Well, this wasn’t your typical 6-1 hockey game. Rather, it was a close one for 56 minutes before things really fell apart. There were some huge positives in the first half for the Maple Leafs, along with some concerning negatives in the back half — quitting being chief among them.
The Leafs will now reset before facing the high flying Avalanche at home to complete the back-to-back. And unlike the Leafs, I cannot mail in the post-game. So, here are my thoughts:
1) The Ending
I’m not quite sure what happened in the last minute of play, but that was some exceptionally horrendous hockey.
At the point when the Leafs surrendered the empty netter to go down 4-1, they basically stopped playing, and it *really* showed. On the fifth goa,l the Leafs were so focused on getting off the ice that they didn’t even bother to make sure the puck got deep before everyone just skated to the bench.
A soft chip, everyone changing, and Gostisbehere skates in with no one in sight to rip it top shelf. That is unacceptable from every single player on the ice.
Of the ensuing face-off, the Leafs managed to give up a breakaway to JvR. It was almost unbelievable, frankly. This was a one-goal hockey game with 3.5 minutes left, and the final score ended up being 6-1. That takes a special type of effort to make happen.
Any way you slice it, the Leafs coaches will not be happy with the final three minutes of the game.
2) The End of the Rielly-Ceci Pairing
I will very rarely say this: I don’t care what the numbers say, this pairing needs to end.
If Nathan Mackinnon plays against these guys, it’s going to be a bloodbath. Their gap control is awful, the defensive assignments are routinely missed and the decision making is questionable at best.
At one point in the third period, Tavares was left to defend a two-on-one, with Rielly and Ceci nowhere to be found. I can’t remember the last time I saw a forward defending a 2v1 chance at 5v5. That is inexcusable decision making.
Ian Tulloch has been banging this drum for a while now, and he’s officially got me in the band. Try Rielly with Barrie on a more consistent basis. Try Dermott with Rielly or Dermott with Muzzin. Whatever the Leafs do, they need to switch that up. Consistently allowing controlled entries and being lost in the defensive zone has to stop, especially given the minutes they are playing. I’m not sure why the Leafs haven’t split them up already, but I can’t imagine they are all that thrilled with the defensive behaviour being exhibited on a nightly basis.
3) The Two Sides to Auston Matthews
On one hand, Matthews is one of the most offensively gifted players in the NHL. He can change the game in a single shift. On the other hand, he goes “controller unplugged” in his defensive zone far too often.
On Philly’s first goal, Kevin Hayes caught Matthews cheating on the offensive side of the puck and beat him to the net. Holl missed his assignment, but Hayes never gets there if Matthews contains him on the boards and isn’t cheating towards the offensive zone. It was a really poor look and one that happens far too often for someone making 11 million dollars.
On the second goal, Matthews was completely lost in his own end, had his stick in the air for some reason, and wasn’t defending the pass that led to Giroux’s eventual tally. If he supports the puck well and has his stick on the ice, he likely intercepts that pass to the net front.
I’m not sure what it is, but it clearly wasn’t Babcock. We are six games into a new coach and Matthews is still as lackadaisical in the defensive zone as he ever was.
Someone told me back in October, “you could put the world’s best coach behind the bench. If the players don’t want to play defence, it isn’t going to matter one bit.” That seems to be accurate. At some point, Matthews has to be asked about his lacklustre defensive effort, because it clearly isn’t “just a coaching issue.”
4) Positive Start
One thing that has certainly changed is the Leafs’ starts. Against Philadelphia, Toronto was the better team by a large margin in the first period. By period’s end, the Leafs had an 83%(!) expected goals share. That is utterly dominating.
The eye test held up, too. Toronto looked to be generating the majority of the scoring chances and driving play towards the Philly end for the first period. This is a very positive sign for the Leafs as starting on time was an identified weakness for a while. Always having to come from behind is very tiresome and was not a recipe for sustainable success.
While there are other kinks that need to be worked out for the Leafs to play consistently, starting on time was a biggie.
5) Troubling DZ Trend
I’ve watched the Leafs for…a while — enough to say this is absolutely a trend. If you watch the Flyers second goal, and the lead up to it, you’ll notice something. The Leafs don’t defend with their sticks on the ice.
I ran an experiment recently, and I asked players to try and defend 1v1 with their stick on the body, vs ice. Then I asked them to do it 5v5. It didn’t go very well for them. What I’m saying is, if your stick isn’t down, it isn’t in a passing lane. It can’t be used as leverage to tie up an opponent’s stick. You may as well play with your stick upside down at that point.
The Leafs have this horrible habit of having their sticks in the air or on their hips in the DZ. This allows a ton of passes to get to places they shouldn’t. It also encourages opponents to try passes that they probably wouldn’t if a stick was on the ice and in the area as a deterrent.
Players are way too good nowadays and can fire passes cross-ice before defenders can get their sticks down. On the penalty kill, they defend with their sticks on the ice, in lanes. I cannot understand why the same logic wouldn’t be applied to defending at even strength. It would close a ton of passing lanes to dangerous areas and likely, would cut down the number of scoring chances they concede.
The Leafs played well for large stretches of the game, but mental lapses and lacklustre play cost them. Being outshot 14-5 in the third period when you’re the team losing is… not good. They basically quit.
I’m sure Sheldon Keefe will dissect the last few minutes and go over the multitude of reasons as to why that’s unacceptable.