After a three day break to start the week off, it was a quick three games in four nights for the Toronto Maple Leafs, starting with a much anticipated visit to Winnipeg on Wednesday.
Winnipeg 5 – Toronto – 4 (OT)
The trip to Winnipeg meant one thing for both fanbases, the first head-to-head matchup of the #1 and #2 picks of the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Matthews, of course, set the hockey world on fire with his four goal debut, but this time it was Patrik Laine’s time to shine.
The Leafs burst out of the gate with Connor Carrick’s first goal of the season, almost seven minutes into the game. Nazem Kadri made it 2-0 before the end of the first period, then William Nylander got the third goal of the game early in the second period (which saw Matthews record his first career assist), followed by Kadri’s second goal of the game just eight seconds later. The game was seemingly in the bag, or so we thought.
Leafs fans are no strangers to third period collapses, as we’ve seen countless times over the past decade, most notably a certain game seven collapse against the Bruins that we shall never mention again. This time, the meltdown started just over halfway through the second period.
Tyler Myers started the scoring for Winnipeg, before Laine scored his second career goal, making the score 4-2 going into the third period.
Mark Scheifele scored early in the frame and then Laine tied the game up on a power play goal.
The game was sent into overtime, where Matthews was denied by Michael Hutchinson on a great breakaway chance that ended up turning into Laine’s hat trick goal.
After Hutchinson’s save, Dustin Byfuglien corralled the rebound and sent a pass to Laine, who burst down the right side of the ice and fired a wrist shot past Frederik Andersen and just under the crossbar, completing his first career hat trick and ending the game, much to the delight of the Winnipeg faithful.
So, what went wrong with the Leafs? How did yet another third period collapse happen?
First, let me preface this by saying it is far from time to panic. Toronto has points in all three games they’ve played so far, and we’ve seen significant improvement compared to last season. Actually, significant is an understatement, this team isn’t even in the same realm as the majority of Leaf squads from the past 15 years or so.
This team is supposed to have its ups and downs, and so far, they’ve delivered as advertised. They’ve been an explosive team offensively, rush after rush, scoring chance after scoring chance. However, defensively they’ve left a lot to be desired. Honestly, if you expected otherwise this season, you’re kidding yourself.
Simply put, Winnipeg got their act together about halfway through the second period, and Toronto couldn’t keep up with their push. The Jets owned even-strength possession for most of the game and eventually, the Leafs inexperienced d-core cracked.
The youthful line of Matthews, Nylander and Zach Hyman underwhelmed for the second game in a row, providing good offensive moments, but looked lacklustre defensively even strength, getting caught in their own end for long periods of time on multiple occasions.
Overall, it was obviously a disappointing game for Toronto, no one wants to blow a 4-0 lead. But, there are supposed to be growing pains this year, and honestly, Toronto’s offence is looking as good as advertised, possibly better. Yeah, there’s a lot of work to do defensively, but that’s what rebuilding seasons are for.
Nazem Kadri: Scored two goals, including one on the power play, and did good work digging the puck out of the Jets’ defense on a 5 on 3 PP, allowing Nikita Zaitsev and Matthews to set up a beautiful Nylander goal.
William Nylander: Solid PP goal on a beautiful finish, assisted on Kadri’s second goal of the game. Looked great on the PP, mediocre defensively even strength.
Auston Matthews: Similar to Nylander, looked great on PP, not great at even strength. Might be interesting to see a bit of a line juggle to avoid having three rookies on the same line. Notched his first career assist.
Jake Gardiner: Same old story with Jake. Jumping into the rush frequently, resulted in at least two goals; one for Toronto, one for Winnipeg. Bad pinch led to the Tyler Myers goal. Needs to contain and regulate his aggressiveness.
Martin Marincin: Led the Leafs in ice time, which should never happen. Overmatched once again, and playing on his wrong side, he needs to be replaced by Zaitsev as Morgan Rielly’s partner.
Nikita Zaitsev: Once again, may have been Toronto’s best d-man. Will have a bigger role moving forward.
Leo Komarov: Great on PP, did the dirty, physical work on Kadri’s PP goal, ended up with a secondary assist. Won battles all night long, creating chances offensively.
Frederik Andersen: Was probably Toronto’s best player early on, making key saves throughout before the entire team went off the rails in the third. Looked slow and laboured on the PP one-timer goal from Laine. Did make 29 saves and bailed the Leafs out numerous times early on.
Fourth line: Matt Martin, Peter Holland and Connor Brown had another good game, hard-working all throughout and even had a couple of scoring chances and were responsible for a few changes in momentum.
Minnesota 3 – Toronto 2
Once again, the end result was a loss for Toronto, this one being their first regulation loss of the season, but there was more to the loss than meets the eye.
Toronto played quite well for the majority of the game, especially considering the fact that they were playing their first back-to-back games of the season, and Minnesota was well rested. Let’s add in the fact that the man in net, Jhonas Enroth, was making his season debut and Martin Marincin, who as mentioned earlier led the Leafs in ice time last game, was out with an injury. All things considered, this was not a bad game for the 2016/2017 Maple Leafs, and they actually controlled even strength play for most of the game.
As per usual and as should be expected this season, there were untimely defensive errors and a lack of clutch goaltending, but once again, this is what this season is for; to iron out the kinks.
Toronto probably even should have had a couple more goals, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk stood on his head throughout the game, and it was only Dubnyk and Eric Staal, who apparently thinks it’s 2008 again, that won the game for Minnesota.
Enroth did well enough throughout the game, coming up with key saves throughout the first two periods. However, his efforts were not enough, as a couple of defensive miscues, namely from Connor Carrick and Auston Matthews, led to a couple of scoring chances and goals. Regardless of the team’s defensive play, I’m sure Enroth would like to have at least one of the third period goals back, both were relatively stoppable pucks.
Jhonas Enroth: Stood tall in the first couple of periods, but as previously stated, let in a soft goal or two. All in all, not a bad debut for the new Leafs backup.
Connor Carrick: Has had growing pains defensively so far this year, but again, to be expected. Contributed to two Wild goals, one where he left Morgan Rielly out to dry with an overaggressive move at the blueline, and a bad pinch that helped out Eric Staal on his breakaway goal. Doing good things possession-wise however, actually leading the team in CF% for the night.
Auston Matthews: Scored another goal, this one on the powerplay, capitalizing on his chances. Was smothered by Ryan Suter throughout the game, and his possession numbers and breakout chances suffered accordingly. Not a bad thing, 99% of the league would have suffered a similar fate. Had a turnover that contributed to Staal’s breakaway goal.
Fourth Line: Connor Brown, Peter Holland and Matt Martin continue to impress. Tenacious all around, they’ve gritted their way to a few offensive chances and continue to be momentum setters. Martin’s been effective in a penalty killing role thus far as well.
Roman Polak: Slotting in for the injured Marincin, Polak scored the opening goal of the game with a blast from the point. Blocked seven shots in 15 minutes of work.
Nikita Zaitsev: Needs to be paired with Rielly ASAP. Continues to impress mightily, looks poised and unafraid of any opposition. Successfully boxed out opponents, led the team in ice-time, and doesn’t miss many defensive assignments. Really feel like it’s only a matter of time before he ends up as Rielly’s full time partner.
William Nylander: Outstanding as a puck carrier and on the powerplay, his play in his own end is still scary at times. Will continue to improve in that aspect throughout the year. Assisted on the Matthews goal, giving him five points in four games thus far.
Chicago 5 – Toronto 4 (SO)
Toronto recorded another point, albeit in yet another overtime/shootout loss, but still has points in four of five games. Started slow out of the gate, struggling to get the puck out of their own end and out of the hands of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Coughed up another third period lead, much to the ire of the Twittersphere, but defensive miscues are going to keep happening this year as this team grows, and fans need to quickly accept that.
This year is going to be full of growing pains, it’s time to expect as such.
Defensively, the Leafs were scrambling yet again, and Frederik Andersen has yet to hit his stride.
Frederik Andersen: Loss was not his fault, but would like to have the tying goal back. Absolutely robbed Kane on a couple of chances in the slot. Not a particularly inspiring performance, but far from bad.
Roman Polak: Was a physical beast, wrecking Dennis Rasmussen on a hit that resulted in a penalty, but nonetheless set his physical tone for the game. Failed to clear the puck that lead to Richard Panik’s tying goal.
Auston Matthews: Played head to head against Toews and came out with the shot attempt advantage. Assisted on Nylander’s power play goal and may have played his best defensive game of the season. Scored in the shootout as well.
William Nylander: Had two goals on the night, continuing to show brilliant chemistry with Matthews, nearly assisting on a backhand that Matthews missed as well. Has seven points in five games to start the year.
Tyler Bozak: Beautiful tip in the slot resulted in a goal, was strong defensively and in the face-off circle. Improving after a lacklustre first couple of games.
James van Riemsdyk: Continued to struggle a bit, and was replaced by Connor Brown at times. Woke up in the second period, had multiple scoring chances, his best resulting in a goal and a hit post.
Mitch Marner: Had plenty of offensive chances and was buzzing throughout the night. Is starting to gain Babcock’s trust on the defensive end, seeing ice time in the final minutes of play. Had a notable block on Patrick Kane.
Nazem Kadri: May have had his worst game of the young season. Took a bit of a step back after a good first few games, he looked slow at times defensively, especially on the Panarin goal. Had poor possession stars, mediocre face off numbers, and took a careless high-sticking penalty. Don’t expect his next game to be like this one.
Zach Hyman: Played nearly five minutes on the penalty kill and led the team in puck possession. Had a couple of notable scoring chances in the goalmouth and continues to show doggedness and tenacity.
Connor Brown: May be playing himself out of the fourth line, will undoubtedly be bumped up upon the first injury. Saw time with Bozak and Marner as well as Kadri and Komarov. Did not look out of place there at all, he may end up on the Kadri line full time sooner rather than later.
Jake Gardiner/Connor Carrick: This pairing has been scaring me so far, and had a poor night defensively. Both had off nights, frequently losing positioning and leading to Chicago scoring chances. Babcock’s experimented with his d-pairings constantly thus far, and it wouldn’t shock me to see Carrick scratched at some point to see what Frank Corrado can do. Not a knock on Carrick, again, this is to be expected this year.
Growing pains. It’s going to happen throughout this season, especially on the defensive end, so get used to it, Leaf fans.
The Week Ahead:
Josh Leivo and Martin Marincin remain out with lower-body injuries. Leivo has yet to play this season, and is not due for an imminent return. Marincin’s injury had led to playing time for Roman Polak, expect Polak to continue seeing action, and maybe we’ll see an appearance from Frank Corrado.
The Leafs come back home after a three game road trip and play host to Tampa Bay on Tuesday and Florida on Thursday before heading to Montreal for Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday.