In an entertaining Hockey Day in Canada matchup, the Maple Leafs dug themselves out of an early 3-0 hole but needed better from their goaltending and special teams in a 6-4 loss to Vancouver.
Your game in 10:
1. The big hole the Leafs found themselves in to start this game began with the first third line / Mark Giordano – Timothy Liljegren shift of the game (Toronto’s first few shifts of the night were fine before then). As has been the theme with this team of late, the failure to break out or even just clear the zone reared its ugly head.
You guys have watched all of our games this year. When we are clicking and playing well, we are playing with pace and playing clean. When we are not breaking the puck out well and are spending time in our own end, that is what the first period looks like. It is pretty cut and dry.
– Jake McCabe after the game
Before the goal, Calle Jarnkrok had a chance to clear and didn’t get it out. Liljegren had a chance to clear and didn’t get it out. Martin Jones had an uncontested opportunity to freeze the puck for a faceoff but fumbled it.
The Canucks were now bringing fresh legs into their extended offensive-zone possession, and at this point, it becomes hard for the Leafs‘ tired legs and minds to win any of the puck battles. Matthew Knies and Max Domi lost a board battle, Giordano couldn’t contain his man in front, and the Leafs finally suffered their death by a thousand papercuts as Nils Hoglander made it 1-0 three minutes into the game. All five Leafs were on the ice for nearly 1:40.
On his next rotation, Sheldon Keefe skipped his third line and went straight back to the first line.
2. The Leafs looked to have shaken the first goal off okay — no major scoring chances generated, but the top line was at least pushing back with some offensive-zone time — and then Martin Jones let in a short-side goal that he can’t let in.
Simon Benoit mishandled a D-to-D play between him and Jake McCabe initially, leading to the Canucks possession in the offensive zone, but it was a shot from well outside the faceoff dot and there was no cross-ice passing threat on the play. It’s a good shot by Hoglander, but Jones has to read the scenario better, get out, and cut down the angle so he isn’t beaten shortside.
3. The Leafs’ third line hit the ice after the 2-0 goal and did respond by spending some time in the offensive zone, even drawing a penalty — a cross-check on Matthew Knies, setting in motion an in-game precedent of cross-checking calls that would come back to bite the Leafs in the third period.
This power play’s execution wasn’t sharp in the zone. William Nylander had three passes broken up — two of them were decent opportunities to shoot — as the Canucks’ defensive sticks on the PK were much more dialed in than the Leafs’ puck movement early in the game.
Right after the penalty expired with the second unit on the ice, Max Domi set up Tyler Bertuzzi for a point-blank chance, but the prevailing theme of Bertuzzi’s inability to bury on grade-A looks continued in this game (this wasn’t the only time).
It was hard to fathom how Bertuzzi didn’t score one on his three opportunities tonight, but he remains stuck on six goals / on pace for 11 goals, which is so far below where it should be relative to his scoring chances. While it’s better than the alternative of not getting chances at all, at some point, it’s not enough to hang your hat on “at least he’s getting looks”; he’s paid $5.5 million and needs to start bearing down.
4. The 3-0 hole was dug at the tail end of a second-line shift mostly spent in the offensive zone. William Nylander was tired, and by his own admission, “got beat skating back to the net” (and then kind of lingered in the crease, which might’ve slightly impaired Martin Jones‘ ability to make the save). Still, it shouldn’t have been a terrible situation as a broken play by Vancouver trickled toward the net and became a contested puck to the side of the crease.
Jones overplayed this one, taking himself out of the net as Vancouver recovered the puck. Garland seized the chance to get a quick shot off toward the far side of the net, beating Jones for the third time on nine Vancouver shots. Not good enough.
It ended up as a 3-0 period when, on the merits of the quality of the chances generated, it probably should’ve been 1-0 Canucks.
5. With this Leafs team lately, you’re almost at the point of preferring them to chase a game, although certainly not from three behind. After the 3-0 goal, the Leafs fired six shots unanswered, leaving the first period even on the shot clock at 9-9. Similar to the Calgary game, they mostly controlled the second period.
If you told me the Leafs were going to work their way back from 3-0 down in this game, I wouldn’t have guessed two unscreened shots from the point and the boards were going to be the way past Thatcher Demko, but William Nylander pulled it off twice. The first came after an 8-0 shots run by the Leafs to start the second period. The second, off an innocent rush down the wall, did take an early deflection off a Canucks stick, fooling Demko.
In between Nylander’s goals, late in his shift, Mitch Marner made a fantastic backdoor play to Jake McCabe, buying time in the middle of the O-zone and spotting a jumping-up McCabe out of the corner of his eye before putting a pass right on his tape. There was no egregious breakdown or missed assignment from the Canucks defending the Matthews-to-Marner-to-McCabe rush play; the Leafs executed really well in tight margins of space, and McCabe was strong on his stick as Garland actually broke his own trying to tie him up.
In a sign of things to come, McCabe drove the back post hard on a Matthews rush shortly before his goal (knocking the Canucks defender into the net). He’s reading the play and picking his spots offensively quite well, especially as compared to the start of the year (it’s hard to remember a recent occasion when he’s made an obviously bad gamble). It’s a welcome development on a Leafs blue line where the offensive production outside of Morgan Rielly has been paltry in recent seasons.
All in all, the game sat at 3-3 at this point but should’ve been 1-1; four of the six goals should’ve been stopped.
6. The Leafs created a couple of opportunities to take the lead at 4-3 before the Canucks scored late in the period. With an empty net in front of him and the puck sitting in the crease, Tyler Bertuzzi was shoved from behind and in the process actually whacked the puck backward toward himself with his stick and then kicked it into the net for a no-goal call.
A Leafs power play immediately afterward was absolutely useless; they never set up the zone, not helped at all by the absence of Morgan Rielly (who was in the box), which meant Mark Giordano took over the duties on PP1. I’d have probably gone with Jake McCabe here just given his mobility and surehandedness with the puck of late compared to Giordano and Liljegren.
The Leafs were moving in slow motion on their entries as the Canucks sat on the drop pass and the dish to the wall. Regardless of the scheme, the pace of the player and puck movement has to be higher than it was or the PKers are going to have a field day gumming up the works on the entries.
7. After a really positive three-goal second period, the goal against with a minute left was an absolute back-breaker for the Leafs in this game. They had scored three unanswered to tie it, were leading offensive-zone possession time by over two minutes, and led in shots by 12, but they ended up trailing entering the second intermission.
Similar to the critical first goal against, this game-turning goal took place after a long third-line shift, although Max Domi did manage to change off for David Kampf.
1:40 into his shift with under two minutes to go in the period, Matthew Knies‘ decision to turn back down the wall of the defensive zone with the puck was an extremely green mistake. The puck simply had to be chipped off the wall and out.
The Leafs did sort of scramble it out of the zone briefly for a partial change, and Nylander could’ve handled the puck better in the corner before Garland came out with it and put his own rebound past Jones. But it’s a goal that stems from really poor puck/game management.
Knies has been showing up in the game tape a lot for his inability to manage the puck on the breakout of late, and moving him down the lineup against weaker competition is not helping matters so far. You have to start to wonder at what point Leafs brass might say enough is enough for now and give the rookie a reset.
The Knies – Domi – Jarnkrok trio finished at 12% xGF on a night when every other regular Leafs line combination was in the black in the metric at five-on-five.
8. Early in the third period, the Mitch Marner shorthanded goal — and the sequence leading up to it — is the type of play that would’ve been remembered a lot more fondly (one of the top highlights of the season) if the Leafs pulled a win off afterward. After a painful-looking shot block, Marner stayed on the ice, stripped a puck, and buried on the breakaway to potentially turn a big HNIC matchup against the league-leading Canucks.
Marner is finishing well on his breakaways this season. For all of the talk of a down year (some of it warranted based on his start and overall five-on-five impact), he has now hit the 20-goal mark at the 44-game point, putting him on pace for a career-high 37. He’s scored 15 of those 20 in his last 24 games.
9. A couple of controversial cross-checking calls decided this game in the third, one on Mark Giordano (pretty soft/definitely a sell job) and Max Domi (not quite as soft). The Domi penalty felt like the accumulation of pent-up frustration as the third line spent more time inside its own end; needless to say, it’s not one he can take at that juncture in the game, putting an exclamation mark on a miserable game for him and his line.
No doubt, the long conversation between the referees, Nikita Zadorov, and the Canucks bench about Zadorov’s first-period cross-checking penalty had the officials going out of their way to apply what they felt was a consistent standard the rest of the way.
In any event, the Leafs’ PK let the team down in the third period, particularly on the 6-4 insurance goal. There is no reason for the Leafs’ D to be so far away from the net and tight up against the forwards on this play; it’s to the point where Benoit and Nylander’s sticks could almost touch as they nearly formed a single line. This is way too easy for players of Miller and Pettersson’s ilk.
There were a couple of garbage-time power plays for the Leafs with their goalie pulled, but their real man-advantage opportunity to get themselves back into the game came with nine minutes left. The best scoring chance was Pettersson ringing the iron shorthanded.
The Leafs’ special teams have not stood the test of stiff competition lately. Since the schedule turned difficult starting with the Islanders game, the Leafs have allowed six goals on 16 kills (62.5%) and they’ve scored just one goal on 13 power-play opportunities (7.7%). It’s sunk them during this 1-4-1 stretch.
10. Overall, the Leafs were not second-best in this game at five-on-five by any means, but they did not win the goaltending battle and lost the special-teams matchup, making it awfully difficult to beat the best offense in the league. In terms of game management and the little games within the game, their starts to the first and third periods when the game was most in the balance were disappointing. Their end of the second period was a back-breaker.
The Leafs are struggling to find answers on the blue line right now outside of the dependability of Rielly and McCabe (and, for the most part, Benoit in a lesser role). They are working through issues related to the relative inexperience among their left-wing forward options (plus Bertuzzi’s snakebitten-ness), and they still haven’t figured out their third line. A 27th-ranked PK on top of their five-on-five warts defensively is going to make them especially unserious as contenders. They have been lit up by the higher-end power plays for most of the season.
No doubt, an additional defenseman who can handle tough minutes, move the puck, and kill penalties (a Tanev type) would help a great deal. So would a veteran LWer who can be dependable defensively, chip in offensively, and take a competent shift shorthanded. But the coaching staff has to get the special teams trending toward more competent territory in the meantime. It remains to be seen if help is coming.