Will Connor McDavid ever score again? My column.
There’s been a lot of talk about Toronto’s strength of schedule lately. I doubt that beating up on a leaky Oilers defense is going to dispel any of those notions, but it can’t be ignored that the Leafs shut down both of the NHL’s scoring leaders for a third time in a row.
Strong team defense, depth scoring, and Mike Smith flailing punches towards Zach Hyman — this game had a bit of everything! Let’s analyze things in a bit more detail by looking at each individual player.
Game Puck: Jimmy Vesey (LW, #26) — This is Jimmy Vesey’s world. We’re just living in it.
That was his first goal since January 22nd. To say he needed that one would be an understatement.
He potted another goal in the second period.
The one thing we knew about Vesey coming into this season was that he had some finishing talent. He obviously went through a cold stretch over the past month, so it’s nice to see him get the proverbial monkey off his back. Then again, it probably means he won’t come out of the lineup anytime soon.
Sorry Leafs fans, you’re not allowed to have nice things.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — I can’t get over how well TJ Brodie has been able to cover for Morgan Rielly in odd-man rush situations. It feels like every time there’s a 2-on-1, Brodie finds a way to get down and take away the passing lane, which is integral to preventing goals in the modern game.
Here’s a quick compilation of his best defensive plays from tonight’s game.
It would be one thing if this was an isolated incident, but Brodie has been making plays like these consistently in 2021. You’d still like to see the Leafs spend less time on defense when Rielly-Brodie is on the ice — they’re still under 50% in shot share this season — but Toronto’s $20 million dollar man is proving to be worth every penny with his ability to limit shot quality off the rush.
The HEM Line — They hemmed Edmonton in their own end for the majority of this game (I’m sorry, the joke was right there).
Zach Hyman has been asked to “drive his own line” alongside two checking forwards. Frankly, I didn’t think he’d be able to do it.
I was wrong.
Hyman makes a great play here to create the rebound chance for Mikheyev, who finally buries a Grade-A chance from the slot. There’s some of that Sh% regression we’ve been waiting for!
It was fun to watch Hyman barrel his way to the crease for quality scoring chances. On a few of those, making the pass would’ve been the better play (i.e. looking off Jason Spezza on a 2-on-1). Then he got another chance in tight on the power play:
It’s nice to see him trusting his backhand more often. Rather than jamming the puck into Smith’s pad a few times in a row like he would’ve in his rookie season, Hyman seems to have developed more of a goal scorer’s “touch” in these situations.
Ilya Mikheyev was able to pot that goal we showed earlier, but it’s “the little things” that impress me the most with him.
My piece on Mikheyev from earlier included these clips, which are just examples of "the little things" he does so well. Getting above guys and using his stick to disrupt and free pucks. Good to see him get one, more will come if he keeps doing these "little" things. pic.twitter.com/cQRduyJtuU
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) March 4, 2021
It’s funny, there isn’t much “little” about Mikheyev’s playstyle. Much like Pierre Engvall, he uses his length and deceptive speed to force pucks loose. You don’t expect either player to create too much offensively off of those turnovers, but they’ve been excellent at playing keep-away against the opposition’s better forwards.
Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — Fun fact: he’s scoring at a 53-point pace this season (per 82 games) despite only playing 10:25 per night. The inner nerd in me is screaming “Points Per 60!”
The reason he’s been so productive is that he’s still able to pull off high-value passes in the offensive zone. He threaded two separate seam passes on the same power play; one to Jake Muzzin, the other to William Nylander. He also picked up assists on each of Vesey’s goals.
Friendly reminder that Spezza is earning the league minimum. What a bargain.
John Tavares (C, #91) — It was only a matter of time before John Tavares’ shooting percentage started to climb back up towards his career average.
This is a great example of what makes Tavares so effective in the bumper role on Toronto’s power play. He has the hand-eye coordination to deflect passes through the slot, not to mention that quick release.
He also added an assist to Nylander off the rush, but we’ll save that clip for #88’s section.
Frederik Andersen (G, #31) — How dare Frederik Andersen break Toronto’s shutout streak. It was legitimately in the cards for the Leafs to shut out the Oilers in three consecutive games with three different goaltenders.
Then he had to go and allow a rebound goal to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Really makes you wonder if Andersen can make the big save when it matters*.
*This entire bit was sarcastic, he stopped 26 of 27 shots tonight.
Travis Boyd (C, #72) — His pass at the blue line to send Spezza and Vesey in for a 2-on-1 might be worth 4 stars alone. That was one heck of a play. His other assist was a bit flukey, but sometimes you need to be lucky to be good.
Connor McDavid’s Worst Nightmare — After a three-game series against Toronto, here’s what the world’s best offensive player had to show for it.
A big chunk of that time was spent against Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl at even strength. If you’ve ever poked around Hockey Twitter, I’m sure you’ve seen some funny Holl memes about McDavid.
Give Holl the Norris.
— Paul Bissonnette (@BizNasty2point0) March 4, 2021
I’m so here for the Holl praise; he’s a modern 200-foot defenseman earning $2 million to play shutdown minutes, but let’s not forget about his partner. Muzzin has a long track record of posting strong 5v5 results against top competition regardless of who he plays with — just ask Nikita Zaitsev.
Both players were “steady” in this series, gapping up in the neutral zone without allowing the Oilers’ star forwards to get behind them. That’s a tough balance to strike.
The Thornton-Matthews-Marner Line — They didn’t dominate play at even strength in this game. In fact, they got badly outshot and out-chanced by the Draisaitl line.
That said, each player had some good moments. Joe Thornton made a great play to settle the puck down in the slot for Tavares on his power-play goal.
Auston Matthews came out of the gate strong, generating lots of chances from the left side of the ice. He faded a bit as the game went on, although I’m sure score effects had something to do with it, plus his usage was scaled back given the game was in hand. The ability to go easy on the star players is always a huge plus in the front half of a back-to-back situation.
Mitch Marner was underwhelming at even strength but absolutely dominant from the right wall on the power play. He picked up an assist on the Tavares goal and easily could’ve added a power-play goal himself. Marner beat Smith clean on a wrist shot from the right dot, but the puck bounced off the goaltender’s knob.
William Nylander (LW, #88) — My notes on Nylander throughout the game went as follows:
- Didn’t love his first period
- Didn’t love his second pe- HOLY $@&*
That’s a world-class move from a first-line talent.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — If you watch that Brodie compilation again, you’ll notice #44 often finds himself out of position defensively. Now, that’s the price you pay when you take risks to generate offense at an elite level, which Rielly has throughout his career. I’d just like to see fewer 2-on-1s against when Rielly’s on the ice.
Alex Kerfoot (LW, #15) — He did have a couple of nice little drop passes in transition, not to mention a Grade-A chance from the slot on the power play that he put wide. Overall, though, I wanted to see a bit more from Kerfoot alongside Tavares-Nylander, particularly when it comes to puck retrievals and his defensive play in the neutral zone.
The Bottom Pair — No one in a Leafs uniform played “poorly” tonight, although it’s worth pointing out that Travis Dermott and Zach Bogosian got outshot and out-chanced in sheltered minutes at even strength. They each had a few strong moments (i.e. Bogosian’s stretch pass up to Boyd, his sequence of one-on-one defense against McDavid, Dermott shedding forecheckers on the breakout), but at the end of the day, the results are the results. We’ve seen these two control play better before.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Whenever there’s a four-goal gap by the midway point of the game, that tends to tilt the ice in the losing team’s favour. Even after adjusting for score effects, the Leafs dominated at 5-on-5, controlling over 62 percent of the expected goals.
Tweets of the Night
Remember Tweets of the Night? I thought tonight might be a fun night to bring them back.
Since many have you been asking: Yes, the #leafs look like a juggernaut.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 4, 2021
This was a topic of conversation on the internet today. It’s nice to see CJ on the right side of history here.
For surging #Oilers, first place is within striking distance for just the second time in the Connor McDavid era.
[sends tweet / ducks.]
— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) February 26, 2021
Whoops, sorry not sure how that one got in there.
— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) March 3, 2021
Do yourself a favour and read this article. Then share it with that person in your life who won’t shut up about the Canadian division.