Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Vancouver Canucks
Photo: USA Today Sports

The Maple Leafs conceded five or more goals for the fourth time in their last seven games en route to a 6-4 defeat to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.

With tonight’s loss, the Maple Leafs dropped to a .881 even-strength save percentage since January 1st, the worst in the league by a fair margin.

Your game in 10:

1.  Nice gesture from Sheldon Keefe to start Wayne Simmonds in his 1,000th game on a line with Jason Spezza and fellow Scarborough native Michael Bunting.

Adding Bunting to the starting line was a cool touch knowing the pair’s similar origin stories and how hard both players had to work to overcome the odds; seven years Wayne’s junior, Bunting looked up to Simmonds as he followed in his footsteps through the minor and major junior hockey ranks, including playing for the same coach on the Toronto East Enders Ticats, getting passed over multiple times in the OHL draft, and carving out a successful junior career that included a stop in the Soo. 80 games into Bunting’s NHL career, Simmonds remains a good example of the commitment required to achieve that kind of longevity.

Congrats to the Wayne Train on a 1,000+ game NHL career to date — it’s been an incredibly hard-earned journey to this point for a former 18-year-old OHL draft pick.

2.  The Leafs did enough to win this game if not for a few bad bounces and a lost goaltending battle, but I didn’t think their first period was particularly encouraging given the circumstances.

They created a couple of extended offensive-zone shifts in the middle section, but they didn’t generate very much offensively at even strength in the opening 20 (the John Tavares goal came on the power play), and Vancouver made a strong push toward the end leading to a go-ahead goal in the final 30 seconds of the period.

The Leafs finished the first period with just 42% of the shot attempts and only two high-danger scoring chances at 5v5. Coming out for Simmonds’ 1,000th game and coming off of a brutal loss to the Sabres, I was expecting a little more jump in the first period.

3.  The 1-0 goal from JT Miller was an example of just how unforgiving top assignments can be for a rookie defenseman. Timothy Liljegren lost his focus for just a half-second, lost positioning on Miller in front, and it was in the back of the net before he knew it.

This is a pretty remarkable stat: Liljegren has been on the ice for eight goals against and seven goals for in just his last three games. To be fair, two of the goals against came on the power play, and he only played a direct role in a couple of the eight. The goals Lucas Raymond scored in Detroit and the one Miller scored tonight showed how even a slightly slow read-and-react, and affording just a fraction of extra time and space in the scoring areas, can be deadly against high-end skill.

4.  It was interesting to hear Sheldon Keefe quickly mention not liking the stretch-pass play just prior to the 5-4 game-winning goal — that was a pass by Timothy Liljegren where he actually connected with Michael Bunting at the far blue line, but Bunting was outnumbered and had no one with him, so the play transitioned right back the other way. Liljegren had numbers in support for a shorter exit play with Matthews through the middle and Marner calling for the puck in ample space on the weak side of the defensive zone.

It was a bit of a flukey goal in the end; Marner lost his stick and then awkwardly kicked the puck straight to Tyler Myers, who went bar down.

It would’ve been the case anyway after Jake Muzzin’s injury, but Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin’s play next to Morgan Rielly this past week makes it obvious why Kyle Dubas made no bones about his position of need at the deadline. Both are having nice seasons, but they need to be playing in appropriately-sheltered roles where they can continue to thrive and gain confidence in the league — i.e. playing the kinds of minutes where every mistake isn’t magnified by the top scoring talent on the other side burying it in the back of their net.

5.  The second period was a different story than the first — it was all Leafs for the most part, only interrupted by Brock Boeser’s power-play goal against stemming from a bad penalty by Travis Dermott at the offensive blue line.

The third line immediately pushed back with a relentless shift including multiple net drives from Ilya Mikheyev, followed by a beautiful tally off the rush from William Nylander to Nick Robertson for his first NHL regular-season goal.

The Leafs spent long spells of the second period looking like they were on the power play at 5v5, and Auston Matthews‘ line had a series of dominant shifts where there was a palpable inevitability to what was going to transpire — sure enough, Matthews popped two goals inside four minutes, his 38th and 39th of the season. It could’ve easily been three or four for Matthews as he finished the game with eight shots on goal.

6.  Does a pizza get any better than when it’s so perfectly placed in the wheelhouse of the recipient that he can one-time it in the net? Right on the stick of the best goal scorer in the game, to boot. Even Marner couldn’t have placed it any better.

7.  The team’s third-period push to tie it was also commendable; they were pouring it on and did a good job of winning draws, extending zone time, and throwing as much as they could at Thatcher Demko in the final three minutes with their goalie pulled.

This is where the confidence level and current form of the respective goaltenders made all the difference. When Demko let in his fourth goal just 42 minutes into the game, he collected himself and totally locked it down from there, playing spectacularly well in the third while stopping 16 out of 16 shots.

When the Leafs took a 4-3 lead into the third period and needed their goaltender to help them lock down their lead, a stoppable redirected shot from the point found a hole and trickled through Jack Campbell just one minute into the final frame. That was a killer.

This was the first time this season the Leafs have lost a game in regulation after leading through 40 minutes (26-1-2 record).

8.  There have been so many goals against the Leafs lately where the opposition simply moved the puck up top at the point, threw it into a high-traffic area, and it somehow found the back of the net. TJ Brodie failed to fully tie up his man multiple times leading to goals against tonight; there is no doubt the Leafs’ D needs to take better care of attackers’ sticks and give up inside positioning less easily on some of these goals. But they also just need a save at some point, to state the painfully obvious.

Since the Leafs’ goaltending fell off a cliff in the year 2022, their average shot distance is actually further away from the net compared to the 2021 portion of the schedule; both Petr Mrazek and Jack Campbell are inside the top 10 in the category in 2022 (min. 200 minutes played) in terms of the distance of their average shot, for whatever that stat is worth.

Both goalies are bottom-five in high-danger save percentage per 60 since Jan. 1 despite facing fewer high danger chances against per 60 than the average goaltender.

9.  Nick Robertson ended up playing 10.5 minutes at five on five with John Tavares and William Nylander, which is actually a little more than I expected knowing it seemed probable Sheldon Keefe would rotate Alex Kerfoot back onto the line pretty regularly for the defensive-zone draws and/or the tougher matchup situations, which he did on occasion.

The lack of special teams time plus Keefe not using him in the extended 6-on-5 situation kept his minutes down overall (11:16). He actually hopped over the boards at one point after a whistle in the middle of the Leafs’ 6-on-5 push, but he ended up sitting back down after the timeout was called; the Leafs kept their top group out and swapped Michael Bunting for Jason Spezza for the right-side draw.

The line finished with nine shots for and one against in their 5v5 minutes together, and Nylander and Robertson connected nicely for Robertson’s goal off the rush.

10.  I’m really curious to see what the plan is with Nick Robertson going forward. The game plan Dubas outlined for him (staying down, dominating the AHL until he forces the Leafs’ hand) appeared to totally change once the Muzzin and Ondrej Kase injuries happened. There was suddenly a little more opportunity and roster flexibility available, and it seems that the front office’s decision was made for them with regards to whether it was a forward or defenseman that they’re most seriously pursuing before the trade deadline (I suppose this could still change pending the Muzzin prognosis, the right trade landing in their lap, etc).

That means a fully ready Robertson would definitely be a highly convenient solution for creating the additional scoring depth on the LW the team is looking for, but what’s the plan if he isn’t ready / this isn’t the right move for his development?

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Canucks 6 vs. Leafs 4