Habs vs. Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada after a big deadline acquisition by the Maple Leafs. You can’t ask for any better than this.
Was it the picture-perfect victory some Leafs fans were probably envisioning? No, but it was a win, with a number of positives to draw from it.
Let’s get into it in the game in 10:
1. Let’s jump right into the line construction. Against a shallow — to put it nicely — Montreal Canadiens team, Sheldon Keefe decided to load up. It was interesting that it was John Tavares — not Ryan O’Reilly — who moved over to the wing, although perhaps it is not surprising as ROR has a track record as a strong defensive center that Tavares simply does not.
In order for this to really work, though, the third line — without any of the top players — has to be good. It’s also noteworthy that Noel Acciari played at center ice instead of on the wing. He’s the Leafs‘ only right-handed center right now.
2. Unsurprisingly, Ryan O’Reilly started the first shift of the game, and he almost scored right away. It would have been bedlam inside the arena. The entire shift was dominant, and it was followed up by a dominant shift by the Auston Matthews line. It is the kind of thing that the Leafs are looking for: the stringing together of dominant shifts from their top players.
The third line came on and created some offense, as did the fourth line. William Nylander, in particular, walked in and almost scored a potential highlight-reel goal, but he wasn’t able to place his backhand shot attempt where he wanted.
The Leafs were clearly charged up to start, but they were also very pass-happy and pushed perhaps a bit too hard to score at times. The Habs were credited with 13 shots on net and 10 scoring chances. Slice it any which way you’d like, but there’s no way the Leafs should give up that many chances against this Habs team at home in a big Saturday night game.
3. The Habs opened the scoring in this one as the Leafs were simply not that sharp to start the second period. Unlike in the first period when the ROR line started the period, the puck entered the Leafs’ zone, and it was a bit of an adventure as Morgan Rielly tried a breakout pass that didn’t work out. The Habs recovered the puck, passed it to the point, and put a shot through that Leafs killer Josh Anderson deflected in.
There wasn’t much Joseph Woll could do. TJ Brodie actually did a decent job on Anderson; the Habs forward just made a really good play. Really, the problem was the turnover.
4. The goal seemed to focus the Leafs a little bit. They made an immediate push.
During another shift where the ROR line was hemming the Habs in their own end, Mitch Marner was tripped up. The top power-play unit stayed the same, and ROR joined the second power-play unit with Calle Jarnkrok, Michael Bunting, Rasmus Sandin, and Pierre Engvall.
On this power play, the big boys went to work as Auston Matthews picked up a bobbled puck along the wall on a good far-side dump-in by Rasmus Sandin, weaved through traffic, and fed Bunting for a good backdoor one-timer goal.
5. After the goal, the Leafs returned to some sloppy play. The Habs went on three 2v1s in the second period, but a combination of the Habs’ lack of finishing talent and Joseph Woll‘s stellar play kept the score tied.
The Habs have burned the Leafs in transition all season long, and while they didn’t have the goals to show for it this time, they had the scoring chances. They created them when the game was very much in question due to a combination of lacking forward support and the Leafs’ defensemen getting stranded in no man’s land.
6. The Habs were playing some sloppy hockey, too, and the Leafs — being the way better team — took advantage.
Pierre Engvall, who had a really good game, got in on the forecheck and muscled Jordan Harris off the puck. David Kampf did really well to support the initial forecheck, which led to the turnover to Engvall in the slot, where he simply wristed a shot in tight on Jake Allen that squeezed through.
When Engvall plays as he did tonight, this lineup configuration can work. He was legitimately really good tonight. The problem is that this Habs team is terrible, and we can’t put too much stock into the game.
Engvall has a poor playoff track record that we can’t ignore at this point. He’s certainly capable, though, as he showed tonight. He drove the third line and scored his 12th goal of the season.
Engvall stated before the season that he wanted to hit 20 — that looks just a little off — but he’s capable of heating up, so I won’t say that he has no chance whatsoever.
7. Five minutes later, Ryan O’Reilly picked up his first point as a Leaf. It exhibited a number of things he does really well — in particular, handling the puck in tight spaces along the wall, stickhandling through traffic, and finding open players.
In this case, O’Reilly took the pass along the boards on a power-play breakout (the power play expired as they went up ice) before feeding a beautiful pass off the rush to Calle Jarnkrok, who was wide open up top. Jarnkrok made the right read and found Michael Bunting for a one-timer goal that he hammered home, shooting it cross-body on Jake Allen as he was sliding over.
Reduckulous, amirite 😳 pic.twitter.com/M7pRU1y5tB
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 19, 2023
That’s now 18 goals on the season for Bunting. Last season, he scored 23 goals, and he’s on pace to surpass that now. It was nice to see the second power-play unit contribute, and they were rewarded by starting the next power play, which has also been rare around these parts for years.
8. For all intents and purposes, the game was over after the Leafs went up 3-1. It felt completely decided as the Leafs really started to control play and finally started limiting the Habs as well.
In the third period, the Leafs made sure to leave no doubt right away.
Auston Matthews bullied Johnathan Kovacevic behind the goal line to win the puck and came out with it by using his body to win positioning before pulling the puck through and finding William Nylander at the backdoor for an easy goal.
Nylander deserved a goal in the game; he had a number of high-end chances and put five shots on net. That gives him 31 goals on the season, three away from his career-high of 34 from last season. Needless to say, there’s a very good chance he surpasses that mark.
9. In recent history, the Leafs’ bottom six looked terrible against bottom-feeding teams. With their newfound depth, it was not the case in this one.
Pierre Engvall scored, Noel Acciari led the team with six shots on net (and five hits!), and every Leafs forward played between 12:03 (ZAR) and 18:03 (Mitch Marner) on the night.
Acciari, by the way, put together a really nice debut. He was very noticeable on the ice if that wasn’t already obvious from his six-shot, five-hit game.
The Leafs simply rolled four good lines that were all able to contribute. They punctuated it with David Kampf scoring the fifth goal.
The third line was putting together another shift in the offensive zone when Calle Jarnkrok passed it up to Engvall on the point (who was up there because Holl cut low to the front of the net). Engvall passed it across to Rasmus Sandin, who gave it right back, and Engvall put a shot for a rebound on net. Kampf easily tapped home the rebound.
10. It won’t receive much attention because all the eyes are on Ryan O’Reilly — who is still clearly very good, for all the very random talk about his 19 points and -24 with St. Louis this season. But Noel Acciari is breath of fresh air. He was noticeable tonight and gave them a fourth line that was actually effective for once — plus, the third line looked good as well.
The regular first line played as they usually do — they were dangerous and effective — but Joseph Woll was quite good in this one.
The Canadiens put 30 shots on net; among them, there were a number of odd-man rushes as the Leafs were sloppy at times through the first two periods (they really shut it down in the third period, though — the Habs had nothing). Woll was very steady.
The Columbus game was tough for everyone involved, and the response game was a Saturday night game with a lot of attention on the team given the big trade. He did really well in a situation where bad goaltending easily could have blown the game up, especially when the Leafs fell behind to start the second period.