A few days ago, if you asked what is the Leafiest thing that could happen, we would all be in agreement – a dramatic Game 4 win followed by a Game 5 loss.
Well, here we are. The Toronto Maple Leafs are eliminated in the play-in round. They technically did not make the playoffs this year, and the hope for the draft lottery tomorrow night is all that’s left of a truly bizarre and ultimately disappointing 2019-20 season.
Onto the final Game in 10 of the series and season. Thanks for following along.
1. I wrote this before the game, and I think it still holds – taking Nick Robertson out for Andreas Johnsson made sense. The fourth line was very good in Game 4, and it deserved to stay together. They also each bring some unique elements to the team with Pierre Engvall on the penalty kill, Kyle Clifford’s physicality, and Jason Spezza’s skill on the power play.
You can argue Robertson has the skill for the power play, but you aren’t taking a former superstar veteran out — who had a productive year — for an unproven rookie who didn’t look out of place but also didn’t light the world on fire. If the team thought Johnsson was remotely healthy — and he did have his legs this game — then he’s simply a better player than Robertson, all things being equal at the moment.
I understand that people will complain about this decision — and I do see the reasoning why (is it worth it to just randomly insert a player who hasn’t played in months?) — but changing out the ninth forward for an upgrade if healthy has no real downside. It is not the difference in losing a game when the roster is supposed to be filled with star forwards at the top of the lineup.
2. One thing we’ve said about this team for years now is they often get away with murder. They play free-flowing, trade chances, and win games on pure skill that they don’t really deserve to win. It catches up to them. That isn’t exactly what happened here, but coming off a big win, they definitely didn’t come out with any kind of fire or pressure. For all the talk of deflating Columbus, they came out relatively unfazed.
The game was eased into and played at Columbus’ pace other than when the Leafs‘ top line was on the ice. The Leafs‘ fourth line was particularly disappointing and unnoticeable on the night after such a strong Game 4.
3. The Leafs had a run of chances after Columbus took the lead, mainly through the top line of Tavares – Matthews – Marner, including Tavares hitting the post on a wide-open net. There isn’t a ton to say there when it comes to analysis – it was completely open; he should bear down on that and score. The line had a 1:20 shift on that sequence consisting of pure control and possession in the offensive zone.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) August 10, 2020
4. I completely understand the desire to load up the top line, but it leaves the rest of the roster a bit vulnerable. Kasperi Kapanen moved up to the second line when he was the best player on the third line. William Nylander was forced to play center, which he basically didn’t do all season – Kevin Bieksa had a good first intermission segment pointing out the struggles with the too-many-men penalty and not getting to the point fast enough on the first goal.
How can you blame Nylander, though? He’s being thrown into a tough spot in a high-pressure situation at a position that is very unforgiving. At the beginning of the game, it probably makes more sense to spread out Tavares and Matthews. The Leafs really aren’t deep enough.
Columbus has maybe the best defense pairing in the league; you kind of play into their hands loading up against them and then asking Nylander to play a position he hasn’t played and Kapanen to switch wings — while also hoping Mikheyev plays better (he really struggled this series), and Johnsson has a successful return after being off for months.
We said after the last game they should use it more often, but all game long is a stretch with this roster.
5. In the third period, Sheldon Keefe did actually mix it up, putting John Tavares on a line with William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen/Jason Spezza — which made sense — but it should have started that way. For all this talk about the Kerfoot acquisition and how impactful he is, the coaching staff clearly had no faith in elevating him to a top-six center role, and for good reason — he’s not particularly impactful. His skating looked great this series and he did pick up three assists in five games, but he was rarely a threat to score offensively and he isn’t exactly a shutdown center, either. I don’t think Columbus gave him or his line a second thought all series.
6. It was such a strange situation, but in the second period, Auston Matthews and John Tavares both broke their sticks in quick succession in the defensive zone and then proceeded to stand around trying to block shots for a while. Eventually, Matthews did just blow the zone to go fetch a stick, which was the right play. They were probably confused because that was such a rare occurrence, but if two players break their sticks like that, someone has to go get one. Columbus proceeded to dominate the shift and eventually got a power play out of it.
7. In 3 out of 17 periods, the Leafs did not score a 5v5 goal in this series. They basically prayed for power plays and were not diverse enough on the attack. We know and say this every season – you simply do not get the same type of odd-man rushes in the playoffs as you do in the regular season.
On the odd occasion they did, they were usually extremely dangerous or buried one (think of the Matthews goal in Game 2 as an example). But often the offense at 5v5 at playoff time consists of cycling, pucks on net, crashing the net, and putting in rebounds. It wasn’t happening enough on a regular basis.
Columbus was able to box the Leafs out regularly, keeping them to the outside and winning battles in front of their net. With the man advantage and numbers in front, the Leafs were finding success, but not so much at 5v5. Three times, they were shut out through the first 50 minutes of games. Columbus outscored them 9-3 at 5v5 for the series. That is awful.
8. Joonas Korpisalo was excellent, robbing John Tavares a number of times, Auston Matthews in close in the first, and pulling off a massive save on Andreas Johnsson right after Columbus took a two-goal lead that would have been a huge goal to get the Leafs right back into the game.
Columbus alternated the two goalies perfectly in this series. That’s the benefit of having two really strong goalies. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of teams use two goalies to go far – Pittsburgh and Washington come to mind.
9. Did not love this series from a coaching perspective – Sheldon Keefe neutered the bottom lines to start the series by barely playing them, Barrie playing on the top power-play unit for that long he was ridiculous at best, and Nylander at the center was a really bad decision. In Game 1, he allowed the Blue Jackets to take whatever matchup they wanted and Columbus laughed away with a win.
Often, the Leafs just played into their hands by not crashing the net enough and getting dirty goals. They’d flash to Keefe on the bench constantly, and there was just no emotion or really anything there other than stoicism.
10. There will be a lot of talk about this being a weird season, the fact that Pittsburgh lost as well, and that Columbus upset Tampa Bay the year before. But ultimately, here is where I’m at: The Penguins have won a bunch of Cups and are an aging team. If they lose one random playoff at this point, whatever. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
Tampa hasn’t won a Cup, but the team Columbus assembled last season was realistically better than this one – Artemi Panarin is very good, Sergei Bobrovsky was awesome, Matt Duchene is a legit top-line player, and the list goes on. This year’s Columbus team was less scary than that one.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, this Leafs core has yet to win a series, but they have all been paid. This season they technically didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. You are going to take heat when that happens — and rightfully so. Until they prove they can do literally anything in the playoffs, they do not deserve any understanding. Even Washington was winning at least one playoff series fairly regularly.
To make matters worse, it is the same conversation every year – their defense is bad, their bottom lines give them nothing, they have no diversity to their attack, and Frederik Andersen allows a bad goal in a game that matters.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) August 10, 2020
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts