There was a hockey game tonight — and we will get to that — but I’d be remiss if I did not start by saying, first and foremost, that we are all hoping John Tavares is okay.
That was terrifying to watch, and I know I wasn’t alone in feeling sick to my stomach watching him try to get up afterward.
In terms of the game, this is the exact type of game Montreal would have wanted and the exact type of game the Leafs have continually shown they can’t break through in. The Leafs generated six high-danger chances at 5v5 and the Habs generated five. As we saw last year against Columbus, the opposition bore down and kept it low scoring, it was a low-event night, and the Leafs didn’t create enough.
The penalties also did not help. The Leafs took five penalties – far too many – and three of them were pucks over the glass. Two of those were because the Leafs player saw a forechecker coming to hit them and bailed on the puck. The Habs also took four penalties — we’re looking at nearly a full period worth of penalties — and the game flow suffered. Throw in the Tavares injury, and things just never got rolling for the Leafs.
Now they find themselves down in a series with the question marks swirling around them. They made a point to bring in veterans over the past year — it’s for moments like these.
Time to earn their worth.
Your game in 10:
1. There have been a number of playoff games over the years where the Leafs have really eased into the game, seemingly feeling it out/dipping their toes in the water. Tonight was not one of those games.
The Leafs were very engaged the first few shifts. Josh Anderson ran Mitch Marner on the first shift of the game and Marner stood him up. On the next shift, Nick Foligno took a run at a Hab, created a turnover, William Nylander won a battle down low, and it set up Morgan Rielly for the first scoring chance of the game.
That’s a really good start (minus Campbell falling down while playing the puck). That said, the Leafs were not able to sustain it after the first few shifts, and the Habs started tilting the ice, working their cycle and board game. The best Leaf was Jack Campbell, who made a few big saves to keep the game tied.
2. The team was understandably shell-shocked after the John Tavares injury, but before and after the incident, the Habs were getting behind the Leafs defense for odd-man scoring chances off the rush. Josh Anderson got behind Justin Holl for a chance in tight that Campbell made an excellent save on, Anderson got through Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Sandin for a mini-breakaway goal, and later on, Eric Staal was a bit offside for what would have been a potential partial breakaway.
In the second period, Joel Armia got a breakaway off of a power-play breakout. The Habs were consistently slicing through and getting chances with speed off the rush. The Leafs’ defensemen were playing a dangerous game between being over aggressive in the neutral zone and also not exchanging assignments and communicating. On more than one of those chances, it was seemingly an exercise in wondering who was actually covering the attacker off the rush.
3. I thought Zach Hyman was excellent tonight. He had a big shot block on Jeff Petry early in the game after a lost faceoff, he drew a penalty, he created a scoring chance for himself in tight with a nifty cut back (although he shot it wide), and he caused havoc on the forecheck and in front of the net a number of times.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are obviously incredible, and more often than not, they do not need Hyman to complement them (which is a huge luxury for the Leafs to have), but they have been hedged off by the Danault line for most of the season. Not tonight.
Matthews put eight shots on net, and if you watch most of those shots back, Hyman is standing in front of the net on them. Hyman and Matthews were good on the night – it’s too bad Matthews hit the post – but Marner once again struggled in the playoffs in critical moments with the puck on his stick.
He made himself the de facto shooter on the power play, and he got caught on a 2v1 from behind because he was too slow to make a decision. He played over 27 minutes in regulation (nearly half the game!), and it’s not really fair for the coaching staff to ask that much of him. He’s good, but don’t think he’s that good, even with the Tavares injury.
4. Brendan Gallagher is clearly hurt for the Habs — he played under 15 minutes — and Lehkonen and Byron both played more than him against Auston Matthews at 5v5. On one hand, as much as we can argue Hyman was really good and Matthews put eight shots on net, you have to capitalize on opportunities like this. The line did not score.
We said before the series started that if the power play was bad and the top line was limited by the Danault line, life was going to suddenly get difficult for Toronto. Matters are compounded when you have Riley Nash leading your third line. Alongside Ilya Mikheyev, it becomes a clear non-factor on offense for that unit.
The Leafs will have to make lineup changes because we have to assume Tavares will be out, but even if he was back, they’d have to make some lineup adjustments. They simply didn’t create enough from the bottom of their lineup tonight.
