No Tavares, no Liljegren, no Campbell, no Muzzin, no Bunting, no Kase, and no Sandin? No problem (sort of).
The Leafs staged a two-goal comeback in the second half of the third period before picking up a win in a seven-round shootout. Alex Kerfoot played the hero in the skills competition, while Erik Källgren stopped six of seven Washington attempts.
Sheldon Keefe’s line blender was out in full force tonight. Nick Abruzzese started on the top line, the Mark Giordano – TJ Brodie pairing was reunited from their Calgary days, and Carl Dahlstrom drew in for the third time this season. While the Leafs started with different combinations, the most common lines I saw were:
- Nylander – Matthews – Marner
- Engvall – Kerfoot – Abruzzese
- Mikheyev – Kampf – Blackwell
- Clifford- Spezza – Simmonds
Your game in 10:
1. Despite the absence of John Tavares, this game was quite even through the opening 40 minutes. Both teams exchanged even-strength goals in the first and both had a power-play goal overturned by video review in the second. The Capitals had the edge in terms of both shots on goal and expected goals, but these were two low-event periods by the Leafs‘ standards.
The third got off to a terrible start, as an Alex Kerfoot turnover led to a breakaway for none other than Alex Ovechkin. Erik Källgren bailed his team out on that chance, but Lars Eller deflected the puck in a minute later to give Washington the lead.
The goal light was on again 68 seconds later when Marcus Johansson took advantage of a nice set-up from Conor Sheary. Down two goals with a flat offensive performance in the first 50 minutes, it sure felt like the Leafs were headed towards a regulation loss.
2. Ilya Mikheyev started the comeback and was excellent all night. Just like their previous game against Washington earlier this month, both Ilya Lyubushkin and Mikheyev found the back of the net. Mikheyev’s goal put the Leafs within one with just over seven minutes left in regulation, but the Leafs couldn’t capitalize on a late-game power play.
The lack of forward depth was evident in the final minutes as Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds, and Nick Abruzzese continued to take regular shifts with the team in need of a goal. However, with the goalie pulled and just 58 seconds remaining, Jason Spezza tied the game while out on the ice with Toronto’s stars:
JASON SPEZZA ?
ENTER SAGE MODE! TIE GAME! 57 SECONDS LEFT pic.twitter.com/OA7W3nXIb7
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 25, 2022
It was a well-deserved goal for Spezza, whose power-play goal was called back earlier in the game due to an offside challenge. Abruzzese would have earned his first career NHL point here:
No goal but this was a great pass by Abruzzese and a snipe by Spezza pic.twitter.com/OhjY2mGOxb
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) April 25, 2022
3. The Leafs dominated control of the puck to start overtime, but both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner couldn’t beat Vitek Vanecek despite great chances to do so. With just under two minutes left, the Leafs were called for a too-many-men on the ice penalty after William Nylander jumped out a tad early in an attempt to break up a two-on-one.
Källgren stood tall to bring this game to a shootout, but he was beaten blocker side by Evgeny Kuznetsov, the first shooter he faced.
Jason Spezza shot first for the Leafs and beat Vanecek to the blocker side with a gorgeous move:
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 25, 2022
Källgren was perfect from there on out, stopping Nick Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha, John Carlson, Marcus Johansson, and Trevor van Riemsdyk. He gave Leafs shooter after Leafs shooter an opportunity to win the game before Alex Kerfoot finally took him up on the offer in the seventh round:
ALEXANDER KERFOOT ENDS IT pic.twitter.com/79wkz8b8MC
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 25, 2022
4. With Michael Bunting injured and John Tavares getting the night off, the Leafs did not have a ton of scoring depth in this game on paper. Rookie forward Nick Abruzzese started on the top line with Matthews and Mitch Marner but was quickly replaced by William Nylander. Ilya Mikheyev even took a turn on the top line in the third, so it’s not clear who will replace Bunting on the top line if he misses playoff games.
The Matthews line was rather quiet tonight, and without Tavares behind him, the Leafs didn’t look overly dangerous offensively for much of the game, albeit in a tired situation with a long road trip the night before.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of playing Nylander with Marner. Nylander’s a great puck carrier, and I feel like other lines need his skillset more than Matthews and Marner do. I don’t mind experimenting at this point in the season, but I’m not sure that’s what I’d go with in the playoffs. The Leafs had just 31% of the five-on-five expected goals when Matthews was on the ice (he’s now gone five consecutive games without a goal).
Unfortunately, I’m not in love with any of the left-wing options for that line now that Bunting is out, but I suppose I’d try Mikheyev or Pierre Engvall there and use their size and speed to try to mimic Zach Hyman on the forecheck. Perhaps Colin Blackwell could receive a shot there as well.
With no clear option available, it’s a real concern at the moment. We’ll see if Keefe goes back to Nylander – Matthews – Marner next game, but it wasn’t a strong audition.
5. Erik Källgren was searching for a bounce-back performance after surrendering eight goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday and four goals against both Ottawa and Buffalo. He got off to a good start in the opening 20 minutes, saving 12 of 13 and allowing one on a perfectly-placed shot from T.J. Oshie.
Källgren only faced two shots in the first half of the second period, but the Capitals picked up their game late and he allowed what looked to be a power-play goal with one minute remaining in the frame. The goal ended up disallowed due to a hand-pass seconds earlier, but it was a deflection in front, so he wasn’t overly responsible for the goal to begin with.
All three of Washington’s goals weren’t really on Källgren. Lars Eller was left all alone in front of the net to deflect the puck in, while Johansson’s goal was nicely taken. In stopping 34 of 37, I don’t think Jack Campbell or almost any other goalie would have done any better.
Add in the fact that Källgren saved six of seven in the shootout, and it’s easy to call this a strong bounce-back performance from the young goalie at an important time of year to get both goalies in a confident mindset.
6. David Kampf‘s group was Toronto’s only line that finished above water in terms of five-on-five expected goals percentage tonight. Ilya Mikheyev played on the left and brought his usual speed and defensive play to the table while adding a goal in the process. Colin Blackwell jumped up from the fourth line and played on the right side, where he looked good.
Blackwell regularly matched up against top competition on Seattle with Yanni Gourde as his most common linemate. He’s spent most of his time as the fourth-line center in Toronto, but the results haven’t been great, and I think he’s probably better off on the wing.
Of course, you could probably say the same about Jason Spezza and Alex Kerfoot, so someone is going to have to play up the middle. With plenty of options on the right side, Keefe could go with a different third-line winger come playoff time, but pairing Blackwell with Mikheyev and Kampf at least looked like a reasonable option.
7. Pierre Engvall looked like his usual self, but his line with Alex Kerfoot and Nick Abruzzese wasn’t good tonight. Abruzzese doesn’t bring any size or speed to the table, and while he deserved an assist, I’d be shocked if he played in a playoff game.
Engvall made a nice play on the disallowed goal; he tied up his opponent’s stick, which allowed Abruzzese’s pass to make it to Spezza. Kerfoot had a few rough moments — his awful turnover at center ice gave one of the game’s best goal-scorers a clear breakaway — but he made up for it in the shootout.
The fourth line is a bit of a problem. Entering tonight’s game, the Leafs owned just under 41% of the five-on-five expected goals when Colin Blackwell or Kyle Clifford have been on the ice together. They’ve been getting outplayed over a fairly large sample.
Tonight, the team went with a “veteran-heavy” group of Clifford, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds. To be clear, I have no problem with playing this line in a rather meaningless game — especially with Tom Wilson on the other side — but this line probably won’t cut it come playoff time.
They weren’t terrible tonight — they played low-event hockey — but they were close to a complete zero offensively at five-on-five. Spezza made a strong case that he should stay in the lineup, but none of his standout moments were at five-on-five. If this is the fourth line in game one of the playoffs, I’ll have serious questions.
8. Much like their forward lines, Toronto’s defense pairings were rather unusual tonight. With Timothy Liljegren given the night off for “bumps and bruises,” Keefe reunited Mark Giordano with a familiar face in T.J. Brodie. Carl Dahlstrom drew into his third game and played with Justin Holl, while Morgan Rielly remained with Ilya Lyubushkin.
Giordano was the only defender who finished above water in terms of expected goals percentage, but the pairing was on for two goals against. Dahlstrom made a nice play to set up Ilya Mikheyev with a good chance, but he and Holl were fairly unnoticeable (which isn’t really a bad thing).
Rielly was quiet by his standards, while Lyubushkin had a bit of a rollercoaster game. He committed a bad giveaway in the opening minutes, took a penalty and got away with another, and scored his third career goal as well. Ultimately, I’m ready for Liljegren and Jake Muzzin to draw back in.
9. Given how close we are to the start of the playoffs, whether the team wins or loses these final games is secondary right now. The most important thing, by a wide margin, is that no one gets injured.
Mikheyev appeared to injure his hand after a collision with Ovechkin, but he didn’t end up missing a shift. Given how effective Mikheyev has been as of late, his return to the game was a big sigh of relief.
Alex Ovechkin wasn’t so fortunate. He tripped over Källgren’s stick during his third-period breakaway attempt and crashed hard into the boards. He did not return to the game, although the Capitals may have just been playing it safe given that they’ve already clinched a playoff spot.
Ovechkin went into the boards after getting tripped up with the stick while Källgren tried to stop him pic.twitter.com/YXl1lfQPdF
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 25, 2022
I was glad to see that the Leafs gave John Tavares the night off. I’d be fine with giving all of their star players at least one game off out of the final two.
10. Last but not least, scoreboard watching is perhaps equally as important as the game itself at this time of year. Tampa Bay beat Florida 8-4 while Boston downed Montreal 5-3.
The Lightning’s lead over the Bruins continues to sit at three points with just three games to go for each team. Given that Tampa play Columbus twice and the New York Islanders once, it’s tough to envision the Bruins catching them at this point.
It’s becoming more and more likely that the Leafs will play the Lightning in the first round. Tampa hasn’t lost a playoff series since April of 2019 and have back-to-back Stanley Cups to show for it. They’ve scored six or more goals in four of their past five games.
The Leafs will have their hands full and then some, but it should be one hell of a fun and eventful series.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts