December 16 2013 08:54PM
In the pre-game I discussed how momentum in hockey is fleeting. One minute, an image of Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin smiling on the bench after Kulemin missed an open net to give the Leafs the lead. The next minute, viewers and fans left wondering just which one of them left a clear passing lane to Sidney Crosby wide open.
This was a frustrating game for many reasons. Toronto's played two of their best games of the season in the last week. They were playing a Pittsburgh team without Kristopher Letang, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. They were down to their 11th defenceman on the depth chart, had the bulk of powerplay opportunities and got a very quality start from Jonathan Bernier. These are the types of games that the Leafs should be winning, but again, the lack of offence has come back to bite the team, as they failed to score a single goal at 5-on-5 for the 9th time this season (last year they only did that six times).
It was a 3-1 final in Pittsburgh, not in the Leafs favour.
Despite a lot of interesting moments, I was quite bored in general by this game. It began with an awful shift right off the hop that had Chris Conner tipping home a Brian Dumoulin shot after a flurry that saw three shots in a five-second span make their way to Leafs starter Jonathan Bernier. In true Leafonian fashion, it took Toronto 11:35 to record their first three shots.
The Leafs however, would recover, and despite conceding the early advantage, out-shot the Penguins decisively after about the 10-minute mark of the first. Bernier had to keep the team in the game early on, and it could have gotten ugly, but the Leafs just had better players in the roster and, despite being on the road, should have been out-shooting the Penguins.
They got their only goal in the second period on a powerplay with Matt Niskanen off for roughing Nazem Kadri. Morgan Rielly took the shot that wound up going in, and this time, a teammate wasn't in front of the net to slightly change the puck's direction. Rielly had led an excellent rush on the first Leafs powerplay, but finished the play off on this one:
Little else happened after that. The third period was stunningly low-event despite two teams better off trying for offence than defence. Robert Bortuzzo clobbered Jerry D'Amigo on a play that could have earned Bortuzzi five-and-a-game on a different night, but the Leafs failed to generate anything on the ensuing powerplay. The Penguins scored off an icing, with the aforementioned Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin brain fart:
Simply put, Crosby is the world's most dangerous player for a reason, and few players are as automatic from that spot than Crosby.
Bortuzzo clobbered D'Amigo again (neither should have been in the game after the first collision) but went unpenalized. Kadri drew another penalty, this time on Chris Kunitz, with 1:05 to go but the Leafs failed to work the puck to a dangerous scoring location (thanks to their attempts to dump the puck in when up 6 men to 4) and Brandon Sutter picked a pass off Cody Franson's stick and wound up scoring an empty net goal.
These losses are frustrating, but they happen.
Also Jonathan Bernier got run into by Jayson Megna but got the better of the collision during the third period, and that was kind of cool.
WHY THE LEAFS LOST
Considering Toronto played Pittsburgh pretty even up after the early flurry, and both teams were playing pretty defensively, I have to give this to Jake Gardiner missing James van Riemsdyk with a pass ten feet before the centre line. That led to an icing, and it led to five of Sidney Crosby's 360 seconds on the ice without Dion Phaneuf shadowing him.
Sometimes that's all it takes. Crosby hadn't generated a lot to that point (and was out-shot by the Leafs when on the ice) but he found a gap in defensive coverage and exploited it.
I was a big fan of Jerry D'Amigo's game even before the two collisions with Bortuzzo. The fact he came back after the first one walks that fine line between 'super tough' and 'kind of stupid at the same time'. He's a player that can play on my fourth line any day. Leafs were slightly out-shot with him on the ice (5-7) but that's to be expected on an NHL 4th line. You can tell that if he keeps playing, and like that, the Leafs are in danger of generating some tertiary offence that they don't have.
He also spent the bulk of his game shutting down Sidney Crosby alongside Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin and they would have gotten away with it, too... (if it hadn't been for James van Riemsdyk missing that pass)
NUMB3RS AND NOTES
- The powerplay leading up to the Leafs goal is really where the game turned. The Leafs out-attempted Pittsburgh by 8 between then and the end of the game, but weren't rewarded.
- Numbers show a ridiculously good night for the top line of Kessel, JvR and Kadri. They didn't appear to generate much dangerous offence, but the Leafs out-attempted Pittsburgh 16-6 at evens with Kadri on the ice. He was mostly out against Brandon Sutter, and the Penguins make-shift top pairing of Maatta and Niskanen, and only got a slight zone start gratuity, with 9 offensive starts and 6 defensive.
- Not Peter Holland's best night, unfortunately. He mostly saw time against the Sutter line, but didn't generate a shot on goal and was out-possessed pretty hard.
- Morgan Rielly got a lot of offensive zone starts. The Leafs were +10/-8 in shot attempts with him on the ice, and I keep thinking if he'd be better on the defensive side of the ice, beginning rushes. He's pretty good once he hits the defensive blue line and gains the zone with control a lot.
- Good night for McClement at +15/-16 against Crosby, and started 11 defensive zone shifts to 5 offensive zone ones. He's taken a bit of heat from the stats crowd on Twitter but I think he's being held back by bad linemates and playing a bleak system. I think he's better when he's less restricted and allowed to play hockey, and can be a productive third line centre. But where's the offence?
- Data from ExtraSkater's game page.