It was the battle of the country’s most expensive real estate markets on Tuesday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs met with the Vancouver Canucks, in what I’m now calling the Real Estate Bowl.
For the first time in a while, the game started at 7 pm on the West Coast, much to the delight of Canucks fans who usually grumble about an earlier start. Well, I’m not exactly thrilled that I had to stay up til 12:25, so how’s that for an argument?
It didn’t much matter, though. The Leafs won 4-1 and here are 5 thoughts:
1) Is Frederik Andersen Santa?
It’s not even close to a stretch to say that this was Frederik Andersen’s best game of the year.
Giving up zero goals on four breakaways is quite the accomplishment (and we will get to that in a second), so his team didn’t exactly help. There were also a few really tough deflections in the slot — nothing like having to consistently shut down Boeser and Pettersson scoring chances, too. At 5v5, the Leafs were expected to give up 2.42 goals. Freddy decided to only surrender one.
It wasn’t that Andersen gave up only a single goal. It was the fact that he made key saves in key situations, too. The Leafs decided to hand the Canucks roughly a billion scoring chances in the third period, and, if not for Freddy, the game very much could’ve had a different result.
Sometimes you need your goalie to bail you out. This was Andersen’s Christmas present to his teammates, albeit arriving a few weeks early.
2) River Hockey
I was really looking forward to this game for one reason: these are too young, skilled teams that were bound to lead to a track meet. Both teams could’ve played the majority of this game on an outdoor rink, because it was that kind of hockey.
In *one* shift, I saw three separate Leafs attempt a toe drag in the neutral zone or near either blue line. That is generally not the best idea, and certainly not something coaches love to see, but it sure made for some entertainment.
This was one of my favourite games of the year because the skill was on full display. Each of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Barrie and Nylander were dipsy-doodling, as were Pettersson, Hughes and Boeser. There were a litany of dangerous scoring chances at both ends, and you could tell these were two teams built with skill.
It made for “popcorn television” and that’s the kind of game that will bring in more fans.
3) Third Period Defensive Strategy
I don’t know what kind of strategy involves giving up three breakaways with a third-period lead, but I hope I *never* see it again. The Leafs’ social media posted a damn compilation of Andersen’s third-period breakaway saves, for Pete’s sake. How is that even a thing?!
It was a 2-0 lead, which is very much, not a safe lead by any stretch. Giving up three breakaways to Brock Boeser is asking for problems.
The most concerning thing was the inability to adjust. The Canucks have a gifted passer in Quinn Hughes and they were looking for that stretch pass. Now, those were great passes, but at some point, there needs to be an awareness of that.
The first time I can understand, especially when it’s a change in strategy. However, the second is not great and the third is just a failure to adjust, which is unacceptable. At that point, you have to know it’s coming, you need to read it and ensure you aren’t giving up scoring chances left, right and centre.
4) The Captain Leads
John Tavares was the best Leaf skater on the ice, and it was one of his best games of the season. The quick-thinking pass to Matthews from behind the net for the first goal was a thing of beauty. Sometimes, you need your captain to make the big play and to do the right thing at the right time. This game was the epitome of that for Tavares.
Tavares got the team going by setting up the first goal. Then, right before the second intermission, he scores again on a great deflection to give the Leafs a 2-0 lead heading into the third. That was something this team definitely needed, as a one-goal lead probably doesn’t equate to a Leafs win on the night.
Then, with the Leafs giving up early Christmas presents to the Canucks in the third, the game shifted in their favour. Having already closed the deficit to one goal, you could feel the Canucks were coming for another. Enter a great play from Holl to drag the coverage away from Tavares and Tavares outweighing Markstrom to put it under the blocker.
With five minutes to go in the game, that was the dagger. Tavares showed up huge for the Leafs at the right times, and good teams get that from their best players.
5) Of Course, it was Leivo
I happened to be looking down when the Canucks scored and to absolutely NO ONE’s surprise, it was Josh Leivo who did the damage.
I’m not sure what the betting odds were on Leivo scoring, but it was basically a slam dunk to happen. This guy is on a personal mission to score against the Leafs as much as possible. And who can blame him? Well, it happened again.
You can argue whether or not Andersen had that goal covered, but good things happen when you crash the net. This is the kind of thing that still happens to the Leafs — former players haunting them — and to be honest, it’s kind of funny.
I have to say, it is really nice to see Leivo succeeding in Vancouver. He’s playing good minutes, getting power play opportunities and contributing on the score sheet. He never got that chance in Toronto. Now, he’s showing why that was a mistake.
On a night when both Montreal and Tampa won, the Leafs needed to do the same to keep pace. And they did, which means they are still very much in the playoff picture.
While making the playoffs likely requires .650 hockey for the rest of the year, the Leafs have started to find their footing under Keefe and look to be taking positive steps. The special teams are night and day compared to under Babcock, which is an important factor for sustained success. The Leafs still aren’t healthy with Johnsson and Moore out, but this is a lineup that can have some success in December.
With a lighter schedule leading into the All-Star Break, the Leafs should be able to get on a nice little run to put themselves back in the conversation of one of the NHL’s top teams.