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Knee Jerk Reaction: Leafs defensive concerns resurface in overtime loss to Islanders

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Photo credit:© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
1 month ago
Auston Matthews continued his torrid pace and pulled the Leafs to a 3-1 lead with two quick goals early in the second period, but they were unable to hold on as the Islanders battled back to win the game 4-3 in overtime.
The Leafs generated their fair share of chances throughout the game, but they also gave up more in their own end than they have in recent games. Following an impressive four-game winning streak that saw them limit the opposition to just three total goals, the cracks in Toronto’s blue line began to resurface against the Islanders on Thursday night.
It wasn’t simply a matter of poor coverage and bad reads while defending, but the Leafs’ lack of puck moving ability proved to be an issue once again against a strong forechecking team. Morgan Rielly did his thing, carrying the load in that regard from the back end, and Timothy Liljegren moved the puck efficiently for the most part, but there were some ugly moments when Leafs defenders had the puck on their stick in this one.
TJ Brodie made a nice play inside the offensive blue line to help set up Bobby McMann’s tying goal in the opening frame, but he struggled to manage the puck well for most of the rest of the night. That has become a common theme for the historically reliable Brodie, with too many plays dying on his stick at both ends of the ice this season, leading to quality chances against. He is a heavily relied upon piece of the Leafs’ defensive core, but age appears to be catching up to him, and the Leafs may have to find a way to scale back his role down the stretch.
Speaking of age catching up to guys, Thursday’s game was a tough one for Mark Giordano as well. Never known for being the most fleet of foot, Giordano’s lack of mobility was also apparent against the relentless Islanders forwards. Even with time and space after the Leafs’ withstood an offensive push from the Isles, the forecheck was able to close on Giordano and disrupt what should have been an easy clearing attempt, leading to Bo Horvat’s tying goal just seconds later.
Jake McCabe and his partner Simon Benoit have been a solid pairing for the Leafs since being put together a few weeks ago, but neither of them would be classified as natural puck movers either. Benoit has done a good job of playing within the framework of his skill set, keeping it simple and finding the proper outlet more often than not, and McCabe has routinely been tasked with starting the breakout. McCabe is a capable passer with decent mobility, but he earns his paycheque in the defensive zone despite a productive stretch recently. Like Brodie, he is probably being tasked with too much at times and that showed up at the worst moment for the Leafs on Thursday.
As he often does, McCabe started the overtime period with Matthews and Mitch Marner. After Marner and Matthews won the puck back and dished it back to McCabe in order to regroup, Matthews slashed through the neutral zone with a step on his check, but McCabe sailed the pass well beyond Matthews’ reach. What could have been a breakaway opportunity for the league’s best goal scorer instead went for icing, and in predictable fashion, the puck wound up in the Leafs’ net directly following the ensuing faceoff.
The Leafs deserve credit for locking it down against some inferior opponents recently, but the blue line has been an obvious area of need all season long, and Thursday’s collapse at the hands of the Islanders only reinforced that. Rielly has been excellent this season, McCabe has been solid for the most part, Brodie and Giordano still have something left in the tank, Liljegren is showing signs of developing into a bonafide top four defenceman, and Benoit has emerged as a reliable depth piece, but it still feels like the Leafs need someone else who can handle heavy minutes alongside Rielly while pushing everyone else down the depth chart.
With the Nylander contract handled and the trade deadline rapidly approaching, general manager Brad Treliving’s next order of business is finding that player.
 
Statistics from NHL.com

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