Easton Cowan stole the show in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators in the second game of preseason.
The Maple Leafs found themselves in a 2-0 hole just as they did the day before in Ottawa. This time, the first blood was drawn just a few shifts into the game when the Leafs won a defensive-zone faceoff and Topi Niemela didn’t get enough air under his flip toward the neutral zone. It was easily intercepted and turned into a bang-bang passing play that gave Joseph Woll no chance. Five minutes later, a seeing-eye point shot beat an unsighted Woll with the Leafs’ top line on the ice after a missed clearance opportunity.
The Leafs found a response around the midway point of the period. Easton Cowan made his mark early and often in this game; after getting in behind the Senators defense for a breakaway leading to a penalty-shot opportunity that he couldn’t convert, he took advantage of his next opportunity in the bumper spot on the power play off a down-low centering pass from Noah Gregor to make it 2-1.
A late Jakob Chychrun power-play goal put the Leafs down two again after 20 minutes, but they pushed hard in the final 40 minutes — out-possessing, outshooting, and outchancing Ottawa in the final two periods — and kept chipping away at the lead despite stiff resistance in the Senators net from goaltender Mads Sogaard. Joseph Blandisi brought the game within one after a sharp tip in the high slot from Cowan knocked the puck down into Blandisi’s skates for a tip-in at the front of the net.
Cowan continued to impress late on, earning the Leafs a power play in the final 30 seconds of the game, which was cashed in on by Mitch Marner in tight to the net with just four seconds remaining after John Klingberg pounded it to the net and Bertuzzi bumped the rebound to Marner at the back post. Chychrun ended it for Ottawa in the 3-on-3 OT, but it was a good push from the Buds despite the early deficit, with plenty of positives to take out of the performances.
Post Game Notes
– How do you not start with Easton Cowan? Sheldon Keefe set the table nicely for Cowan by giving him the first shift of the game in his first-ever NHL (preseason) appearance as if to say, “Get after it kid,” and the kid sure got after it.
Cowan played with pace and urgency, bringing a direct and honest game over the full 60 minutes that belied his experience level. He wasn’t afraid to challenge defenders and go hard to the net. He scored a goal, picked up an assist, and earned the power play leading to the game-tying goal late in regulation when Keefe rewarded him as the extra skater at 6-on-4. He had a great rubout when backchecking on the power play just before his goal at the other end as well. There was the odd play where he tried to make something happen at the line and it didn’t work out, but he was admirably fearless and highly effective in his first NHL (preseason) game.
Typically, the recent draft picks head back to junior early in preseason so as not to disrupt their junior seasons too much, but this was such an impressive showing that Cowan has certainly earned an additional game or two, at the absolute minimum. If the performance didn’t tell you this kid doesn’t mess around, the post-game interview certainly did:
Easton Cowan says he will NOT be keeping the puck from his goal tonight.
“It doesn’t matter. We lost”@TheHockeyNews
— Mike Stephens (@mikeystephens81) September 26, 2023
– The Leafs’ top line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews couldn’t quite connect for most of the night at five on five — a hair off here or there on their passing, or a bobbled puck that killed a play — but this is going to be a fun combination that has all the complementary elements present. They did nearly work a perfect bang-bang passing play on the power play that Matthews shot back into the goalie late in the game, and then Marner finally broke through right at the end of regulation with Bertuzzi performing the dirty work in front to shovel it over to him.
It’s hard not to picture Bertuzzi feasting as the net-front banger for the elite skill around him, just as the Buntings and Hymans have before him, but his skill level is an upgrade on Bunting’s as well as his additional strength on the puck (hopefully, also less of the diving that draws the ire of officials around the league).
– The Leafs’ fourth line of Noah Gregor, David Kampf, and Ryan Reaves grew into the game after a shaky start and created some sustained offensive-zone shifts and multiple scoring opportunities. They ended up in the red with the one goal against at five on five, but they did end the game leading the regular forward lines in shot attempt percentage. If you were looking for signs that Gregor can help add pace and puck-handling abilities to that line to go along with some jam, he looked up to the task tonight.
– Nick Robertson came out like he was shot out of a cannon in this game, which you’re hoping to see after a long layoff but is no guarantee. Dipping the toe in after so much time off — especially knowing serious injuries have sidetracked him season after season — would be understandable, but it’s clearly not in Robertson’s DNA. He was flying and battling hard tonight. He challenged the Senators defense multiple times off the rush, including a breakaway where he jammed up Chychrun along the boards and broke in all alone.
It was a “don’t forget about me” performance from Robertson, but he is facing stiff competition in order to make it out of camp. It’s healthy competition for the organization to have Robertson and Cowan pushing the likes of Knies and Gregor to really earn their spots. The depth up front is in a clearly improved position over last year with the FA additions on the wings plus the internal growth.
– Analyzing veterans in the presence is a waste of time, but it is true that the last time we saw Mark Giordano, he was seeing under 10 minutes of ice time and seemed unplayable in the playoffs. He looked refreshed out there tonight, moving well (including a nice shot fake + walk along the line in the first period) and snapping pucks around nicely, in addition to his usual balls-to-the-wall mentality when it comes to battling and throwing himself in shot lanes.
– It was an eventful game for John Klingberg with one assist, eight shots on goal, and a penalty. We saw the dynamic the right-handed shot can add to the power play with the one-timer originating from that side of the ice leading to the tying goal.
Guy Boucher wants to create maximum net-front chaos on the man advantage, and the Leafs want more dirty offense in all game states but particularly at five-on-five. Part of that is pounding more pucks from the point, where the Leafs have generated a shockingly low number of shots in the playoffs over the past several years based on the data.
Klingberg created some plays, a bunch of shots on goal, and also had his missteps tonight; he needs his confidence built back up, and there is a feeling-out phase underway here for the coaching staff. It also remains to be seen if he is really an appropriate fit next to Jake McCabe. But there is no doubt the Leafs need this element in their blue-line mix provided they can find the appropriate usage and tighten the screws some on his giveaways and loose defensive play.
Sheldon Keefe Post Game: Senators 4 vs. Maple Leafs 3 (OT)
Sheldon Keefe on Easton Cowan's standout showing in his preseason debut: "Every minute he was out there, he was making something happen… I stopped talking myself out of it and started playing him more in the third."
Coach on Cowan, Klingberg & more 👇 https://t.co/V6R7jfnvao
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) September 26, 2023
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lineup
Tyler Bertuzzi – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Nick Abruzzese – Pontus Holmberg – Nick Robertson
Noah Gregor – David Kampf – Ryan Reaves
Joseph Blandisi – Easton Cowan – Ryan Tverberg
Jake McCabe – John Klingberg
Mark Giordano – Mikko Kokkinen
Marshall Rifai – Topi Niemela
TJ Brodie – Matteo Pietroniro
Ottawa Senators Projected Lineup
Vladimir Tarasenko – Ridly Greig – Drake Batherson
Dominik Kubalik – Roby Jarventie – Mathieu Joseph
Angus Crookshank – Zack Ostapchuk – Cole Reinhardt
Bokondji Imama – Garrett Pilon – Josh Currie
Jakob Chychrun – Thomas Chabot
Jacob Larsson – Lassi Thomson
Tomas Hamara – Max Guenette