The Toronto Maple Leafs entered their second holiday break on a sour note after a forgettable performance against the New York Islanders on Saturday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Not much to evaluate in this one. The Leafs lost the lion’s share of the puck races and battles in the first 40 minutes and almost everyone on the team fit in that way. John Tavares attempted to will his group into it on multiple occasions with his usual determination in his one-on-one battles, but there just weren’t anywhere near enough hands on deck for the Leafs tonight.
Probably the best indication of an off night from the Leafs’ best players was the game Morgan Rielly had amid an incredible stretch of hockey from the early Norris candidate. He was credited with a game-worst four giveaways on the stat sheet, and it had to be double that in reality. It happens.
2. You feel for Tavares on a night when he had a lot of money on the board — that goes for both sides; Leo Komarov was a menace for the Islanders all night, Matt Martin was also effective — but ultimately, there are far more important battles in the days and months ahead. Hopefully, the team has the February meeting in New York circled as one to really get up for, though.
3. The Islanders are built more in the mold of a traditional roster construction with a defined top six/bottom six and quite a bit of size in the back (Pulock, Mayfield, Boychuk, Pelech), but they managed to play the kind of game that made them successful against a more talented, faster Leafs team. They really leaned on the Leafs below the hashmarks in the defensive zone and made the Leafs work for their space (which the Leafs didn’t do), and they got pucks in behind the Leafs’ D and went to work from there. They were patient, disciplined and stubborn through the neutral zone, giving the Leafs almost nothing when it came to odd-man looks or easy rush offense. The Leafs were the opposite of all of those things — light on the puck and sloppy with their puck management, giving the Islanders quite a few looks on the counterattack.
4. The easy narrative after every loss like this is to say, “This is the Leafs’ Achilles heel — teams that forecheck well and trap,” and there is, of course, some validity to that. No team is immune to that kind of hockey when it’s executed well (a heavy forecheck works on any D in the league), but the question marks will follow the Leafs around until they start winning in the playoffs. That’s all part of becoming a great regular-season team that hasn’t shown it in the postseason yet. Every team experiences it on their way up unless it is the rare breed that wins on its first go-round.
The players should be taking it personally that the narrative won’t quit as they gear up for the playoffs in the second half. Management should be doing all it can to try to improve on the obvious areas of need —a right-handed puck mover (unfortunately, there’s no tree to pick from there) and the need for the right size/skill package for the (left) wing up front.
5. Couldn’t really hang any of the four goals exclusively on Garret Sparks, but there were a couple of opportunities to come up with saves on the goals against; Val Filppula and Mathew Barzal were in on partial breakaways, but both found holes in Sparks with less than clinical finishes. Goalies are almost always excused on redirect/deflection situations, but there is something to be said for a good goalie’s ability to make those quiet, positional saves on tips/redirects, and Sparks was flaring out his pads/guessing/scrambling when he lost track of the puck from the second period onward (that’s the concerning part of his game in general). Pucks also weren’t exactly sticking to him throughout the night.
The first period was positive, though, after the early Filppula goal — as Mike Babcock noted, the Leafs gave up a bunch of high-quality chances against in the opening 20 minutes — and he should feel good about his performance in Columbus. The numbers don’t lie when it comes to a goalie playing two games in two nights, and it’s not particularly fair to any netminder to put him for both games in a back-to-back. Obviously, sometimes shit just happens with the Frederik Andersen injury.
6. The Michael Hutchinson addition naturally engenders some concern about how serious this Andersen situation may be, but the reality is, the Leafs needed to make this move at some point anyway, be it yesterday or by the deadline. Really, the urgency came in the Marlies giving up goals for fun again post-Christmas break. The Leafs had to patch up this part of the depth chart. Does it add some heat beneath Sparks? Sure, but that should ideally be there for any organization that has its ducks in a row depth-wise. It’s healthy and the Leafs needed the insurance policy.
7. I need to say this gently because it’s meant only as constructive criticism and not at all an attempt to plant a, “We need to be concerned about Auston Matthews,” seed. But after his amazing start to the season, post-injury, #34 seems to be banking on individual moments/shifts or power play looks to make a game — and he’s often able to do that, but Babcock should be challenging him to put together a more dominant 60-minute performance here soon.
Matthews got buried along the wall at one point in this game and played angry for 15-20 seconds; in that time, he threw someone off the puck and nearly scored. Otherwise, he was mouse quiet. Since he returned from injury, there have been quite a few of these “got a point or two, but kind of quiet” games from a player who is capable of much more as far as his shift-to-shift impact. It’s nitpicking, ultimately, but the standards are rightfully sky high for a generational superstar with an eye towards peaking at playoff time, when you have to earn each and every look.
8. January 4 was the date I had circled to begin evaluating William Nylander’s game seriously again. The Leafs’ sports science team tracks when their players’ heart rates level out coming out of training camp and put the timeline at 12 games. For Nylander, game #12 is Thursday vs. Minnesota.
To sum up his performances so far: Lots of good moments and flashes, but not quite the consistent threat to score/create he is when at the top of his game confidence-wise. He needs one to go in off his ass, probably, but the only approach, for now, is to be a higher volume shooter and make sure he’s hitting the net instead of being too fine about picking corners (an issue with him in general). I expect once it clicks for him again and the confidence is flowing, it won’t be long before Matthews – Nylander is making magic happen together again.
After a pretty hectic month, the home-heavy schedule coming up lends itself to home-cooking, consistent routine, and more practice time. I expect we see Nylander find his stride again in the first few weeks of the New Year.
9. At the close of 2018, the Leafs sit 26-11-2, a (potentially franchise-record-setting) 114-point pace. It’s obvious the Leafs have a target on their back and are fooling nobody now, and yet, they’ve still yet to lose more than two games in a row as we approach the halfway mark of the season. They’ve got four players on pace for 90+ points, including one on pace for 95 despite missing 13 games, one who is on pace for 111, and another who is on pace for 93 off of the blue line. They have two 50-goal threats on the roster — despite one (Matthews is on pace for 53) missing significant time — and both are centers. They’ve got a player top five in assists (Marner, T-4th, 40) and top five in goals (Tavares, T-2nd, 26). They’re second in the league in goals per game behind only a team that is currently flirting with one of the best regular seasons in the post-expansion era. Their third-leading points scorer from last season has contributed a total of two assists so far and should have much more to give in the second half.
Take some time this week to soak it all in.
10. Last but not least, Happy New Year to everyone reading along here at MLHS. Have fun and be safe. 2019 promises to be a helluva ride.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts