The Maple Leafs returned home from a rather unsuccessful three game road trip last week, beginning with a Tuesday night game against Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa Bay 7 – Toronto 3
As every Leaf fan knows, Stamkos famously spurned his hometown Leafs this past offseason in favour of returning to the only NHL city he has ever known. Unsurprisingly, a few jaded Leaf fans seemed to take personal offence to this, undeservedly booing the Markham, Ontario native and Canadian hockey icon. Even as a Leafs writer, I must say I was kind of happy when Stamkos immediately answered the catcalls with a goal just over a minute into the game. Stamkos ended up with two goals and two assists for the night, as his Lightning squad annihilated a clearly overmatched Leafs team.
Once again, the Leafs had a relatively strong offensive game, recording 43 shots compared to the 24 they surrendered, but as is the story of this young season so far, Toronto’s shoddy defense let them down. In fact, even with the massive shot advantage, it wasn’t long before the Leafs found themselves down 4-0 in the game.
It was another case of missed defensive assignments, poor board play, unnecessary risks taken by defenders, and an inability to remove the puck from their own end once Tampa seized control of the puck. A lack of communication and defensive structure was evident on a number of goals, notably on the Victor Hedman goal that put the Lightning up 4-0. Crossed signals all around, veterans James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, along with the new defensive pairing of Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev seemed confused as to who was supposed to be covering who, giving Hedman, Stamkos and friends all the time in the world to bury one behind Frederik Andersen.
As stated in previous week reviews, this is going to happen this season. The Rielly-Zaitsev pairing is a new one and it will take time before they properly learn to play with each other, but more is expected out of the Leafs vets, Bozak and van Riemsdyk being prime examples.
Offensively, the Auston Matthews-William Nylander duo looked strong again, while Nazem Kadri, Rielly, and Zaitsev all had notable moments offensively as well.
A beautiful pass from Kadri resulted in a power play goal from Nylander, while strong offensive vision from Rielly and incredible patience from Zaitsev turned into a tip in from van Riemsdyk.
Oh, and there was yet another Nylander to Matthews wrist shot goal, but we’re all getting rather used to that now.
Overall, it’s an understatement to say this was a bad game for Toronto. It’s not like many people were expecting a Leafs team in the process of a youthful rebuild to defeat a Stanley Cup favourite in the Lightning, but giving up seven goals is a failure in anyones eyes. If Toronto tightened up a bit defensively, and had Andersen stopped one or two more relatively stoppable shots and the Leafs still lost, we’d all be looking at this game a little differently.
Toronto Maple Leafs 3 – Florida Panthers 2
This is the game that Frederik Andersen and the rest of the Leafs needed, especially after the drubbing they took from Tampa Bay.
A very strong Florida Panthers team rolled into town, looking to continue where their Florida state counterparts left off. Instead, they faced a Toronto team that played what may have been one of their strongest games of this young season.
Florida took the early lead, with Jonathan Marchessault, one of the best stories of the season thus far, took advantage of a bad Morgan Rielly giveaway that lead to a 2-on-1 that Andersen had really no chance to stop. Toronto battled back before the end of the period, Tyler Bozak scoring the tying goal late in the frame, with Mitch Marner recording his first assist of three on the night. Marchessault scored again, this time on the powerplay, before James van Riemsdyk took advantage of an outstanding no look pass from Marner to tie the game up yet again. Bozak scored his second goal of the game just a few minutes later, once again off of a beauty pass from Marner to put the Leafs up 3-2 and they never looked back.
Toronto held a one goal lead throughout the entire third period for the first time this season, although it wasn’t exactly due to a good all-round defensive effort. Instead, Frederik Andersen stood on his head, playing the best game he’s had as a Leaf, preserving the 3-2 victory.
However, even though they recorded the win, it was another lacklustre defensive performance from the Leafs, littered with defensive zone breakdowns, relatively poor even strength play, and some bad decision making on the offensive side of things from their defensemen, such as multiple attempts at low percentage outlet passes and bad pinches.
Nonetheless, Toronto won a game against a very good Panthers team, and they took that momentum to Montreal, as they headed to Quebec to take on the arch-rival Canadiens on Saturday.
Montreal Canadiens 2 – Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Alright, forget what I said about the Florida game possibly being the best game from the Leafs this season, and forget the fact that Toronto lost this game; THIS was the best effort from the 2016/2017 Maple Leafs thus far.
Toronto dominated play for the majority of the first two periods against a Montreal team that have exploded out of the gates so far this season, propelled by outstanding play from Shea Weber and the dominant return of the best goalie in the world, Carey Price. If not for the incredible play of Price, Toronto may have entered the third period with the lead, instead of being behind 1-0.
Morgan Rielly found himself caught behind Alex Radulov and Alex Galchenyuk, who have displayed incredible chemistry so far this season, early in the second period, resulting in an odd-man rush that saw Galchenyuk bury a Radulov pass that put the Canadiens in the lead.
A beautiful pass from William Nylander early in the third frame resulted in a tip-in powerplay goal from Nazem Kadri that tied the game up, but after that the Canadiens seemed to find a second gear, overtaking the flow of the game and surging back in the shot attempts column.
Poor discipline and defensive play ended up being Toronto’s downfall in this game, as Connor Carrick, who’s struggled on the defensive side of things at times this season, lost his positioning in a 4-on-4 situation and ended up taking a hooking penalty that gave Montreal a 4-on-3 powerplay. Shea Weber took immediate advantage of the situation, scoring what turned out to be the winning goal on an absolute bomb of a slapshot from the point.
Carey Price stood on his head from there on, resulting in the 2-1 win for Montreal.
Even though they lost, there was a lot of good to be taken out of this game from a Toronto point of view. Montreal is off to a torrid start and the Leafs stayed competitive throughout the whole game, pushing the Habs to their absolute limit. Frederik Andersen had his second straight great game, Nylander, Matthews, Kadri, and a number of other players had stellar overall games, and even Martin Marincin, one of the goats of the team so far, had what was without a doubt his best game of the season.
There was seemingly a lot to look forward to as Toronto headed to Brooklyn to face the Islanders in a rare 6:00 Sunday evening game.
New York Islanders 5 – Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Well, THAT was a step backwards.
One day after their strongest game of the season, a tired looking Leafs group laid an absolute egg against a struggling Islanders team.
Toronto started off poorly almost immediately, allowing a Travis Hamonic shot to go in on just the second shift of the game. The veteran duo of Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, who have been woefully inconsistent to start the season, looked bad on the goal, Bozak uncharacteristically losing a defensive zone draw, and JVR showing poor defensive stick work and having the Harmonic shot deflect off of his stick and past a hopeless Jhonas Enroth.
Toronto recovered and had a number of strong shifts before the Bozak and van Riemsdyk had another poor shift that resulted in a goal. Bad footwork from Roman Polak lead to a break and both Bozak and JVR looked slow and careless on the back check, resulting the Isles’ second goal of the game.
A number of strong shifts for Toronto followed that goal, but New York goalie Thomas Greiss stood tall and stoned the Leafs on a few good looks, notably from Bozak and Connor Carrick.
Jake Gardiner scored a powerplay goal at the start of the third period, making it a 2-1 game before New York took over the rest of the match.
It quickly turned into a blowout, with the JVR and Bozak combo recording a -4 +/- rating, and ended up being called out by Mike Babcock following the game, saying “They need to be a lot better.”
It was a disappointing finish to the opening month of the NHL season, but there is a lot to be excited about in LeafLand. It’s been over a decade since Toronto was this exciting to watch, they’re an absolute treat to watch offensively, and the defensive aspect of the game will come to this young group with time. All the losses aside, it’s an exciting time to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs.
William Nylander: His 11 points in 9 games leads rookie scoring and is good for third overall in the league. His offensive chemistry with Matthews thus far is outstanding, and he’s been a pleasure to watch in the offensive zone. Obviously, the defensive side needs work.
Auston Matthews: I don’t like to say he’s “fallen off” since his massive debut, but he’s understandably slid a little. He wasn’t going to be averaging four points a game all season, and he’s still been a gem offensively. Has 10 points in 9 games.
Mitch Marner: Was an absolute beast against Florida, notching three assists. Aside from that, he’s been sound all over the ice, showing more defensive prowess than expected. Has showcased incredible vision and speed, and has carried his line mates at times, usually van Riemsdyk and Bozak.
Nikita Zaitsev: Staggered a little this week in a bigger role, spending significant time with Morgan Rielly on the top pairing. Has still been a massive bright spot throughout the first month of his NHL career.
Martin Marincin: Looked better this week after being bumped down the defensive depth chart and put back on his natural left side. Started off the season poorly, but had his best game of the year against Montreal.
Frederik Andersen: Battled through a few rough outings and rebounded nicely with sterling performances against Florida and Montreal. This is the Andersen the Leafs thought they were getting.
Nazem Kadri: Has adapted well to a more checking oriented role, while still chipping in with big moments offensively. Could be better on the draw, but has shown great grit, been responsible in both ends and is emerging as a team leader. A great start to the season for Kadri.
Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk: Have both been streaky all season. There’s moments where they’ve been huge, but have also been the two vets that have made the most mistakes this year. Bozak’s been fantastic on the draw though, and both players have chipped in with timely goals. Both need to be more consistent.
Morgan Rielly: Has looked a little overmatched as a number one defenseman thus far, struggling with bad turnovers at times and occasionally scrambling in the defensive end. Having a rotating cast of d-partners hasn’t helped, it’ll be interesting to see if he develops good chemistry with Zaitsev.
Seth Griffith: Finally made his Leafs debut and was solid if unspectacular in three games. Had a few good scoring chances he couldn’t capitalize on, but was a top notch player possession wise in limited minutes. Overall, had a good first week of action as a Leaf.
The Week Ahead:
Connor McDavid plays in the ACC for the first time as the Edmonton Oilers come to town on Tuesday, then the Leafs head to Buffalo to take on the Sabres on Thursday before returning home to face the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.
William Nylander was named October’s Rookie of the Month, leading all rookies in scoring.
Josh Leivo was loaned to the Toronto Marlies for a conditioning stint, Matt Hunwick was placed on the IR with a lower body injury, and Nikita Soshnikov was recalled from the Marlies to fill the roster spot.