What a crazy set of circumstances.
In the same week Ontario couldn’t decide how to handle their COVID regulations, the Vancouver Canucks were coming off of a three-week stint without playing any NHL games due to a team-wide outbreak. We truly do live in a bizarre world right now.
Despite facing an uphill battle, the Canucks were able to defeat the Leafs in overtime by a final score of 3-2. Much like the David Ayres game, this would be a much more fun article to write about the winning team, but alas, this has been a post-game Leafs column for as long as I’ve been writing it.
We’ll try our best to break down the ups and downs of an emotional night like this. It’s not even as though Toronto played poorly; Braden Holtby just stood on his head and Vancouver rallied late to steal two points.
Sometimes that’s how this sport works. In our attempt to break things down rationally, let’s go through each player individually to try to figure out what the hell just happened. We’ll start with the most polarizing player in a Leafs jersey.
Game Puck: William Nylander (RW, #88) — Ever since his absence, the Leafs have really been struggling to gain the zone in transition. It’s easy to make fun of zone entry nerds like myself for overrating this aspect of the game, but when you see a talented player like Nylander carry the puck from DZ to OZ, you start to realize just how important it is to transport the puck at a high level.
When I’m evaluating a hockey player, the most important aspect of a forward’s ability is what they can accomplish after gaining the zone. Some guys will just launch it from distance. Not William Nylander — he’s looking to thread the next pass through the middle of the ice, which is how he helped create so many scoring chances from dangerous areas with his playmaking.
Nylander also scored his 100th career NHL goal tonight.
It’s great to see he hasn’t missed a step after missing the past week due to COVID protocols. Good for Nylander. The Leafs have really missed his contributions off the rush lately.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — As a stats nerd who tries to look at this stuff objectively, Matthews generated 14 shots from the slot in this game. I repeat: 14 slot shots.
That just doesn’t happen in NHL games. If you watch any junior or lower-level hockey, you’ll see a player who’s too good for that league put up those kinds of totals, but not at the game’s highest level. Matthews was an absolute cannon in this game, rifling every opportunity he had from a half-decent area.
He ended up converting on a rebound from in tight, but he could’ve easily potted a hat-trick considering how many quality scoring opportunities he was generating on Sunday night.
Nick Robertson (LW, #89) — It was cool to see Sheldon Keefe try Toronto’s shot-happy youngster on a line with John Tavares and Nylander. If you’ve got some skill and the shot to go with it, why not see if he can create some offense alongside Toronto’s high-end talent?
Robertson didn’t pick up a point tonight, but he was able to gain the zone a few times with a few nice moves at the line. It’s worth noting that he’s still losing board battles more often than you’d like to see, although his passing helped make up for it.
We tend to think of Robertson as a shoot-first forward, but keep an eye on his playmaking the next time you watch him. He’s able to make some crafty passes out of tight spots to keep his team in possession as they head up the ice.
John Tavares (C, #91) — We might as well acknowledge the center on Toronto’s most dangerous line tonight. Tavares wasn’t as flashy as Nylander with the puck or as exciting as Robertson when he decided to rip one.
Despite his subtle playstyle, Tavares ended the game with two assists and seven shots from the slot, which ranked second on the Leafs behind Matthews. Tavares would’ve added another goal to the stat sheet if it weren’t for the post.
It was nice to see Nylander and Tavares pick up where they left off, completing high-skill plays in the offensive zone out of tight spaces. I doubt Robertson lasts on that LW long-term — that feels like a placeholder for Nick Foligno — but the important takeaway is that the $18 million combination on line two looked dominant at 5v5.
That’s why you pay those top-end forward the big bucks.
Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — We could make fun of Muzzin for bobbling a few pucks on the power play or getting a bit too shot-happy from the blue line. At the end of the day, though, he out-chanced the opposition by a significant margin despite playing with a new partner in TJ Brodie.
Brodie’s obviously a good defense partner, but sometimes it takes some getting used to before defensemen develop chemistry on a pairing. It didn’t take too long for these two tonight; Toronto out-chanced Vancouver by +11 when Muzzin was on the ice thanks to his stellar defensive play and quick puck-moving to get play going in the other direction.
Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — It’s easy to make jokes about Joe Thornton at this point in the season. Heck, I’ve been guilty of it. You know what’s difficult? Admitting said player performed well despite what you’ve been saying about him lately.
Thornton’s passing has always been his greatest strength, and it’s how he made a major impact on the game tonight. He had a few nice give-and-go sequences with Jason Spezza; Thornton completed some threatening passes on the power play; he even completed a cross-seam pass to Morgan Rielly for a one-timer.
I’d still like to see the 41-year-old get a night off here and there as the Leafs stroll into their last month of the season, but this game wasn’t your go-to example if you’re looking to scratch Jumbo Joe. He played well.
The Third Pair — Even when I get frustrated with Travis Dermott getting beat behind for a partial breakaway, I have to admit when he and Zach Bogosian are able to tilt the ice in their team’s favour. Much like the rest of Toronto’s roster, Dermott-Bogosian were able to spend the majority of their time in the offensive zone rather than the defensive zone.
That’s thanks in large part to their strong defensive play in the neutral zone, killing plays at center ice before they had a chance to develop. It’s also thanks to some quick puck movement. The quicker those two can get the puck up to Toronto’s talented forward, the quicker they can get the cycle started, which is much more fun than playing defense.
Zach Hyman (RW, #11) — Let’s face it, no one cares about a one-off loss against the Canucks on a Sunday night. What Leafs fans do care about is Zach Hyman’s health heading into the playoffs. After a knee-on-knee collision with Alex Edler, which resulted in a five-minute major, Hyman left the game early and did not return.
He was his usual self before that play, putting in work behind the net to wreak havoc on the forecheck and win pucks back for the third line. Like I said, though, not too many people care about tonight’s performance.
The biggest question is whether or not Hyman is going to be okay after that hit.
John Tavares on Zach Hyman:
"He was very positive in the room, very optimistic. Hopefully it's nothing too serious."
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) April 19, 2021
This is the most optimistic quote I could find, so take it for what it is.
His Linemates — It was interesting to see a Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman combination. The fact that Alex Kerfoot got the call at 3C tonight over Pierre Engvall says a lot about the coaching staff’s trust in him defensively. Engvall has been falling out of favour with Keefe lately, while Kerfoot keeps winning pucks back using his speed and sneaky-good stick on the forecheck and backcheck.
In the meantime, Ilya Mikheyev keeps driving towards the net. That’s a good strategy for him; instead of relying on shots from distance, a power forward like him should be trying to get more deflections and rebounds off of the cycle.
Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — He’s typically set up on the right wall of PP2, which is why I was so impressed to see him running things well from the left side of the ice tonight, with Galchenyuk on the right side for one-timers. The two of them were able to work a bit of magic there despite not finding the back of the net.
At 5v5, I was a tad underwhelmed with Spezza in this game, although he did complete a few nice passes, in particular a high-skill play to Matthews at the end of his shift.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — We mentioned the Muzzin-Brodie pairing, which I’ve been waiting all season to see. I’d argue Muzzin outplayed Brodie tonight, but that doesn’t mean #78 played poorly. He was his usual self defensively, preventing chances through the middle of the ice while making quick passes to get the puck moving in the right direction.
You don’t always need to be flashy to be effective.
Coaching Staff — I can’t imagine home-ice advantage matters too much in the Canadian division considering the lack of fans that will be in attendance for playoff games. With that in mind, I love the fact that Keefe & Co. decided to shake up the defense pairings in a somewhat meaningless game against a team coming off of a long layoff.
Did the Muzzin-Brodie and Rielly-Holl pairings work perfectly? Not exactly — your team lost — but the Leafs also dominated the shots and chances at 5v5. I’d argue it’s good to throw out different combinations of players to see what you have going into the playoffs.
Now, I do wonder why Tavares is on the half-wall of PP1 off of a faceoff win. That’s the one time you can control positioning as a coach, and it left Matthews in the bumper role, where he looks extremely uncomfortable. It was nice to see Toronto top-load their first unit, but I’d suggest getting Matthews in his wheelhouse right from the get go.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — As we mentioned, Matthews generated 14 chances from the slot tonight. That probably doesn’t happen without some of Marner’s great passing in the offensive zone. That said, the line got outshot and out-chanced at even strength, which is crazy considering how many pucks Matthews was firing towards the net.
That doesn’t all fall on Marner, but his defensive presence on that top line hasn’t felt as dominant lately. When Dom Luszczyszyn writes an article ranking you second in Selke voting based on your elite defensive numbers, you need to back it up with stronger 200-foot nights than this.
Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — I’m torn on this grade. Much like his last game, there were some significant ups and downs for Galchenyuk tonight.
On the one hand, he made a few excellent plays with the puck on his stick. The highest percentage chances in the NHL these days come on passes that cross through the middle of the ice, which is what Galchenyuk was able to pull off on multiple occasions.
That puck doesn’t go in, but it had a very good chance of resulting in a goal. Galchenyuk completed a few of these difficult passes at 5v5 and 5v4, yet surprisingly, didn’t pick up an assist.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been following his career over the past decade, there were a few defensive warts. Watch the following clip and tell me what you think #12 in white should be doing.
He isn’t the only one at fault here. Typically when you rewind a goal against, there are multiple players you can point to, but Galchenyuk is in position to take away that pass through the middle of the ice and he fails to do so.
I can’t compliment a player for accomplishing the most important part of creating efficient offense without criticizing them for failing to take it away defensively. This is exactly the type of game that makes me question what Alex Galchenyuk is at the NHL level.
Can you trust him in your top six without the puck? Based on his last few games, probably not, but he’s definitely one of your 12 most talented forwards, so I’d imagine you want to find some minutes for him come playoff time.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — Tonight, Justin Holl learned what Brodie has been putting up with all season. It is not easy to play defense alongside Morgan Rielly. You’ll be defending a lot more odd-man rushes; put in positions you don’t want to be in defensively; and a lot of the time, you’ll be the one blamed for it instead of #44.
On the Nils Hoglander goal, Holl failed to take away the front of the net, which is what most Leafs fans will remember. If you watch the tape a bit more closely, though, you should ask yourself where his partner was.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — If anyone’s wondering where Rielly was on the Hoglander goal, the answer is: not in the frame. That’s a concern when you’re leading your team in minutes. I love watching Rielly break down opposing defenses off the cycle when he’s roaming around the offensive zone, but I also want to rip out my hair when the Leafs give up high-quality chances because of those ill-timed pinches.
Jack Campbell (G, #36) — It sucks when the other team’s goalie plays better than you. I never played the position at a high level, but I have plenty of experience being the second-best goaltender on the ice in a hockey game.
Campbell let in a few save-able shots in this game, while Holtby refused to allow goals on Grade-A chances that probably should’ve beaten him. One of them might’ve even crossed the line, but we’ll never have the camera angle to prove it.
I can understand why Leafs fans might be losing some confidence in their starting goaltender right now, but the bigger concern to me is if he’s losing confidence in himself. Campbell is his own harshest critic, which can be worrying when you go through stretches of poor play. Let’s see if he can bounce back from a few rough games.
Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — Part of me wants to track what percentage of passes Wayne Simmonds is completing at 5v5. The other part of me thinks this would be a depressing task, which I probably don’t need more of living in Ontario right now.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Tweets of the Night
Have text chats like “is this as bad as the Ayres game?” It’s bad (up 2-0!), but no. Difference for me is Leafs played well here, Holtby played well, pretty unlucky on bounces. Van deserves so much credit for their performance, gave themselves a chance and may win yet.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) April 19, 2021
If you’ve watched the Leafs for as long as most of us have, I’m not sure how you can compare tonight’s game to their biggest embarrassments in franchise history. They got goalie’d.
Canucks, 3-2, OT
I realize even the worst team in modern hockey, the 74-75 Caps, won eight games. But this is one of the most amazing single game victories in history.
If you run the Leafs, start concocting trades to unload… everybody. Then fire the coach, the GM, whoever.
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) April 19, 2021
Call me nuts for thinking the team who ranks third in 5v5 scoring chance differential (behind Colorado and Vegas) is a legitimate Cup contender.
As fun as it is to overreact to small sample sizes, it rarely serves us well in life.