In need of a response after coughing up a two-goal lead in an OT loss to Chicago, the Maple Leafs gave up the lead twice and produced a miserable second period en route to a 3-2 loss in Pittsburgh.
Your game in 10:
1. Tyler Bertuzzi is now up to six points in his last seven games with his opening goal early in the first period of this game. This line was all over it to start the night.
The shift before the offensive-zone faceoff that they scored off of was excellent; William Nylander sliced through the neutral zone and right into the slot for a shot, checked back above the puck, and recovered it before putting another shot on goal from the other side of the ice on a nice passing play. The goal itself was a perfectly worked faceoff play where Nylander dropped it to Morgan Rielly shooting down the wall, Tavares drove the near post for a redirect on net, and Bertuzzi scored the rebound at the far post.
They’re working consistently harder with and without the puck than the top line, directly attacking the net, and they’re synced up/stringing together plays much better at the moment. They were the only Leaf line in the black tonight in terms of shot attempt share (by a significant margin at 62%).
The goal coming off of another won faceoff by John Tavares is also a notable piece of the equation. Tavares is so far sporting what would be a career-high 62% success rate on the draw this season (Matthews is down at 50.2, his lowest mark since his rookie year if it were to hold).
2. I recently heaped praise on Sheldon Keefe’s post-game remarks after the Minnesota win in Sweden (i.e. I’ll give props when warranted), but his post-comments tonight left a lot to be desired.
He immediately shut down any criticism of the top line and cited statistics to defend Mitch Marner before going out of his way to call out a mistake by Nick Robertson on the 2-2 goal, even going so far as to say it was “the game right there” (what?). It wasn’t even an egregious mistake. Sure, Robertson probably should’ve gone cross-ice to Tyler Bertuzzi or advanced the puck up the wall instead of passing it backward, but he is a rookie on his offside and TJ Brodie still had the options/time to make a proper play instead of handing it to the other team. It wasn’t a completely crazy decision that sewered Brodie.
That individual play by Robertson was not near the top of my list of the team’s problems in the second period, and yet Keefe said it basically cost them the game. Bizarre.
3. Speaking of that second period, I also didn’t agree with Keefe’s framing that it was an even game on account of the Penguins dominating the second, the Leafs carrying the third, and Pittsburgh simply scoring one more goal than Toronto. The team was caved in during the second period (30-9 in shot attempts!) and fell behind, then needed to chase the game on the road with a shortened bench in a back-to-back.
Entering the second period up 2-1 and getting filled-in to the point where offensive-zone time was a whopping 18:30-12:30 in favour of Pittsburgh through 40 minutes is not an acceptable performance, even if they at least didn’t give up on the game with their push in the third. It’s a strange occasion to come out and say the first period was close, the Pens won the second, we won the third, and hey, that’s hockey.
4. Keefe made the decision to run 11/7 in the back-to-back citing the need for extra support on defense (it sounded like bumps and bruises on the blue line were factoring into the equation). My preferred call would’ve been swapping in Bobby McMann for Reaves and continuing to give the fourth line some run; the fourth line played more than the third line in Sweden with McMann on it, and even with Reaves in McMann’s place, it put together a solid game against the Blackhawks.
It’s notable that Keefe played his fourth line on the shift after goals against in Chicago, and when the Leafs’ lead was slashed to 3-2 vs. the Blackhawks, they produced a good shift before the top line hopped over the boards. The top line was hemmed in their own zone, and the momentum swung against the Leafs from there. Eventually, the top line conceded the early third-period tying goal.
5. Tonight, when the Leafs went up 1-0 early (a dream start on the road), the top line came over the boards and immediately conceded a tying goal just 26 seconds later. Morgan Rielly played it poorly in the neutral zone and TJ Brodie and Mitch Marner didn’t read off of each other properly, so the breakdown wasn’t really on the forwards, but it’s become a pattern where they are not sustaining positive momentum at critical junctures of games.
Knies chipped a puck in deep just before that 1-1 goal against and totally buried a Penguin on the forecheck — something I was calling for more of from him in previous reviews — but he didn’t get the numbers in support in time from his linemates.
The first line just isn’t dominating zone time as much as we became used to in past seasons. There are too many one-and-dones, and while Knies is still learning how to be a consistent puck winner on the forecheck, Marner and Matthews aren’t doing enough of it themselves with second and third efforts on plays. It’s leading to fewer of those ice-tilting offensive-zone shifts they’re able to generate when they’re at their best.
6. Putting aside the post-game presser, actions speak louder than words, and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner remained together while playing 24 minutes tonight despite losing their minutes on shot attempts, shots, goals, and expected goals. They are essentially breakeven on the season at five-on-five with a slight deficit in shots on goal and a slender one-goal advantage in goals over the opposition (14-13).
Those results are definitely not good enough if they’re going to play together, and mentioning matchups — as Keefe has multiple times now — doesn’t explain much of it knowing they took on the tough matchups last year, too.
It was notable that the 2-1 Toronto goal came with Calle Jarnkrok on the ice with Matthews and Knies for a simple far-pad-shot-for-rebound goal. Notably, Marner, in a similar situation with three minutes and change left in the third period, decided to try a spin-o-rama backhand that he essentially passed to the goalie for a whistle. Marner needs to get out of the mindset of thinking it requires something special to get himself out of the rut instead of just getting back to basics. It’s a pattern with him over the years when it isn’t going well.
7. It is, of course, true that the Matthews line takes the tough matchups consistently, but it should be noted that they also therefore spend far more time with Morgan Rielly on the ice than the other lines. Rielly helped set up the Tyler Bertuzzi goal tonight, but that second line is just as effective (actually more effective) without the team’s top offense-driving defenseman based on the WOWY numbers. The same can’t be said for the top line this season as their numbers are abysmal without Rielly:
8. It should be noted that Matthew Knies was much, much better in this game than the Chicago loss. He made the right adjustments and showed signs of responding well/taking the right lessons from a bit of a benching late in the game vs. the Blackhawks. He made quicker decisions with the puck, played a more direct game, and fired more rubber on net. After putting just 20 shots goal in his previous 18 games, he set a new NHL career high with five SOG tonight to go along with his goal.
Rookies aren’t going to get it right every night — especially when thrust into a top-matchup situation with the pressure to keep up offensively alongside elite players — but the ability to learn quickly and stay confident despite setbacks is massively important if Knies is going to stick in a top-line role. He showed an ability to do that tonight.
Leave it to the rookie to come up with a better game synopsis than the coach or the veteran players in their post-game interviews: “[The Penguins] were heavier and played more consistently throughout the whole 60. We were sloppy in the second period and gave up too many chances. We chased them a little bit too much.”
9. Conceding the 3-2 goal with just seconds left in the second off of a lost defensive-zone draw is a back-breaker of a goal on the road.
In recent game reviews and notebooks, we’ve talked about the Leafs’ tendency this season to front rather than close gaps on point shots. We saw two goals against Minnesota where the Leafs weren’t closing down the points quickly.
On Erik Karlsson’s 3-2 tally, Calle Jarnkrok threw on the breaks just above the hashmarks instead of closing down the space more. Not sure if it’s a systemic thing or simply down to the individual decision-making, but the more we see it, the more we lean toward the former. Something to keep an eye on.
10. On the power play early in the third period, after the first unit didn’t create anything at all, Morgan Rielly had the sense to get off after a minute and change, but the rest of the group stretched their shift only to throw the puck away again. In their very short shift, the second power-play unit came over the boards and put pucks and bodies at the net, nearly scoring twice.
The Leafs didn’t get another power play, but who are we kidding here? We all know the top unit would be straight back out there if the refs did call a penalty, as we have seen time and again. The lack of accountability or reward for those who are going that night/working hard and those who are not can be really frustrating. When warranted, the second unit should be thrown a bone here and there with more than just late-power-play crumbs.
10.5. Obviously, you really don’t want to end up in a situation where William Nylander is playing 26 minutes (Marner and Matthews nearly 24) in the second half of a back-to-back. It was clearly factoring in when Nylander was fumbling the puck late in the game with the goalie pulled, and no serious push felt like it was forthcoming in the final minute from a gassed group of Leafs players. When they have 11 forwards dressed and they’re trailing, it’s a lot to ask for the big-name forwards to play basically the final four minutes after an already-strenuous night.