After scraping out a point against the Sharks tonight, the Maple Leafs have now collected just one out of the six points on offer against Arizona, Montreal, and San Jose, all of whom figure to be in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes in April.
While the Boston Bruins have rattled off seven wins in their opening eight games, so far this is not a Leafs team that’s come out of the gates ready to make a statement about its intention to reach new heights in the regular season, nor is it one that’s playing like the current favourite to win the Atlantic Division (which should be the expectation for this group). But it is early.
Your game in 10:
1. Sheldon Keefe had been giving the starts to periods on the road trip so far to the John Tavares and William Nylander line, oftentimes with the Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie pairing on defense. He stuck by it three times in Vegas despite each period starting miserably for the Leafs. Tonight, he switched it up and started the Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line with the Rasmus Sandin – Justin Holl pairing.
The results were similarly disastrous. Despite an early icing by the Sharks, San Jose scored 25 seconds in off of a lost puck battle on a pinch by Sandin, a clumsy puck race by Holl, and an unassertive backcheck by Matthews, who got beat up the ice and was going through the motions rather than hustling to stay above/with his man in the eventual goal scorer, Logan Couture.
2. The Leafs did tie it back up fairly quickly in the first period tonight via David Kampf, who came over the boards for Auston Matthews and capitalized on a nice set-up play by Mitch Marner and Alex Kerfoot. However, they have now been outscored 8-4 in first periods and have conceded the first goal in six out of the eight games (in one of the two games in which they scored first, they conceded two goals quickly and trailed after 20 minutes).
So far, that’s a major departure from last season when the first period was their best period by a large margin with a +30 goal differential in the opening 20 minutes of games (95 for, 65 against). They’re not playing with the lead anywhere near enough due to their slow starts, which only feeds into the struggles offensively at 5v5 as opponents are not chasing the game against them as frequently as they should be (with all it entails in terms of opening the game up).
Three of the Leafs‘ four wins have come off of late winners in tight games either in the third period (Ottawa, Washington) or overtime (Dallas), and they conceded the first goal in two of those games. As mentioned, even after they scored first against the Capitals, they led for all of a couple of minutes before Washington scored twice and held the lead after the opening 20.
3. Just after the midway point of the first period, Erik Karlsson should have scored to make it 2-1 — they were saved by last-ditch Mark Giordano shot block — on a backdoor play where William Nylander and John Tavares turned it over on a rush and were late getting back to the defensive zone. On a 4v3 rush for the Sharks, the trailer on the play was able to complete a backdoor pass through a big gap in the Leafs’ defensive zone coverage, with Tavares and Nylander eventually reappearing in the frame after coasting back.
That’s a couple of examples of the top two lines not checking back hard enough early in this game. Those lines should’ve been hungrier and more detail-oriented to start the night after the letdown in Vegas — and especially on the first shift knowing how poorly they started each period in Vegas.
4. The Leafs’ new bottom six was showing some signs of life in the first period, specifically the new fourth line of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kampf, and Pierre Engvall (as well as a few good shifts/looks for Michael Bunting). In a period with zero PK time and one Leafs power play, Kampf finished up the first period at 6:01 in time on ice, just 30 seconds less than Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Engvall and Aston-Reese were at 5:02; that put them right there with the Tavares line as the second most played line in the opening period. Keefe liked the offensive-zone shifts he was getting out of this fourth line to the point where he rewarded them by sending them out to start the middle frame.
The team falling behind multiple goals, though, resulted in their minutes dropping off the rest of the way — and there were a few frustrating moments from Engvall again in this one, including an instance near the midway point in the third period where the fourth line was out for a key defensive-zone draw against the Logan Couture line, Kampf lost the faceoff, and Engvall allowed Erik Karlsson to walk around him off of the point to set up a scoring chance in the slot.
Engvall has often looked confused and uncomfortable when asked to play his off-wing — not just in the defensive zone without the puck but also with the puck. Rather than gathering a head of steam through the neutral zone, there was a clear example on that first shift of the second period where he fumbled around with the puck after taking a pass from TJ Brodie and circled back instead (he defaults to this a lot anyway, but I think it’s worse on his off wing).
5. Bizarrely, through eight games, David Kampf is now leading the team in 5v5 goals with three after his 1-1 goal in the first period. There is nothing glamorous about him, but you can’t help but appreciate Kampf’s discipline around always playing “within himself” out there — he never cheats, is always in the right position, and when he does sniff an opportunity to get on the end of a puck offensively with a sight of goal, he doesn’t try to get too fancy with it in terms of making an extra move/pass or picking corners. He often just gets the shot off quickly and shoots for holes in goalies, and he has had a fair bit of success at it since arriving in Toronto.
Including his two goals in the playoffs, Kampf has 16 goals on just 119 shots over his 97 games as a Leaf — a 13.4% shooting percentage.
6. The Sharks made this a 3-1 game in the second period inside a minute and change on a full two-minute two-man advantage. The double-penalty came off of a neutral-zone turnover following the end of a Leafs power play; TJ Brodie hopped on the ice and skated to the far blue line for a stretch pass from Rasmus Sandin that the Sharks easily broke up for a break the other way.
The best chance against a 5-on-3 usually starts with winning the initial draw and dumping it down the ice, but Justin Holl blew an initial clearance opportunity off of the draw to start that kill. That said, the Leafs were obviously in very tough there. A well-executed 5-on-3 goal on a full two-minute two-man disadvantage is something which you typically have to take your medicine and move on from.
However, the second Sharks power-play goal at 5v4 looked like it was a tipping drill in practice for Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl in front of the net with how unimpeded they were and also how open the lane in the middle of the ice was for Logan Couture to shoot through. It seemed far too easy there.
Of course, it’s maybe a totally different story as well if Alex Kerfoot doesn’t bobble the puck on a clear breakaway just beforehand. Just frustrating to watch all around there.
7. The Leafs put themselves in a position to drop points in this game with a particularly poor second period against the worst second-period team in the league entering the game. The Leafs had recorded only 11 shots through 34-35 minutes of the game and were trailing in offensive-zone possession time. The Sharks took 10 of the first 12 shots of the period — some of that is due to the power plays, but they also attempted 16 shots to the Leafs’ eight at 5v5.
The Sharks probably deserved to finish the period up 4-1 on the merits, but a boneheaded turnover by Timo Meier was a bit of a gift that allowed the Leafs to break on an odd-man rush inside the final seconds of the period and make it 3-2 via Mitch Marner.
It’s obviously true that this is essentially a game about limiting your own mistakes while capitalizing on the other team’s, but the power-play goal was also off of a delay-of-game penalty by Erik Karlsson, so the Leafs needed a few gifts, frankly, to even get a point out of this one — or at least, the comeback didn’t really come through tilting the ice at even strength and actually dominating the game.
As mentioned, the Leafs lost the long-change period handily, with their D bogged down pretty routinely by the Sharks’ forecheck and stuck out there for some long shifts. The Rielly-Brodie pairing had three 5v5 shifts over 1:10 in the second period alone. Justin Holl, who has definitely struggled to get the puck moving quickly and cleanly in these past couple of games, was also on for three shifts longer than 1:10 in that second period, including two in the 1:40 range.
Overall, it’s two games in a row that were not particularly strong ones from the Leafs’ defense core as a whole in terms of getting the puck moving north efficiently, and in addition to some disconnects between the forwards and defense, it’s looked like a team executing at a fairly slow pace at times, especially relative to their standard from past seasons.
9. Victor Mete generally does execute plays with the puck quickly and efficiently — and actively jumps up to push the pace on offense with his elite skating ability — but the issue is he has been letting forwards in behind him with regularity these past two games.
Similar to the 3-1 goal against Vegas, there were a couple of terrible angles taken by Mete in this game when attempting to defend a forward cutting in on him off of the wall. Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl beat him for clean looks at the net.
There happened to be a future Hall of Fame defenseman on the other team tonight that is liable to get beat a few times per game like that as well, but if that is happening defensively, you have to be generating a lot more the other way for your team in order to be trusted as a night-in, night-out NHL contributor. Mete finished with 12:09 in time on ice tonight.
10. As for the new lines, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Michael Bunting return to the top unit on Saturday in LA. The third line experiment did not pop particularly — Bunting responded well to his demotion in the first period by creating a few chances, and they did generate some o-zone time, but there wasn’t much noteworthy from Denis Malgin in just over 10 minutes of TOI or from Calle Jarnkrok in just over 11 minutes of TOI. Järnkrok also lost four of his five faceoffs in his first game for the Leafs at center ice. But we’ll find out if Keefe wants to give this line more run based on the practice lines on Friday.
Keefe may have seen enough promising passages of play from the Zach Aston-Reese – David Kampf – Pierre Engvall fourth line to stick by it for another game at least, although as mentioned, Engvall should not play his off-wing in an ideal world.
The obvious silver lining in this game is the fact that Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews can breathe sighs of relief having both scored — the former at 5v5 on the odd-man-rush passing play late in the second period, and the latter on the power play from the top of the umbrella. I wrote earlier this week that I don’t mind what they are doing there to open some shooting lanes for Matthews to pound pucks at the net; so far, it’s led to a tip goal for Tavares in Winnipeg and a cannon of a one-timer goal for Matthews tonight in San Jose. The whole point is to be fluid and interchangeable with the roles on the power play to keep the PK units guessing, so it’s not like he will be permanently stationed there throughout every power play, but it’s a nice wrinkle that’s paid off this week.
No question, those two getting back on track is the single most important thing when it comes to rediscovering the offensive form that has thus far eluded the league’s second-most prolific offensive club from last season. A lot of problems start to disappear — or at least seem much less cataclysmic — the moment these two are dominating again at 5v5.
Lastly, coming off of the Vegas loss, it was a little odd to see Ilya Samsonov sitting out tonight when he has been rolling, and — rest-wise — there is a back-to-back this weekend that will give him Sunday to Wednesday off anyway. That said, it was reported he is a little under the weather on this road trip.
Still, with backups in both nets and coming off of a clunker of a performance on Monday, much more was expected of the Leafs tonight.
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts