November 29 2013 09:03PM
The Leafs are just coming up to the tough part of their schedule, but in the last three games they've dropped points to both Columbus and Buffalo, two of the worst teams in the National Hockey League. Is it worth reminding the reader how important these points are going into a stretch where you face San Jose, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago in the next two weeks?
The ship may have been righted tonight. Even though the Leafs were playing the Sabres, the only team that's been worse at shot differential this season than the Maple Leafs, in the early going it looked like the Leafs system was working as it was supposed to. In a frantic first few minutes, the Leafs took away possession opportunities from the Sabres, and got an early goal off an odd-man rush, and controlled the shot clock for the next period-and-a-half.
But that wasn't enough. The Leafs let the Sabres back into the game, took some penalties, and wound up losing 3-2 in overtime on a Christian Ehrhoff wrist shot.
At some point, you know it's coming, Phil Kessel is going to get some heat for not being a passer anymore, or for not being able to drive the offence of an entire NHL team. He only has 14 goals on the year thus far, of course, and only had seven shots out of the Leafs' 24 total in the game. Phil Kessel is playing NHL 1994 against your little cousin, neglecting to tell him where the turbo button is, and he scored a pretty goal in the early going to make it 1-0:
The Leafs actually out-shot the Sabres 9-7 in the first period. It's the Sabres, but when you went 25:04 of elapsed time without a shot in the previous game, you'll take whatever you can get. I thought the Leafs looked fine in the first period and the first bit of the second.
The Sabres tied it up on probably the worst penalty kill shift of all time from Jerred Smithson, who was excused by the broadcast crew because he broke his stick on a shot by Tyler Myers (for some reason going down to block a shot about 30 feet from where the shot was taken). The Sabres controlled the puck for nearly a minute in the Leafs zone, with Smithson failing to clear it on two opportunities, and in one instance had tonnes of space but got muscled off the puck by Matt Moulson, who wound up tying the game 1-1 off a scramble in front.
Still, a few minutes later, Nik Kulemin finished off a hard-working shift, out-working Christian Ehrhoff and beating him to a puck dumped into the Sabres zone. Trevor Smith, who is a much more useful player than Randy Carlyle would have you believe, made another good play to get the puck out front, and the Leafs took a 2-1 lead with Kulemin batting the puck out of the air:
However, what's the key to the Leafs getting out-shot? Simply take a lead in the latter half of the game. From the second Leafs goal, the Sabres out-shot Toronto 18-11 the rest of the way. The second Sabres goal came when Jay McClement thought he'd throw the puck around the back wall to nobody in particular, and Ehrhoff threw it on net and it bounced onto the stick of Luke Adam.
The third period was very tense, albeit pretty slow, with both teams establishing continued stretches of good zone time, but both goalies held strong. Then, Paul Ranger took a real ugly penalty, slashing and hooking and holding Ville Leino for a good three seconds before the referee decided to penalize him. Right at the end of regulation, James van Riemsdyk looked to be hauled down on a partial breakaway, but there was no call. You be the judge as to whether or not Matt D'Agostini should have been called here.
38 seconds into overtime Christian Ehrhoff won it by putting a puck at the net. What do they tell you about shot attempts? The Sabres scored three goals Friday, all of them coming off sequences where shots were fired in the general direction of the net.
Still, I can sympathize with this guy:
WHY THE LEAFS LOST
Take your pick. Too many penalties. Too few shots. James Reimer had an off night. Those happen, and are correctible, but the Leafs for too long have been taking more minors than their opponents and giving up too many shots. Obviously that has to change.
No Leaf other than Kessel was able to generate a lot of offence (although Mason Raymond had five shots on goal and was pretty busy in the neutral zone. Tyler Bozak had an odd good game through the neutral zone as well, with multiple controlled zone entries. Still, if you want to be bugged by something in the future, check the number of times he goes offside. Now that you've read it here, you won't be able to ignore it the next dozen times it happens over the next week) and when you're facing a team like the Sabres, who are prone to giving up a lot of shots but have strong goaltending, you don't want to put them in a position where Miller doesn't have to make a load of saves.
The defence was again, a bit of a disaster. Ranger took the bad call at the end, but he had his moments, I thought. Mark Fraser played 20:36, and if any defenceman has to sit next game to open up space for Morgan Rielly, it ought to be him. You have to like the guy and admire his story, and his dedication, but he shouldn't be on any team's top six. He gives opponents way too much space, and James Reimer had to make an excellent save with six minutes to go because of another play where Fraser just gives way too much space to his man at the line:
Tough to decide between Kessel and Kulemin, who both had strong games, but I'll give it to the 12,000 or so Leaf fans that seemed to be in the building, drowning out Sabres fans in their own rink. Check out highlights of either of the Sabres' goals, and it looks like half the crowd is subdued.
^^ - That goes for the men and women by the way, no matter what Joe Bowen and Greg Millen tell you about hockey fans.
- With about three minutes to go, Joe Bowen remarked that Luke Adam's goal was "the difference here in a 2-2 tie". I'm no math major, but that bugged me.
- Unsurprisingly, the best Leafs possession line was Nazem Kadri with David Clarkson and Mason Raymond. Their Corsi numbers in the game were +5, +4 and +2, respectively. Clarkson doesn't realize how much skill he has. He's not particularly fast, but he has a lot more open ice than he thinks he has out there and winds up shooting the puck too quickly, or from too far away.
- I said Paul Ranger had his moments, but I check the stats, and he was a team-worse minus-8 on defence in his 18 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time. I suppose some of that is due to the 11 shifts he started in the defensive zone, and his primary matchup was Buffalo's best possession line of Girgensons-Ott-Leino.
- Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson matched up a lot against the Sabres' top line of Stafford-Hodgson-Moulson. That line isn't real good at defence, but they are dangerous offensively. Two shots total at evens for them.
- Back in the lineup, the Leafs got 20 shot attempts with Jake Gardiner on the ice and 18 against. He's much better at defending rushes than people give him credit for, and you'd figure would factor nicely into a counter-attacking system like the Leafs.
- Another problem Toronto has had this season… those stretch passes out of the zone. The Leafs iced the puck 10 times, and the tenth was the most costly, as it directly led to the Ranger penalty.
The Leafs are back in action tomorrow night in Montreal.