Pity all of us East coasters who stayed up to watch this.
A 38.4% share of expected goals while chasing the game for most of the night makes for the Leafs‘ worst performance in a losing effort by that metric since the beginning of the Canadian division season (a 4-3 loss to Edmonton in January of 2021).
Your game in 10:
1. The tone was set for a major stinker early on in this one. The Maple Leafs gave up clear-cut chances in behind their defense to Chandler Stephenson (who beat Rasmus Sandin) and Jack Eichel inside the first couple of minutes before Pierre Engvall, fresh off a healthy scratch, jumped over the boards early and right into the middle of the play for a too-many-men penalty.
On the ensuing penalty kill, Morgan Rielly took off hoping for an offensive rush as a loose-puck battle was still being contested in the defensive zone, and it backfired when the Leafs lost the battle, leading to an easy back-door goal for Phil Kessel.
The Leafs’ video coaches pulled off a shrewd challenge on a review that took six minutes to figure out, making us all wonder yet again what the league is trying to accomplish here while reminding us how badly they’ve overcompensated for the one time Matt Duchene was 20 feet offside for a goal against Nashville. It was a smart challenge by the Leafs, although it negated Phil Kessel’s 400th goal in his record-tying 989th consecutive game, hammering home even further how much these Zapruder-style offside reviews suck the will to live out of everyone watching.
The Leafs responded to a new lease on their bad start to the game by conceding anyway in the remaining seconds of the Vegas power play on a scramble created by a Kessel shot from the right circle. It was easy to overlook, but the play probably never happens if Mitch Marner gets the puck in deep in the neutral zone shortly beforehand.
2. The Leafs responded to the goal against by getting largely outplayed for the first 10 minutes of the game, throwing pucks away with reckless abandon. Bruce Cassidy stressed the importance before the game of taking away the neural zone against the Leafs, and the Leafs for their part fed right into it too often. It felt like the season opener in Montreal repeated — only worse this time and against a better team — in terms of the sloppy puck management feeding the transition game of the other team.
There was a stubbornness to adjust to Vegas’ neutral zone defense by flipping a puck in behind (the big and skilled but not especially fast) Vegas defense, retrieving it back, and creating offense from the goal line out in the offensive zone. The Leafs were frequently banging their heads against the wall by forcing pucks into bad spots.
3. There were a few no-hope, stretch-pass-for-a-tip-in-with-the-forwards-standing-still plays. There was another example of poor decision-making from Pierre Engvall with a little over nine minutes to go in the first; coming off of a healthy scratch, a simple lunchpail kind of game is usually the best approach, but instead of flipping a puck in behind Brayden McNabb for a streaking Calle Järnkrok to retrieve, he forced a play that led to a turnover and an offside.
None of the Leafs’ defensemen looked good in the opening period or in the game at large, and it was in part because of the poor puck management that had Vegas flying down at them in transition with the forwards caught up ice following turnovers (not that the questionable decision-making by Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie or Justin Holl’s turnovers and general clumsiness in this one helped matters).
The Leafs did come to life later in the first period, including one of the best shifts of the season from the top line, which was buzzing and buzzing for over a minute and a half straight, and it was only a Logan Thompson circus save that prevented Auston Matthews from breaking his slump and tying the game at 1-1 before the intermission.
Matthews came that close to tying it
what an effort from Logan Thompson pic.twitter.com/SXDaT10cGM
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 25, 2022
4. After a reset and a chance to put their heads together at the intermission, the Leafs came out and conceded a breakaway to Chandler Stephenson within 10 seconds that Ilya Samsonov again bailed his team out on. Morgan Rielly seemed to space out, pulling himself out of position by stepping up in the neutral zone after the puck turned over off the draw.
The second line had been earning the right to start for the opening of periods with consistently effective 5v5 play — including in Winnipeg — but it was bizarre how Sheldon Keefe did not adjust to the disastrous starts from this line and particularly the Rielly – Brodie defense pairing in this game, trotting them out again to start the third period for one of the worst shifts we’ll see from the Leafs all season to begin the final frame.
It started with Jack Eichel in alone after a wild Rielly pinch, Roberston getting beat up ice, and Brodie getting danced 1v1. Brodie then broke his stick and started running up the boards trying to win puck battles with his feet as Rielly watched, leading to Mark Stone breaking in alone. There was then a wide-open backdoor pass play that somehow didn’t go in while Brodie fetched a stick from the bench. A lost battle in front by Tavares finally led to the fully-deserved 2-1 Vegas goal off of a rebound.
Shots were 6-0 Vegas to start the first period, 8-2 Vegas to start the second period, and 5-0 Vegas to start the third period. They managed to tie it up in the second period thanks to a quick strike from John Tavares and William Nylander, but this was not a serious or prepared effort from the Leafs tonight.
5. It was a serious effort from Ilya Samsonov. The way Samsonov measured up to the test of his first “hung out to dry” game as a Leaf with how he kept battling to keep his team in the game was the major bright spot of note tonight. He faced a ton of grade-A+, free-and-clear-behind-the-defense chances in this one and somehow only gave up three goals. He stayed in the battle on many goalmouth scrambles where second and third saves were needed.
It goes down as his first loss as a Leaf, but it was actually his most impressive effort of the five starts. Unfortunately, there was hardly any reciprocation from the Leaf skaters in front of him.
6. More junior hockey-level decision-making/awareness from the Maple Leafs led to the back-breaking 3-1 goal for Vegas. With his D partner and two of the Leafs’ forwards scrambling for a quick change after a clearance to the neutral zone, Victor Mete played it completely wrong by chasing Nic Hague on the wall instead of defending the middle ice, leaving Michael Amadio alone in acres of space in the slot. A tired Michael Bunting providing little resistance against Hague as he turned up ice in the neutral zone didn’t help matters, either. Way too easy for Vegas there.
7. I hate to pick on Pierre Engvall on a night full of under-performances, but man, what an ugly game in response to a healthy scratch. I thought he had some jump on a few shifts in the first period, but there was the too-many-men call, a few turnovers, some hopeless tossing of pucks toward the net for possession changes, a failure to finish checks (if Auston Matthews is finishing them right now, why can’t he?), and then a brain-dead icing with nine and a half minutes to go in the third period after which the broadcast showed Sheldon Keefe visibly lamenting Engvall’s decision (and maybe even his own to reinsert Engvall into the lineup).
Keefe said the following of Engvall’s scratch the other night in Winnipeg: “I think he has looked tentative and hesitant to skate. That is his number one asset — to move his feet with and without the puck to get involved. He hasn’t done that here quite yet.” On that icing call, Engvall had a bunch of free ice in front of him to skate into and tossed the puck away. You could see Keefe shaking his head and exclaiming, “SKATE!” afterward. Would it be totally shocking if he sat Engvall right back down on Thursday?
Engvall put together a nice season last year and can be a valuable asset with the length, speed, and shot he can provide on a checking line — and on the PK — when his head isn’t lost in the clouds. What a rough start to the season this has been following the missed camp time, though.
8. We saw Sheldon Keefe try out the four-forwards-at-five-on-five look late in this game on an offensive-zone faceoff, allowing him to put all of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly on the ice at once. It didn’t lead to much other than a lost faceoff this time, though.
9. The Leafs had a late chance to try to salvage something out of this game thanks to a power play creating a 6-on-4 situation in which they spent most of the two minutes in the zone. We saw a lot of Auston Matthews teeing off from the top of the umbrella, which I actually didn’t hate given we’ve seen plenty of him circling up on the halfwall and passing it off without a lane to shoot through. We saw Matthews create a goal (via a John Tavares tip) from this area of the ice versus Winnipeg. There were a couple of plays into the middle where the Leafs just couldn’t connect, a puck was fanned on, or Logan Thompson stood firm against a jam play. It was not the worst effort, but definitely too little, too late.
10. While Auston Matthews really should have scored late in the first period, Matthews and Mitch Marner remain stuck at one goal apiece through seven games. Their relentless first-period shift was a reminder of the type of ice-tilting, all-around-the-net dominance we would see from them regularly last season, but it hasn’t been as prominent so far in the early going of 2022-23.
The argument for splitting them up is always a tough one to write down on paper — they’re liable to go off for 10 goals in the next five games and make you look stupid — but that’s kind of beside the point. There is going to be a time in the playoffs when these two hit a similar dry spell together — as we have seen late in series multiple times — and there has to be some dependable backup options at Keefe’s disposal. The regular season should be more than just a dress rehearsal with a, “we’ll figure it out when we get there,” contingency plan for the most important line on the team (i.e. the one centered by Matthews).
To Keefe’s credit, we’ve seen a willingness to switch things up down the lineup with Engvall in and out, Robertson in for Malgin, and an active fourth-line rotation (which likely continues on Thursday). I don’t see why this line should be an exception right now, and I don’t see how there will ever be a better time to justify it to the players involved while not feeling like you’re shooting yourself in the foot and leaving points on the table in the name of experimentation. He could leave them together and Matthews’ 3% shooting percentage (how is that even possible?) will obviously normalize soon, but in a weird way, it almost seems like a missed opportunity not to try it.
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts