And God said, “Let there be goals,” and there were goals.
Did I get that quote right? The red light went off 10 separate times in Toronto’s 6-5 win over Ottawa on Saturday night, which was a much closer game than it probably should’ve been.
The Leafs‘ top six was dominant in this game, particularly their top line, with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner each recording four points. Now, it wasn’t exactly a defense or goaltender’s duel from either side, but these are the kind of nights that get fans off of their seats.
Let’s try our best to break down tonight’s entertaining contest by going through each player individually. It’s time to hand out some Leafs Report Cards!
Game Puck: Auston Matthews (C, #34) — Did I mention Toronto’s top line put the puck in the net a few times?
There were so many goals in this game, I had to be careful not to include too many videos (otherwise, the load times would be insane for most readers). With that in mind, the above clip was my favourite of Matthews’ three goals.
We know he’s a talented player with the puck on his stick, but he might be even more dangerous without it. Off the puck, Matthews was able to get himself into some great shooting positions, particularly after his linemates forced a turnover.
From there, it was easy for Matthews to get lost in the shuffle. With the defense scrambling, Marner was able to find him on all three of his goals.
Like I said, following a forced turnover, #34 gets himself into open ice and #16 tees him up. With players as talented as these two, sometimes it really is that simple.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — On both of those clips we just showed, Marner was the one stripping pucks, leading to Grade-A chances the other way. We’ve mentioned his defense in these report cards before, but it’s still an aspect of his game that I think goes underappreciated.
By now, we all know how great of a passer Marner is; his vision to see some of these plays unfold before they actually do has been quite a joy to watch as a hockey analyst. What I find scary is that he’s finding ways to use that elite hockey IQ on the defensive side of the puck this season.
He’s never going to win physical 1-on-1 battles the way a Ryan O’Reilly or Sean Couturier is able to in the corners, but with his ability to read the game at an elite level, Marner is able to get himself in positions to intercept passes and strip puck carriers for odd-man rush chances the other way.
He also added a garbage goal after a mad scramble in front on Saturday night, which was a nice cherry on top of one of his best games of the season (if not as a Leaf, period).
The Mikheyev-Tavares-Hyman Line — With William Nylander sidelined a few more games due to COVID protocols, Sheldon Keefe decided to spread the talent in his top six by moving Zach Hyman to the second line. It seemed to work out alright for Toronto.
It’s crazy how far Hyman has come as a puck-carrier.
He’s become one of Toronto’s leaders in zone entries this season, and now we’re seeing him wheel around the offensive zone with confidence. There were a few shifts when Hyman was the one driving things offensively, beating his man 1-on-1 out of the corner and driving hard to the net for a chance (and often rebound) from in tight.
Now, if we take a step back and think of the line as a whole, the combination of John Tavares and two puck-hounds always seems to be an effective trio. Ilya Mikheyev did an excellent job of winning pucks back in the offensive zone — and in the neutral zone on the backcheck — allowing his linemates to swoop in and capitalize on the scoring opportunities that followed.
Mikheyev got rewarded for his hard work with a soft goal on Anton Forsberg, but if anyone deserves some puck luck, it’s the Soupman. To wrap things up, Tavares gave the puck to Hyman for an empty-net goal, as is tradition.
Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — Talk about found money. Most of us were convinced Galchenyuk’s NHL career was over after he cleared waivers and joined his seventh NHL organization since 2018. Let’s give the man some credit; he’s been working his tail off without the puck, applying pressure on the forecheck to force turnovers. It was his puck pursuit that helped lead to Matthews’ hat-trick.
The reason I always bring up Galchenyuk’s play without the puck is that there’s never been much debate concerning what he can do with it. He’s been able to pull off some high-skill plays at the offensive blueline, allowing Toronto’s one-touch passing sequences to continue. It helps to have some scoring talent to finish on those chances, but even if you’re playing Galchenyuk in a sheltered role with Jason Spezza, his creativity with the puck still has a ton of value.
We’re 11 games into the Alex Galchenyuk experiment. Is it too early to say he’s been an unequivocal success in Toronto? I don’t think it is. He’s looked like a player you need to find minutes for in the playoffs.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — This was Simmonds’ best game by far since returning from his injury. He tied for the team lead in shots and scoring chances with seven and six, respectively. Considering he was playing with Alex Barabanov and Pierre Engvall, I wasn’t expecting too many tic-tac-toe passes in transition.
Instead, Simmonds took a more direct approach, getting himself to the middle of the ice and machine-gunning pucks towards the net whenever he had a decent chance. He also looked great on PP2 as the net front, deflecting point shots and jamming away at the rebounds. He didn’t convert on any of those opportunities, but good things happen when you generate as many chances as he did tonight.
Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — This was one of Dermott’s better games in 2021. His best defensive play was a 3-on-1 where he timed his slide and stick-swing perfectly, blocking the backdoor pass. Offensively, it was nice to see him thread a pass through the middle of the ice for a Joe Thornton one-timer. Unfortunately, it was a Joe Thornton one-timer.
The thing I love about watching Dermott defend in the neutral zone is the way he’ll kill plays before they have a chance to develop. In the third period, Ottawa looked like they were about to start the rush, but Dermott angled the forward towards the boards and broke up the play before he could get to the red line. It’s little plays like those that help your team get the puck back, which is a big part of the reason Dermott allows so few chances against (sheltered usage doesn’t hurt).
I’d still like to see him get more shots through traffic; that seems to be really holding him back offensively. If we’re assessing his game as a whole, though, I came away very impressed tonight.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — I like to put out the following tweet after every Leafs game to gauge the fans’ reaction towards players in the immediate aftermath of a big win or gutting loss.
Alright Leafs fans, who are we thinking for:
a) Most impressive player tonight
b) Least impressive player tonight
— Ian Tulloch📊 (@IanGraph) April 11, 2021
There were a lot of b) Rielly’s in this game, which is understandable; he can be a frustrating player to root for on a nightly basis. Frankly, I’d argue the pros outweighed the cons for Rielly tonight, but let me entertain the other side of the argument.
His biggest asset is his puck-moving, which I didn’t love in this game. There were a few breakouts where Rielly skated the puck lazily towards center ice then dumped it in when his forwards were stationary at the blueline. With his passing ability, you’d like to see him look for a better option on a few of those transition plays.
Now, when they got to the offensive zone, Rielly always seemed to be in the mix when Toronto was having a dangerous shift on the cycle. As the “fourth forward” activating in the play, it puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses to stretch out and cover everyone. Even though it can lead to rush chances against, there’s real value in what Rielly is creating when he’s roaming around the offensive zone.
I think the real reason Rielly was so many fans’ selection for b) tonight was because of the following play.
Honestly, can you really blame fans for being mad here? That’s a terrible look on what’s already been an infuriating power play over the last month.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — Considering how much ink we just spilled trying to evaluate the conundrum that is Morgan Rielly, I think we need to acknowledge how hard it is for TJ Brodie to “calm things down” on Toronto’s top pairing. Rielly’s desire to create chaos offensively often leads to that same chaos rearing its ugly head the other way.
With this in mind, it’s difficult to express what a formidable job Brodie has done at limiting rush opportunities against. There are so many times I see a Rielly pinch unfold and I’m convinced there’s a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 coming the other way, but Brodie finds a way to keep himself near the puck carrier in the neutral zone and slow things down before they can capitalize. You can call it “gap”, transition defense, or simply being a good skater in the year 2021.
Brodie limits chances by positioning himself well as Toronto’s fifth man back.
Zach Bogosian (RD, #22) — That 3-on-1 Dermott was forced to defend was because of an ill-timed pinch by Bogosian in the neutral zone. I’ll give Bogosian some credit: He made a few plays with the puck out of his own end that surprised me — they might’ve even surprised Bogosian. As always, he was taking away the front of the net, which was made easier by the lack of penalties being handed out.
Coaching Staff — I hate to keep beating this dead horse, but the Leafs‘ power play is still way off. With tonight’s shorthanded goal against, it is now at a negative one goal differential over its last 34 opportunities (1 goal for, 2 against). They did switch things up a bit, moving Hyman to the PP1 net front instead of Simmonds. It’s making me wonder if we’re eventually going to see a top-loaded first unit when Nylander returns. This issue needs to be solved in the final 15 games before the playoffs.
The Thornton-Kerfoot-Spezza Line — I feel bad that we have to include Jason Spezza in here, but this line just hasn’t been able to accomplish much at 5v5. They got out-chanced again in sheltered minutes tonight, bringing their expected goal share to 48 percent on the season based on Evolving-Hockey’s latest updates.
It’s only a 61-minute sample, but it matches what my eyes are seeing. Joe Thornton is great at cycling the puck in the offensive zone, but he’s been having trouble getting there over the past month or so. Alex Kerfoot is actually a surprisingly strong defensive player when it comes to pressuring opposing puck carriers. The issue is that despite all of his shifty little zone entries, he hasn’t been able to create much offense after crossing the blue line.
All of this is to say: get Spezza some better linemates. Your Points per 60 leader deserves better than this.
Alex Barabanov (LW, #94) — To start the game, Barabanov was actually getting some puck touches. He made a few nice little passes to the middle of the ice from the left wall on the breakout. Then the game went on and I completely forgot he was playing until he failed to score on Brady Tkachuk for an empty-net goal.
Pierre Engvall (C, #47) — I understand that Engvall’s main purpose is to prevent the other team from scoring, but at some point, I’d like to see him take advantage of his tools offensively. It’s been so frustrating for me to watch Engvall burst up the ice with speed, only for him to cycle around the OZ and fire a 50-foot shot from the boards.
Pass the puck, Pierre. You’re actually a lot better at it than you think!
Jack Campbell (G, #30) — Grant Fuhr made a living off of these kind of games. To quickly break down the numbers, Jack Campbell allowed five goals, posted a .844 save percentage, and won his 11th consecutive start for Toronto, an NHL record for successive wins by a goaltender to start a season. Goal support is one helluva drug.
It should be noted that the Leafs were pretty sloppy at times in this game, too. We all know he didn’t have his best night, which is why I’m not even going to bother showing the clips of him getting beat on a few saveable shots. His worst moment was being slow to get out on Tim Stutzle’s goal right off of the faceoff, but honestly, is any self-respecting Leafs fan going to be mad at Campbell after tonight?
*sees an angry mob of Frederik Andersen truthers approaching*
Yikes, I better get out of here.
The Officials — It’s always easy to rip on officiating, especially after the Tim Peel fiasco this season. I try not to touch on it too many times in these report cards because it can get annoying, but games like these really make me question what the NHL is doing when it comes to officiating.
Players are being interfered with, hooked, tripped, cross-checked in front, broken sticks are being thrown at puck-carriers, and yet, you’re telling there were two infractions committed in this game before the refs decided to call a pity penalty on Thornton with 21 seconds left in the game?
Refs absolutely refusing to call obvious penalties, must have somewhere to be after the game tonight.
— draglikepull (@draglikepull) April 11, 2021
I’m not even arguing the Leafs got a raw deal in this game. The players and the fans did. No one wants to watch a game with 14 penalties, but you’re allowed to call them every once in a while.
The Muzzin-Holl Pair — Sometimes it’s just not your night.
And I mean really not your night.
Justin Holl is an effective NHL defenseman. He wasn’t tonight. What’s funny is that he and Jake Muzzin actually made a few strong defensive plays in this game. When you show up on the highlight reel multiple times, though, it’s never a great look.
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 59 percent of the shots and 65 percent of the scoring chances at 5v5. They could’ve used an extra save or two and been tighter defensively, which seems to weirdly be the case every time they face the Ottawa Senators this year.
Tweets of the Night
The bond between Matthews and Marner is unreal pic.twitter.com/gSxZDFGkXv
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 10, 2021
From no-look passes to no-look high fives, Marner has no shame.
I guess Galchenyuk is a lock for Team Canada too.
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) April 10, 2021
Just wait until Taylor Hall gets a look on that top line.
it's amazing how many people dont realise that real depth is having 1st liners on your 2nd line and 2nd liners on your 3rd line and not two kinda ok 3rd lines
— Jard Boiled (@JaredOfLondon) April 11, 2021
I don’t mean to galaxy brain things here, but what if Toronto’s version of the Blake Coleman acquisition for their third line…was Zach Hyman?
Auston Matthews is now scoring 0.82 goals per game.
No one has done that over a full season since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, 25 years ago.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 11, 2021
It’s pretty incredible what Matthews has been able to accomplish this season, especially when you combine it with his elite 200-foot impact at 5v5. What we’re watching right now is special and I’m certainly not going to take that for granted.