5. The Habs do a good job of rolling their lines, and their depth showed here. The Leafs’ top players were notably gassed at the end, and while you might think it was simply because Tavares got hurt, that is not actually the case. Other than Jake Evans, who got hurt and didn’t return, the Habs forward who played the least was Paul Byron at 13:23. The Leafs had six (six!) forwards not named Tavares who played less than that.
That disparity is massive. It gasses the Leafs’ top six and it takes the bottom six out of the game. The Leafs have depth. They need to put together a third line they can regularly trust and play more, at minimum. What they are asking of their top guns is not sustainable, and at the end of the day, this is not how teams win championships. You have to even out the ice time a bit.
6. The Rasmus Sandin – Zach Bogosian pairing struggled tonight — they were outshot attempted 7-3, gave up the only goal at 5v5, and there were a number of occasions where the Habs got in behind them.
I get that they want to use Sandin on the power play, but 1) I am not sure Sandin even makes enough of a notable difference there (more on that below), and 2) It can’t be at the sacrifice of 5v5 play.
Dermott and Bogosian were a good third pairing all season — they threw that out the window on day one of the playoffs, and it was not a great result. It’s not as if Sandin – Bogosian had a bunch of time together throughout the season to figure out how to play with each other, either.
7. I thought Morgan Rielly was really good tonight. He was active on the rush a number of times, looked to make plays with the puck, he picked up an assist, and he saved a goal on Josh Anderson. After that save, there were multiple icings by the Leafs. Eventually, they were able to clear the zone (the Habs accidentally shot it out of bounds on a bad dump-in) because Rielly held the puck after a faceoff win and made a play versus just dumping it off the wall or flicking it out.
It was a microcosm of the type of plays he was making with the puck on his stick, and it came on a night where his partner got beat a number of times off of the rush. Later in the third, Rielly threw a nice hit on Byron on a dump-in, then transitioned the puck up ice to Matthews and drove the net off the same rush to create space for Matthews to get his shot off. That is Rielly at his dynamic best.
8. I wrote before the series started that the biggest factor on special teams might actually be that the Habs lead the league in shorthanded goals. Well, we all saw the game-winning goal tonight.
The Leafs did try a few different things on the power play – most notably, setting up Matthews on the one-timer side — and they were looking to set him up more than they typically do. However, at the end of the day, the power play went 0/4, gave up the game-winning goal, and situationally, they had an opportunity to take the lead in the third period and then later to tie it up. They generated very little, and at times again, they were just straight-up unable to gain the zone.
At one point, Rielly carried it up the ice, had a ton of space in front of him as well as a teammate wide open on the boards, and he dropped it. This is systemic. This is how they are being coached, and the book is beyond out on them.
Joe Thornton made a really poor play with the puck that helped lead to the mini-breakaway, and Rasmus Sandin has to learn to take away the path to the puck there. You can’t let Byron simply skate in a straight line to the puck. Get in his way and make him go around you.
Rielly put five shots on net tonight, including one that set up their only goal, and he watched a rookie in Sandin who has accomplished exactly zero in the league play more on the power play than him.
9. Jack Campbell was really solid overall. I understand that he’s taking the loss here, but he let in two goals and both were really good plays from players that broke in one-on-one. As noted above, the Habs getting in behind the Leafs defense for excellent scoring chances was a theme throughout the night.
Campbell was solid covering the puck and not allowing rebounds, made a number of big saves, and really, the Leafs just didn’t score. If you’re scoring one goal per game, you simply aren’t going to win many playoff games.
No, this isn’t the Leafs getting goalie’d – Price was good, but he didn’t stand on his head, and he really made just the one lights-out save on Marner. Ultimately, the Leafs have to figure out a way to break through. You can’t just sit there year after year with all this firepower and say, “The other goalie played well.”
10. Many Leafs fans will remember that in 2002, the team lost Mats Sundin in the first round and rallied to go to the Eastern Conference Final. Gary Roberts was his usual excellent self (19 points in 19 playoff games this year), but it was Alyn McCauley — who had 16 points in 82 games that season — who stepped up out of nowhere to put up a 15 point playoffs (in 19 games). Every year, there are players that move up the lineup come playoff time and become “playoff heroes” of sorts.
I’m not going to sit here and wonder if it could or should be this player or that player, but I’m just going to say that the Leafs have lost an elite player and they need multiple players to step up and help fill the void.
Playoffs are a war of attrition. Last year, it was Jake Muzzin who went out. This year, it appears to be John Tavares. They have to find a solution.