On the second game of a back to back, it seemed like the Leafs gave up an odd-man rush or breakaway every 5 minutes. The much-discussed defence struggled tonight — particularly Barrie, who gift-wrapped multiple goals on the evening. I think Andersen stops the first two goals, but anytime you’re asking your goalie to stop 4 or 5 breakaways in a game, you’re asking a lot.
Tonight, the Leafs hung Hutchinson out to dry and I’m not sure playing Andersen would’ve had a different result, because the team in front of the goalie wasn’t good enough.
1) The Rivalry is Back
For years, either the Maple Leafs were bad or the Habs were bad. Neither team was good at the same time, meaning the games didn’t carry as much meaning. The Leafs are loaded with firepower and Montreal has Carey Price along with some really talented pieces upfront in Drouin, Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and Domi.
With both teams in the ‘entertaining’ category again, the rivalry is heating back up. The games are highly contested, and the added extra curricular activity of Domi, Muzzin, Kapanen and Weber make the games feel like a more hatred is involved. Gone are the days of skating away with no words, little shoving and general apathy. In this game alone, both Montreal and Toronto media were surprised that Domi didn’t take a penalty for trying to sucker punch Kerfoot.
When was the last time we were talking about sucker punches in a Canadiens/Leafs game?
Say what you will about the Leafs’ performance tonight, but this rivalry is good. Really good. The Leafs’ own rivalry with Boston is by far their biggest right now, but an all Canadian, Original Six rivalry does nothing but good for the NHL. It’s the kind of rivalry that has the potential to boil over, with guys who have loved their team since boyhood (Drouin, Marner, Tavares) all playing. The hockey is always at its most entertaining when players know there’s a little extra on the line, and it sure is starting to feel that way with Toronto and Montreal.
If it doesn’t excite you, it should. Call me crazy, but I’d rather have highly contested, hatred-filled battles than one team running roughshod over the other.
2) Battle of the Stars
If you told me that Matthews played tonight, I wouldn’t have believed you. I can’t remember a single shift where I thought he was overly dangerous or impacting the game the way he should. He and Marner are, by far, the most talented players on either team and yet, the only thing I remember Matthews doing is making a nifty move around Mete.
Quite honestly, he looked relatively disengaged for the majority of the game. That’s not good enough. Mitch Marner got out chanced while he was on the ice, but he was visibly trying to create opportunities for teammates and made a few crafty plays to result in scoring chances. Still an underwhelming game from Marner, but it was a step forward from earlier this week – a positive sign.
Montreal’s stars, well, they showed up to play. Drouin was terrific on his opportunities and he made smart decisions to create those opportunities. Max Domi had an xGF% of 80%, which is exceedingly high. While Domi was on the ice, the Habs created five scoring chances while giving up one. Joel Armia is not a star by any stretch, and when career 3rd liner contributes more to the game than its two most talents stars, that’s a big problem for the stars.
I am not willing to grant Matthews the slack of a back to back because that performance would get most 4th liners a seat in the press box. While Matthews did create more high danger chances (7-3) while on ice, the Leafs didn’t gain anything tangible from those chances. If the stars on the Leafs get outplayed by players on other teams, this isn’t going to be a fun season for anyone.
3) Mikheyev Continues To Impress
Full credit to Ilya Mikheyev, who has looked really impressive in the opening part of the season. He’s been the best Leaf who’s last name starts with an ‘M’, and that’s saying something. He does everything you want from a third-line player and contributes offensively.
Against Montreal, Mikheyev was a noticeable nuisance on the forecheck, skated the puck into the dangerous areas on the ice and for the most part, made good puck decisions. On the forecheck, he gets his stick on the puck and his body into a position where he has more leverage than his opponent. Add that to the fact that he’s 6’5 with speed and that becomes very difficult to deal with.
Mike Babcock has long lamented about having players who can play on the penalty kill and be effective. Mikheyev is good on the penalty kill for many reasons, namely, he’s extremely smart. It helps that he’s 6’5 and skates really well because he covers a ton of ground in the defensive zone.
When you combine the smarts, the long body and long stick is always in a passing lane or challenging a player. It gives him the ability to break up plays and create offence on the PK, making it a power kill.
4) Hutchinson Can’t Catch The Puck
Serious question: why can’t Michael Hutchinson catch the puck? I’ve watched him play a few games this year, so the observation isn’t purely based on one game. I can’t remember the last time I saw pucks hit a goalie’s glove and not be caught, this often. It is multiple times a game that a puck, which should be a routine catch, ends up being fumbled and causing a fire drill near the Leafs’ net.
On the first goal the Habs scored, Hutchinson failed to catch a catchable puck. While the puck was a little low, time and time again, you see goalies catch that to kill the play. Instead, a rebound is kicked out and it results in a goal less than 2 seconds later. Rightfully so, Leafs twitter torched Ceci for letting Gallagher go at the net front. While he can’t get spun off there, that play has to be killed by Hutchinson.
This has to be a concern for the Leafs because if I can see it, and notice the pattern, other teams are pre scouting it. As an opposing coach, the instructions to the team would be “shoot for his glove and crash the net, expecting the puck to drop.” I would have to think that Leafs goalie coach, Steve Briere has also identified this weakness and is working on it. However, it isn’t shocking that Babcock has little confidence in his backup because every time a catchable puck drops near the crease, it gives a coach heart palpitations.
5) Blue Line Puck Management
The blue lines were the Leafs’ enemy tonight, and of late, to be honest. Every coach preaches that winning the blue line battle will go a long way to winning the game. This means the 3 feet on either side of each blue line is where the battles need to be won. Ergo, turning the puck over at the offensive blue line or not getting the puck out at the defensive blue line is going to cost you.
Again, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the Leafs didn’t start on time tonight and that included their puck management. I vividly remember two offensive turnovers and 2 defensive blue line turnovers, one of which led to a penalty. Giving a team a power-play opportunity because you turn the puck over on a breakout is going to cost you in April, and it is something the Leafs have been guilty of this season. When you give the puck up at the blue line, most of your teammates are skating ‘north’, expecting the puck to get out. A turnover gives the opposition a golden opportunity to catch your team going the wrong direction and create a high-quality scoring chance.
The Leafs gave up five goals tonight and four(!) of them came off of blue line turnovers. The third goal came seven seconds into the third period, and it started with Ceci getting poor body position in the neutral zone, forcing Muzzin to reach – unsuccessfully – at the defensive blue. Four seconds into the third period, the Leafs surrendered a breakaway. Not great. On the 4th goal, a poor pass went by Barrie at the offensive blue line and gave Drouin a breakaway. The 5th goal, a turnover at the offensive blue line that led to a 2 on 1. Four out of five goals against were direct results of poor puck decisions at the blue lines – which turned out to be the difference in the game. The difference between the good teams and the great teams is the decisions they make in the critical points of the ice. You can’t be giving out more turnovers than a bakery and expect to have much success.
The Leafs were sluggish against Montreal and it was very apparent who was playing the back to back. The third period was particularly awful, where Hutchinson was left to face a barrage of Montreal odd-man rushes and breakaways.
On a night where there was much discussion on which goalie should’ve played, it wouldn’t have mattered if the Leafs had prime Martin Brodeur in net, they weren’t winning the game. There are a looooot of kinks to work out, a lot of players who need to look in the mirror and some serious evaluation of the defensive behaviour. If the Leafs are to meet expectations, everyone needs to be better, full stop.
On a Saturday night, you’re hoping for a better performance against a century-old rival, especially with the rivalry kicking back into high gear. There are going to be a lot of entertaining games between the Leafs and Canadiens in the next decade, which is something that’s long overdue.