What a weird game.
The Toronto Maple Leafs significantly outplayed the Ottawa Senators at even strength, although two puck-handling blunders from Jack Campbell certainly made things interesting. The game ended up going into overtime, where Auston Matthews made a special defensive and offensive play to help his team secure the 3-2 victory.
I’m really looking forward to the individual player grades tonight, so I won’t waste your time with any more preamble. Let’s evaluate some hockey players!
Game Puck: John Tavares (C, #91) — This might be a controversial choice, but the Tavares line absolutely dominated play at 5v5. The Leafs‘ captain certainly had some help from his speedy wingers in transition, although it was his play in the offensive zone that impressed me the most tonight.
Tavares is at his best when he’s breaking down defenders in 1-on-1 situations with his stick-handling and quick turns, which is how he created his own shot on a few separate occasions. He led the team with six scoring chances from the slot.
Did the pucks go in? Obviously not, but if you keep tilting the ice like Tavares & Co. did tonight, good things are going to happen.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — His offensive brilliance was more than enough to make up for a few of his “Rielly moments” on defense. My favourite part of Rielly’s game is when he skates the puck down the left wall, pulls out a defender to come chase him, then fires an east-west pass to an open teammate on the other side of the ice for a one-timer.
He pulled that off a couple of times tonight.
That’s a goal if Auston Matthews catches it cleanly.
Rielly completed a similar play to the left side of the ice for a William Nylander one-timer in the third period, which just missed the net. Again, the pucks didn’t go in, but when you’re converting on high-value plays with consistency, the goals are going to come.
Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — I can’t get over how much faster he’s looked in these first few games with the Leafs. Galchenuyk has been flying up the ice on the forecheck lately, using his speed to disrupt the opponent’s breakout. It’s helped create a few OZ turnovers.
He also pulled off a few slick give-and-go plays with Nylander in transition, leading to a few quality rush chances. I don’t expect Galchenyuk to stick in the top six after Kyle Dubas pulls off the trade for a forward that we’re all expecting, but it’s been nice to see him look like he belongs in an NHL lineup. Even defensively, he hasn’t looked out of place.
William Nylander (LW, #88) — There were a few times Nylander received saucer passes in the air, corralled it, and made a quick move to get around his defender all within the same half-second. It’s those all-world puck skills that make him such an elite transition player, which was on full display tonight.
He singlehandedly advanced the puck from the DZ to the OZ on separate occasions. Now, I’d like to see Nylander look for his shot a bit more often on the power play; he turned down a cross-seam one-timer from Jason Spezza earlier in the game. When it comes to even-strength play, though, there’s a reason Nylander has always tilted the ice in his team’s favour — he’s really good at holding onto the puck and keeping you on offense.
Zach Bogosian (RD, #22) — I really liked Bogosian’s game tonight. He was forced to activate down the right wall in the offensive zone quite often in this game, making the right play each time. You don’t need a Norris-level defenseman to maintain possession in the offensive zone; you just need to stand in the right spot and make the next pass, which Bogosian accomplished.
He also chipped in with some solid penalty killing and intimidating physical play, absolutely leveling Alex Formenton at one point.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — He always seems to be in the right spot (especially when Rielly isn’t). Defensively, this was another sound game from Brodie. We got to see his patented 2-on-1 slide in overtime, taking away the backdoor pass.
Offensively, we usually don’t see too much from Brodie, but he made a great read on the Ilya Mikheyev goal to join the rush.
Check out that burst to get himself open. That’s a really smart play by Brodie — and he got rewarded for it.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — Even without mentioning his OT winner, this was a solid 200-foot game from Holl — and there were a few times he used the full 200 feet of the ice. On the breakout, you’ll always see him flying up the right side to give his forwards an option. It’s more difficult to defend the rush when you fill up the left, center, and right lane, which is where Holl likes to fill in.
He was solid on the PK, but it was the offensive chances he kept getting that stood out to me. Defensemen don’t usually get too many shots from the slot. Holl had three in this game.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — This was so cool.
3-on-3 play usually doesn’t factor in too heavily in my grades, but when you put the team on your back like that, it’s hard not to mention it.
At 5-on-5, I thought Matthews was “good” but not great. He still looks a tad hesitant to me from prime shooting locations. For example, he had 1-on-1 rush against Nikita Zaitsev with plenty of space and failed to get his shot off. Another example of that hesitance is on the power play, where Matthews continues to shy away from playing on the half-wall.
He still generated five chances from the slot in this game, completed a few cross-ice passes in the offensive zone, and deked Artem Zub out of his skates at one point. This is obviously an elite player we’re talking about, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say Matthews still looks like a 6 compared to what we all know he can be when he’s at 100%.
Wayne Simmonds (LW, #24) — As always, Simmonds provided his team with energy tonight. His skating looked great to me, particularly his edgework. There were a few times he’d turn his heels and skate sideways around a defender to maintain possession, which is a nice little move for him.
Transition is usually an area where Simmonds scares me when he plays higher in the lineup, but he connected on a few quick passes to start the breakout. He also looked great in front of the net on PP1, deflecting a few point shots that resulted in rebounds.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — There were moments where Marner showed off his shiftiness, using his skating to dance around in the offensive zone. Nothing super dangerous materialized, although he did finish the game with a team-high nine shot attempts.
Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — Despite playing with the team’s weakest forwards night after night, Spezza continues to lead the Leafs in points per 60 both at 5v5 and on the power play. He’s been gaining the zone at a high level, connecting on east-west passes, and oh yeah, beating NHL goaltenders from distance with his slap shot.
Not too shabby for $700k.
The HEM Line — Usually I separate Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall from Zach Hyman in these report cards because the latter tends to be dragging his linemates to positive results, but I thought all three forwards carried their weight in this game.
Mikheyev still can’t convert on a 2-on-1, but the Puck Luck Gods threw him a bone with a bounce off the cross bar, to his jersey, to the back of the net. You’d still like to see him cut down on those low-percentage shots from outside the dots, but if he keeps getting you an odd-man rush or two every game, maybe you live with some of those decisions.
Engvall wasn’t as dangerous offensively as his two linemates. Defensively, he was able to use his length to force a few turnovers, most notably on the penalty kill. Hyman started off the game a bit slow, then followed it up with an assist on the Mikheyev goal and a backhander off the post later in the game.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — Sometimes I feel like these kinds of nights should be one sentence: he was steady; he was making smart little underneath passes to start the breakout; he was Jake Muzzin. I don’t know how else to put it.
Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — Below the goal line in the offensive zone, I love Jumbo Joe. His forechecking there helped create a few turnovers for quality chances, including the Spezza goal.
In the other areas of the ice, I’ve found that Thornton is really struggling to complete passes and win puck battles. You’d think that his passing prowess would come in handy the full 200 feet of the ice, but he’s been turning pucks over pretty often lately on the breakout.
Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — After two and a half periods of accomplishing not much of anything at 5-on-5, Kerfoot made a brilliant play to intercept a pass in the offensive zone and tee up Spezza for his one-timer. That led to a few more good shifts in the third period, although you’d like to see a more consistent effort from a $3.5 million player.
Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — He’s great at beating the first forechecker, but once Dermott starts skating up the ice with the puck, he struggles to make a high-level play. Most of the time he’s forced to dump it in, which is fine, but with his skating ability, you’d think he’d be able to create something more dangerous.
I have the same criticism of his play when he’s walking the line in the offensive zone.
Too often, Dermott isn’t able to get pucks through from the blueline, which is why the Leafs haven’t trusted him with PP duties or late-game shifts when they desperately need a goal.
Coaching Staff — The power play is still a problem. On the broadcast, Ray Ferraro mentioned that Sheldon Keefe highlighted four aspects the Leafs need to improve on the PP:
With Toronto’s talent, they shouldn’t have too much of an issue gaining the zone and setting up in formation. The bigger problem for me is the predictability of their in-zone play. I’d like to see them get the puck down low more often, rather than playing pitch & catch with the same three players up high.
Jack Campbell (G, #36) — When Jack Campbell was in his crease tonight, he didn’t allow any goals. When he left his crease to play the puck, he gave up two whoopsies.
A) Jack Campbell playing goalie.
B) Jack Campbell playing the puck.
— Zach Payne (@Zachpayyne) March 26, 2021
I could show you a replay of both goals, but honestly, it’s not worth it. This was just one of those nights where the goalie was responsible for a few gaffes. The good news is that aside from those blunders, Campbell was perfect.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
The Leafs controlled 60 percent of the shots and 64 percent of the scoring chances at 5-on-5. More or less what you would expect against the Ottawa Senators.
Tweets of the Night
Leafs look like they did – and I know this is cringeworthy to hear – against Columbus in the summer. Good, shots, carry play and possession… little from the inside, though. Not finding their way in, almost getting too committed to O, then suddenly rushes head back the other way
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) March 26, 2021
I pulled this one up because the shot chart disagreed with Justin Bourne. In a follow-up tweet, he mentioned that creating those opportunities in open space was the bigger issue.
This is definitely something to keep an eye on. Toronto’s possession-based offensive zone play is equally intriguing as it is frightening against a well-structured defensive team.
I don’t even look up from my phone on Mikheyev 2 on 1’s anymore
— jon (@SteitzerJon) March 25, 2021
Nor should you at this point.
Simmonds wanted an explanation
Ref covers his mic pic.twitter.com/dpr98vW4HS
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 26, 2021
So this is the solution to the Tim Peel fiasco? Great job, NHL. Mission accomplished.
Sens GM Pierre Dorion chucks his drink after Toronto wins it in OT. pic.twitter.com/yNMJxbPHEB
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) March 26, 2021
This is objectively hilarious, but more importantly, what the heck was he drinking?
The Raptors are keeping Kyle Lowry, source tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 25, 2021
Whoops, not sure how this tweet got in here.