This is the stuff that triggers the Leafs fan base’s collective PTSD.
They were returning to the Bell Centre for the first since it all went horribly wrong last Spring in Game 6. The Habs are banged up, having their worst season ever, and are in a back-to-back situation. Do the Leafs come out extra motivated to make a bit of a statement?
Nope, they were lit up for five goals in the first 40 minutes. Halfway through the game, they were getting ole’d by a home crowd that had cheered on exactly six home wins this season.
Mix in a scary injury to a key veteran who fell down awkwardly and hit his head off an opposing player/the ice, and this felt like a bad acid flashback to May 2021.
Thankfully, it’s not the end of a playoff series tonight and there are still 30+ regular-season games plus the playoffs in front of us.
Let’s do an abbreviated notes version of the game in 10:
– First and foremost, let’s hope Jake Muzzin is okay. Head injuries are the worst part of the sport.
– Sheldon Keefe double shifted his third and fourth lines down the stretch of the third period in what was a bit of a message to his stars, specifically the Tavares line that played under 15 minutes. It was that kind of night.
– Petr Mrazek was a mess in the net in the first 40 minutes. He made the best save of his season in the middle of it all (glove save on Josh Anderson), but he was swimming in the net — he was off of his angle on all of the Cole Caufield, Mike Hoffman, and Anderson goals. It just wasn’t NHL-calibre goaltending from Mrazek tonight.
The team isn’t going anywhere if the above trend line doesn’t turn around, but the Leafs have to fix the defensive environment their goalies are playing in right now, too.
We shared some of these numbers last game, but since January 1, the Leafs are bottom-five in the league in five-on-five goals against per 60. That’s a 20-game sample now. Their five-on-five .888 save percentage is 30th in the NHL in 2022.
– In the past couple of games, the Leafs have been really disconnected between their forwards and defense. They’ve lost their numbers up the ice for odd-man rushes against way too often; there has been not enough awareness and effort given toward getting back on top of the opposition coming out of the offensive zone when the puck turns over, which has been happening far too often as well. That leaves the defensemen in a position of having to defend in a lot of open ice with speed and numbers coming at them.
The missed assignments around their net — and how generally easy it is to play in the critical areas of the ice for the opposition recently — have also been a problem, but tonight, they were often not even getting a chance to defend inside their structure before it was in the back of the net.
– Speaking of not supporting the defense (on the 4-0 goal, in particular), the Alex Kerfoot – John Tavares – William Nylander line was a dash-two tonight and has now been outscored 10-5 at five-on-five with a 47.5% expected goal share in the month of February.
I’d have Ondrej Kase up on the Tavares line to start the game tomorrow night, perhaps even opposite Ilya Mikheyev or Pierre Engvall. They need a much better work rate out of the second line.
– At one point in the first period, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl turned a routine D-to-D pass from the top of their own circles with one forechecker pressuring into a scrummed puck behind the net, a lost battle, and an extended d-zone shift. Holl was really struggling to handle the puck without bobbling it or losing it in his skates. It was also a grenade on the stick of Muzzin, who committed a bad turnover prior to the 3-0 goal. They were both playing like the game was going a million miles a minute in their heads.
The situation on the blue line is starting to feel nearly as precarious as it was back in February 2020 before the trade deadline, when it was rumoured the Leafs were considering a trade involving Tyson Barrie and TJ Brodie (who they obviously later signed as a UFA). A shakeup on that level is really difficult to accomplish midseason, but it is starting to feel like a more serious consideration.
– Not a flashback to the Habs series so much as the Columbus one, but it was really only Jason Spezza who showed a pulse in the opening 40 minutes, springing to the defense of Holl after the big hit by Nick Suzuki. Credit to Spezza yet again, but at some point, it has to be someone more important than Spezza (or Bunting) who provides a response in these situations.
– This team is too talented not to put this blip behind them and steady the ship in the regular season, but it’s probably for the best that they’re showing some of these cracks in their hull now, not after the trade deadline.
After the game, Keefe referenced the low point of the Penguins loss in October preceding the team’s best hockey of the season. Over the course of an 82-game season, even the contenders don’t go without these kinds of funks; they just don’t let them last very long. Let’s see if they have it in them again, starting tomorrow night in Columbus.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts