The Maple Leafs didn’t go away quietly in this 6-3 loss, but they played from behind throughout most of the night, struck five goalposts, took four penalties to the Predators’ one, and couldn’t solve a dialed-in Juuse Saros often enough to overcome 2-0, 3-1, and 4-2 deficits.
Your final game in 10 before the trade deadline:
1. It was a flat start initially for the Leafs in this game, and if not for Erik Källgren’s pad save on a point-blank chance in the slot for Yakov Trenin, they would have been down 1-0 inside 25 seconds.
This has felt like a routine for the Leafs for a long time, even in the games they’ve won recently — no real “pop” to their start, and the first quality chance of the game goes to the opposition, often on the first shift.
Sheldon Keefe has been taking a different tack on the team’s starts of late; he wants to see his team play a patient game within their structure after they went through a long spell of giving up so many goals as their goaltenders badly struggled. Based on his post-game interviews, the message seems to be to play sound defensively and give the goalies a chance to settle into the game before it’s in the back of their net. That’s understandable given the situation the team was facing, but it still seems to be resulting in giving up the first big chance of the game.
There is no doubt that, in the bigger picture, the Leafs rarely dictate games out of the gate, and against a team with a heavy forecheck like Nashville tonight, they looked like they were a little taken aback and were wading/feeling their way into it. They adjusted well and controlled large portions of the game, but again, you’d like a better start.
2. It’s no secret the Leafs don’t really excel at the, “flip it in, get after it on the forecheck” kind of approach to get themselves into games on the first shift. It’s notable, though, that Sheldon Keefe went to his third line of David Kampf, Pierre Engvall, and Ilya Mikheyev to start the second period against the pain-in-the-side Jeannot-Sissons-Trenin third line that started the first two periods for the Predators at 5v5 (and got the better of the top line to start period one).
The Leafs’ checking line started the middle frame with a solid offensive-zone shift that allowed the Matthews line to follow it up (the Tavares line came over the boards third and conceded the 2-0 goal).
As it stands right now, the Leafs will be starting their first-round playoff series on the road against the back-to-back Cup champions — they have to be ready to go from puck drop or they’ll find themselves chasing games, which is a losing formula against an elite team with elite goaltending at playoff time. We saw tonight how difficult it is to play from behind against an elite goaltender on a more middle-of-the-road playoff team, even as the Leafs took over significant spells of the game and generated a ton of scoring chances when trailing.
3. The opening Nashville goal came off of a bit of sloppiness/lack of attentiveness from the top line (it wasn’t due to fatigue, as they had just stepped onto the ice). Morgan Rielly was in deep supporting Ilya Mikheyev’s foray into the offensive zone at the end of Mikheyev’s shift and he successfully kept the puck in the offensive zone, but Auston Matthews sort of haphazardly threw the puck away and then he and Mitch Marner didn’t get on their horses coming back; Michael Bunting looked very much like a forward playing defense against the rush, and Tanner Jeannot picked his spot really well past Källgren.
After a bit of a slow start for the line in Matthews’ return, it (unsurprisingly) found its footing and drove the Leafs offensively for the rest of the night. Matthews finished with a laugh-out-loud stat line: a team-leading 77% Corsi For, an 83% expected goal share, 10 shots on net, a goal, an assist, and five takeaways.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 20, 2022
Marner finished with two goals and an assist and had the puck a ton in this game, patiently dissecting the Predators in the offensive zone and creating countless high-danger scoring chances around the net. The pair were brilliant as the game wore on, and as long as there were icings and a timeout that allowed Keefe to keep them out there for offensive-zone faceoffs, it felt like the Leafs were never fully out of it even at 4-2 and 5-3.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 20, 2022
4. Mitch Marner has now tied his career-high in goals with 26 through just 53 games — that’s a 40-goal pace over 82.
It’s wild to think back to the discourse on Marner after his dismal start to the season. There will always be the lingering, “let’s see it at playoff time” reservation until proven otherwise (fair enough), but you couldn’t ask for a better regular season from him in terms of his contributions across all situations, and particularly in the finishing department — we’ve seen far less of the no-hope shots from distance, as he is generating a ton of offense from in close to the net (it felt like it got lost in the criticism of his shot that he’s an excellent finisher in tight).
5. Both the 2-0 and 3-1 Nashville goals were just “zone time” goals against. There was no major breakdown — the Leafs just couldn’t get the cycle killed quickly, and Nashville found a tip and then a good shot through a screen for goals off of shots from distance.
It was the John Tavares/William Nylander second line out there for both. Game to game, there hasn’t been enough consistency winning puck races/battles in the defensive zone in order for this line to get pucks back quickly (the 3-1 goal was Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander with Kase out injured). Sheldon Keefe has criticized the line for this kind of thing before, but he keeps putting it back together, thinking it might one day change despite a large sample size of data to the contrary.
Tonight, the Tavares-Nylander duo was on for three against at five on five, zero for, and was way below water in their share of the unblocked shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals.
Lately, it is frustratingly simple with Nylander in terms of when he is going to have an on game and when he is going to have an off game. When he’s as urgent about getting pucks back as he is when charging through the neutral zone with the puck on his stick, he’s able to drive play, have the puck a lot, and win his minutes handily. When he’s not, his line tends to give up more than it generates at even strength.
6. There is too much skill between them for them not to have their moments of offensive brilliance, but I don’t think they’re really in sync off the rush or in the offensive zone:
William Nylander wants to loop around the net into the high slot versus supporting the puck on a down-low cycle that they can build off of with a potential give-and-go; John Tavares has no choice but to put the puck in a not-so-productive area.
Tavares looked much better when given a chance to play more of a down-low, in-tight skill game with Marner and Bunting; he looked so good, in fact, that it convinced me that the argument that he’s now more of a power-play guy with mediocre 5v5 ability is bunk, and he is simply on the wrong line in terms of the stylistic fit.
Is the Tavares-Nylander line a Tyler Motte or even an Andrew Copp away from working as a line, or does it require a more dramatic rethink? I certainly lean toward the latter, but I’m open to ideas.
7. There is no question this is an 11/10 first line and that the checking line is giving the Leafs a lot of 8 or 9/10 nights, but tonight, we saw familiar themes with the struggling second and fourth lines.
I think this is where a player like Motte (and I’d also submit Copp for Kyle Dubas’ consideration – though he’ll be more expensive) becomes a target of interest as an affordable option on the wing; he could play on either line (he’s spent some time with Horvat and Boeser this season) and give the Leafs solid energy minutes, a good defensive conscious, and a little bit of offensive contribution. With a couple of bad losses leading into the deadline, the Canucks should officially be in sell-mode.
8. It’s the old-as-time Ondrej Kase story: Plays and produces like a top-six forward, flatters to deceive as a potential impact player for his team, and then the injury hammer drops.
That’s now the second concussion scare this season for a player with a long history of head injuries. We saw what the Leafs did with Jake Muzzin after his second concussion of the season, so I am expecting them to take their time with this one as well. Hockey aside, let’s hope it’s not as bad as it looked, and that Kase is okay.
9. The penalty kill continued to be a major asset for the Leafs in this game in terms of generating momentum and creating a regular threat of shorthanded rush chances, but if you give the opposition enough opportunities on the power play, something will eventually go wrong against a good NHL team. Sure enough, a stick broke, Källgren lost track of the puck in tight, and the Leafs were facing a huge uphill battle at 4-2.
The Kyle Clifford penalty in the offensive zone (the second offensive-zone penalty of the game for the fourth line) in the third period was a killer; prior to, coming off of the power play to start the period, the Leafs were coming at Nashville in waves, shift after shift.
I know they have been winning games and the fourth line has been a little bit better lately, but I was surprised to see Clifford in the lineup for three in a row. He’s more of a spot-duty guy when the Leafs want a bit of a jolt on the fourth line from a hungry energy presence (i.e. after he has been sitting in the press box for a long time and is dying for the opportunity to run into some bodies on the other team after several weeks of practice action).
10. He gave up five in this one, but this was by far Erik Källgren’s most difficult game yet in terms of the quality of chances he faced. He made a lot of good saves along the way where I took a “remember that one!” mental note as the Leafs made their valiant push to come back. If he locates that puck on the 4-2 goal, I’m feeling pretty good about the Leafs’ odds of getting something out of this game, but there were no clearly weak goals and this loss certainly wasn’t on him.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts