So, THAT happened.
The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their centennial season in style this past week, honouring the legends of the past, while simultaneously showcasing their pool of young talent, led by a record breaking performance from Auston Matthews.
By now every hockey fan knows what happened in Ottawa on Wednesday night. In the season opener against the Senators, Auston Matthews netted four (yes, FOUR) goals, becoming the first player in modern NHL history to debut with a four goal game. Yes, the Leafs lost the game 5-4 in overtime, but thats really besides the point. It was an absolutely dominant performance from Matthews, the kind of night a player has that makes fans 30 years down the road ask their friends “Where were you when Matthews scored four?” The Leafs lost the game, but Matthews and company gave Leafs fans something to truly go nuts for, it really was a debut for the ages.
Matthews aside, the Leafs as a team actually outperformed Ottawa for the majority of the game, let down only by subpar goaltending from Frederik Andersen, and untimely defensive breakdowns. Mitch Marner was great in his debut, as was Nikita Zaitsev. The young guns come out firing, Marner in particular having an ample amount of opportunities to score, and William Nylander and Zach Hyman looked fantastic on a line with Matthews.
Defense was suspect, but that’s to be expected this season. It’s no secret that Andersen had an off night in goal, but the Leafs brass is confident that he will turn it around moving forward. All in all, it was a promising night for Toronto, win or not.
Three days later, the Leafs made their home debut against the Boston Bruins after a lengthy ceremony honouring Toronto’s centennial season and the great Leafs of the past. The organization did a wonderful job with the ceremony, which ended with the retirement of all the previously “honoured” numbers, plus the great Dave Keon, who had a falling out with the old Ballard led Leafs brass. It was great to see both the organization and Keon move on from what happened in the past, and seeing all those great Leafs stand around centre ice and have their jerseys retired brought chills down my spine.
Moving on to the game itself, Toronto came flying out of the gates, led by physical play from Matt Martin, Nazem Kadri winning a rematch fight against David Backes, and ended the first period with goals from Connor Brown, James van Riemsdyk, and Mitch Marner’s first career goal.
Frederik Andersen was much better than he was against Ottawa, and saved the Leafs a number of times in a second period that saw Boston take advantage of some weak defensive play and poor puck possession numbers.
Milan Michalek tipped in a Morgan Rielly shot to seal the game up at 4-1, and just like that Toronto had their first win of the young season, finishing off the week with a 1-0-1 record and 3 points.
Toronto’s next games are against Winnipeg, Minnesota and Chicago, starting in Winnipeg on Wednesday.
Here are some notes on some key Leafs players:
Auston Matthews – What else is there to say? It was a breathtaking performance, a truly special night, and a pleasure to watch. We may never see a debut like this again, so Leafs fans, cherish this moment. The first goal saw strong forechecking from Nylander and Hyman result in Matthews receiving a pass from behind the goal directly in the slot. The second was a thing of beauty. It was a solo effort that saw Matthews embarrass three key Ottawa players (Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson) with dekes before sneaking the puck through Craig Anderson’s five hole. The hat trick goal, which occurred only a couple of minutes into the second period, was set up by Morgan Rielly, who threw a beautiful pass to Matthews that he finished off with relative ease. The fourth goal showcased some already great chemistry between Matthews and Nylander, with the two of them going off on a 2-on-1 before Nylander slid the puck across to Matthews, who quickly buried it and sent the visiting Leafs fans into a frenzy. It was a spectacular night, one that Leafs fans will never forget. He wasn’t quite as dominant against Boston, staying off the scoresheet, but we were still treated with occasional flashes of elite offensive action from him and his linemates.
William Nylander: Had two assists on Matthews goals and had great chemistry on a line with him and Zach Hyman. Nylander looked solid and speedy on the forecheck and showed his innate sense for playmaking throughout the night, specifically with the saucer pass that set up Matthews’ fourth. Like Matthews, was shut down by the Riley Nash, Dominic Moore, Noel Acciari line.
Zach Hyman: Did a lot of the dirty work for Matthews and Nylander, going into the corners and fighting for the puck. Was great on the forecheck and looked solid overall when pressured on the defensive side.
Mitch Marner: Had a fantastic debut, although he was held off the scoresheet. Had numerous scoring chances, including a breakaway and a hit crossbar, and carried his linemates, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, throughout the entire game. Marner’s speed and sense for the net was shown throughout, but at times it looked like he was still playing a “Junior hockey” game. By that I mean that Marner occasionally took too long to make a play and Ottawa’s defense would catch up to him. It seemed like he thought he would have all the time in the world, like he’s accustom to in the OHL, but the pro game is faster and stronger, and Marner seemed to be caught off guard at times. No worries though, it’s only a matter of time before he learns and adapts. Had a great second game, receiving a pass from Nikita Zaitsev, and blowing a wrister past Anton Khudobin for his first NHL goal. That goal aside, Marner had a few absolutely dominant shifts, showing off his elite speed, handles, and offensive ability.
Frederik Andersen: Five goals on 30 shots, it wasn’t the best of debuts for Toronto’s latest hope in goal. I’m giving Andersen a pass on this game however, as it’s easy to forget that he had a shortened pre-season due to his injury he sustained while playing an Olympic qualifying game. His defense didn’t exactly help him, with Jake Gardiner not covering Bobby Ryan properly, resulting in a screen and a goal. Martin Marincin didn’t look great on the Derick Brassard goal either, but that was still a shot Andersen probably should have had. He looked much better against Boston, recording 24 saves and playing with poise throughout. That was the Frederik Andersen we saw in Anaheim, and the one that Toronto needs. Expect some off nights moving forward as he adjusts to a new system, but his play against Boston was promising.
Nikita Zaitsev: Heavily impressed me so far, looked great in both games defensively, and recorded his first point with an assist on Marner’s goal. Took a bigger role in the Ottawa game when Matt Hunwick was injured, and looked comfortable playing with Morgan Rielly. Will likely take Marincin’s spot playing with Rielly full time at some point soon. Was excellent in boxing players out, physically removing players off of the puck, and properly using poke and sweep checks. Moved the puck well, was solid defensively and physically, Zaitsev couldn’t have kicked off his NHL career any better.
Matt Martin: Stirred things up physically, went after Chris Neil and fought Mark Borowiecki and Zdeno Chara. Finished his checks, provided leadership and free space to roam for Toronto’s more skilled players. Every team needs a Matt Martin on it.
Nazem Kadri: Taking a bit of a side role offensively nowadays, he’s becoming more of a two-way centre now and played a defensively responsible game against both Ottawa and Boston. Was seen on the penalty kill, and did a fine job stifling the oppositions offensive presences. Still saw a lot of power play time, was dominant in the face off dot (69% in both games) and even fought, and beat, David Backes in a rematch from last year. A very impressive start to the season from Kadri overall.
Morgan Rielly: Played big minutes in both games and recorded his first point of the year with his assist on Matthews’ hat trick goal. Interesting to note that he was a 41.67CF% when playing with Martin Marincin, and a 63.63%CF when playing with someone else. Zaitsev looked good with him, would be interesting to see that pairing full time.
Martin Marincin: Overmatched on a top pairing, plain and simple. Was on the ice for three goals against in Ottawa and looked bad on a couple of them. Will not last on the top pairing with Rielly for much longer.
Jake Gardiner: Looked poor defensively on the Bobby Ryan goal, failing to tie him up or move him out, but otherwise looked alright while playing with Connor Carrick. Keep an eye on that pairing moving forward.
James van Riemsdyk: Had an underwhelming game against Ottawa, with only the odd good shift, but rebounded in game two, scoring his first goal of the season. JVR, Komarov and some of the other vets need to be better.
Tyler Bozak: Marner drove the line and JVR and Bozak struggled to keep up at times. Tried playing too fancy at first, but improved in game two when going back to what he’s best at; driving the lane and setting up the more skilled players.