I just think Toronto’s struggles were more complicated than that. Their overall game plan needs to change slightly in order to be successful in Game 2.
Marner is one of the best takeaway specialists in the league; once he steals the puck in the offensive zone, he usually has the opposing defense in a disorganized and vulnerable position. He had zero takeaways in Game 1.
That’s not completely on him, as his bigger linemates struggled to generate much on the cycle. If the Leafs can create extended offensive possessions, Marner and Matthews can take advantage of tired defenders and pick their pockets. We saw this from Matthews a couple of times, but it felt like the majority of the Leafs offense consisted of passing the puck around the perimeter and generating low-danger chances.
Find a way to generate clean entries, put together a line or two that can thrive on the cycle, and the rest will come.
Few minutes for the Leafs’ fourth line
Kyle Clifford played 3:21 in a game where only three penalties were called. The whole fourth line played under five minutes and looked slower than your average beer league team when they did find their way onto the ice.
I enjoy having a little bit of toughness in the lineup — as well as some veteran leadership in the room — but you can’t possibly pay Clifford more than $1 million if you plan to play him fewer than five minutes in big games.
Sheldon Keefe clearly deployed a different approach than Mike Babcock, as Matthews played 24:38 while the fourth line barely touched the ice. That being said, whether the fourth line is playing five minutes or ten minutes, I expect better from them. The Moore-Gauthier-Ennis line from last year’s playoffs brought plenty of speed and energy to the table, while this current fourth line almost put me to sleep.
I like Jason Spezza and I thought he was good this season, but he’s a player with clear strengths and weaknesses at this stage of his career. He would benefit from playing with a quicker player, like Ennis or Moore, but the Leafs have committed to playing Clifford on the other wing. Nic Petan looked dominant in the AHL and received plenty of praise from Matthews during training camp. Maybe he could fill a similar role as Ennis, but he’s a long-shot to make the lineup. I also think Adam Brooks might have worked well with Spezza, but they chose to go with a slow and defensively-focused line.
I don’t think playing Pierre Engvall over Frederik Gauthier at center will make much of a difference. Both Engvall and Spezza looked better on the wing this year; if you’re just using your fourth line for the occasional defensive-zone face-off, this switch won’t be much of a game-changer.
I don’t think a Clifford-Engvall-Spezza line would bring much to the table offensively, either. Unless they do something drastic, we’ll have to accept this kind of fourth line.
My main concern relates to potentially re-signing Clifford, who doesn’t bring much offense to the table and can’t play in the top nine as a result. The Leafs needed a goal last night and Sheldon Keefe felt like he couldn’t give him a regular shift.
I don’t care how much you value toughness and veteran leadership, you can’t possibly give a significant contract to a player who plays fewer than five minutes in big games.
Livening up the transition game
By the time the Leafs finished circling back three times, Columbus had time to set up their neutral zone trap defense, which made it difficult to generate clean entries. The Leafs clearly need to make some adjustments in their transition game.
Everyone always criticizes the stretch pass, as we saw far too much of it when Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, and Igor Ozhiganov were on the team, but I thought the Leafs did this effectively against the Bruins last year.
With Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner on the roster, the Leafs have the speed and skill necessary to pull this off effectively. This ramps the pace up and provides more potential for odd-man rushes. Just like in football, a team with an effective deep threat can open up more space to complete the short passes later. It felt like the Leafs were circling back over and over, with their defenders regularly bobbling the puck due to the poor ice.
Offensively, it seemed like the Leafs passed the puck around the perimeter all night, which is what Columbus’ opponents often end up doing. Toronto’s defenders had 11 of the team’s 28 shots, but it felt like they couldn’t create any dangerous chances from the back-end. In particular, Justin Holl needs to find a more dangerous play when he pinches, as he has the tendency to fire low-danger shots at the goalie rather than drive to the net.
Given the big minutes that Muzzin-Holl and Rielly-Ceci are playing, the Leafs need some sort of offense out of them. It feels like the Leafs are trying to play shutdown hockey against a team that is thrilled to play low-event games. When there are no open forwards to pass to in the offensive zone, I like the idea of intentionally shooting the puck wide every now and then — it at least turns the defenders around and gives the forwards a chance to break free.
Matchups, 11&7, and Other Adjustments
In terms of lineup adjustments, I’d probably give the Dubois matchup to Tavares rather than Matthews. You want to give Matthews every extra scoring chance that you can, and giving him an easier matchup should help to do just that. I’d put Mikheyev out against Dubois and put Hyman in the more offensively-focused role, where he can get in the forecheck and do what he does best.
If they were actually planning on playing their fourth line more, I’d consider flipping Spezza and Kapanen, just so the fourth line has some sort of speed, and the third line has an extra playmaker to help get the puck to Robertson. However, given that I expect the minute allocation to remain the same, I’d just keep the fourth line as is and use them primarily for defensive zone draws.
I’d like to see Rasmus Sandin in the lineup as I think he could help them to break out effectively and he brings plenty of offense to the table from the backend. I don’t see Keefe taking Ceci out of the lineup, but if you’re going to play Clifford less than four minutes per night, you might as well run 11 forwards and 7 defensemen.
If the Leafs are losing late, you can run Muzzin, Rielly, Sandin, and Barrie out there, and just give Dermott and Holl the occasional shift. It was awfully frustrating watching the Muzzin-Holl and Rielly-Ceci pairings when down a goal late.
Game 1 Bright Spots
In terms of bright spots, Alexander Kerfoot played well, particularly in the first period. I would consider moving him up in the lineup, but I think the third line needs him and I’m not sure I want Spezza playing up the middle in a top-nine role. The penalty kill looked strong in general, and Kerfoot looks like he can be a regular there for years to come.
Nick Robertson was also a bright spot in this game, as he nearly scored early on, and it was clear that he belonged. His tenacity on the forecheck is fun to watch, his quickness helps him to beat defenders to the high-danger areas, and he carries a real knack for getting to the slot despite his size.
Kapanen steals the puck and feeds a streaking Robertson who gets a great look. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/fqZuuYmPYb
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) August 3, 2020
My main concern with his line is that Robertson was averaging over five shots per game in the OHL, but is only getting one shot per game with the Leafs so far. Yes, the NHL is not the OHL, and Robertson is no longer the focal point of a top power-play unit, but the Leafs’ top nine needs to do a better job of creating scoring chances.
Frederik Andersen saved 33 of 34 and was good enough for the Leafs to win, although he’d like to have that Cam Atkinson shot back. I’ll put the Dermott-Barrie pairing in the bright spot category as well, as the Leafs out-chanced the Blue Jackets when they were on the ice and they didn’t allow a ton of chances against.
Resetting for Game 2
It’s going to be important for the Leafs to put game one behind them and start fresh. They need to push the pace more against this Blue Jackets team, but you can’t let yourself get overly frustrated and aggressive early on in Game 2, or Columbus will burn you with an odd-man rush. The Tampa Bay Lightning couldn’t seem to put the past behind them in last year’s first-round series; they let a surprise performance in Game 1 get to them.
Scoring the first goal in any game is important, but it seems especially important against a team with a strong defense and weak offense. If the Blue Jackets are behind in the third, they likely have to take more chances and speed up the pace of play, which works in the Leafs’ favour.
Game 1 was played at Columbus’ pace. We’ll see if the Leafs can dictate the speed in Game 2. I’d consider getting Barrie and Rielly more minutes, going to the Matthews-Tavares-Nylander line a little bit more, and even getting Nick Robertson a shift or two in the top-six. The Leafs offense looked a little bit too predictable for most of the game as the Blue Jackets focused on covering Tavares and Matthews and dared everyone else to shoot from distance.
After a frustrating Game 1 loss, it’s time to reflect and make adjustments before entering Game 2 with a fresh mindset.