Last year’s season opener set a couple of different bars for Leafs debuts moving forward. On the individual scale, Auston Matthews’ four-goal explosion became the bar that every player would be judged against for the rest of time. On the team side, though? Wasting that effort by losing 5-4 left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

A painful 5-4 loss was also the theme of Toronto’s first game against Winnipeg last year, so with all of that in mind, fans hoped for a much better result than both of those games last night. While things looked rocky to start, the Leafs delivered, chasing new Jets starter Steve Mason out of the goal and bringing a 7-2 win back to Toronto ahead of their home opener this weekend.

Highlights

Spreads

5v5 Possession: Percentage of shots taken towards the net (Corsi, CF%) taken while the player is taken on the ice.

Game Score: A single-game performance metric created by Dom Luszczyszyn. Read about the methodology behind it here.

Patty’s Premiere

While he got some preseason reps in, tonight was Patrick Marleau’s real first game as a member of the Leafs. Playing it in Winnipeg worked out pretty well for him; as a native of Aneroid, Saskatchewan, a flight turned into a drive for much of his family, allowing them to see his debut in person.

He certainly delivered, taking in this pass from Auston Matthews to get his first goal in Blue and White:

Shortly after, he’d finish off a crafty play by Nazem Kadri to get his second of the game. While I doubt Marleau is going to be chasing 40 again like he did in his youth, I think he’s going settle in just fine with this group. His mobility was on blatant display throughout the night, which is usually not something you say about a 37-year-old playing on arguably the fastest all-around team in hockey.

The Trilogy

Auston Matthews didn’t hit us with the four again last night, but he did still manage to pick up a goal and two assists. The goal wasn’t particularly highlight reel material, just a nice deflection in front of the net. What’s fun, though is that Mitch Marner and William Nylander also joined him on the score sheet, also opting more for the gimmies along the side of the net.

There are a few things you could get from that. Maybe it’s that they’ve evolved into making goals look effortless, maybe that it shows a lack of fear with all of them not being strangers to the crease, but most importantly, it’s awesome to see¬†the whole trio scoring goals on the same night.

Impressively, this is becoming an increasingly common trend. The three have all scored in four games in the past nine months, with nearly half of that time taken up by an offseason. Those occurrences were on February 6th (vs NYI), April 1st (vs DET), September 29th (vs DET, preseason), and last night. Hopefully, they keep coming.

Timing is Everything

Toronto relied heavily on their top penalty kill unit last night. Nikita Zaitsev played 11 minutes on the PK, Ron Hainsey played 12, and no other Leafs defenceman played more than three. Leo Komarov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, and Eric Fehr played between 5:50 and 7:34 each. Yes, eight kills were involved, but those are obscene numbers.

For two of those forwards, it was also the key to a regular shift; special teams accounted for half of Fehr and Brown’s ice time last night. The fourth line was used very sparingly at evens, which is made obvious when looking at all-situations TOI:

Martin did still manage to do “his” job, leading the Leafs in hits, throwing six while nobody had more than two. Adam Lowry (3 in 20 minutes) and Jacob Trouba (4 in 25 minutes) were the only ones who came close on Winnipeg, as far as finishing checks went. It’s up to you to decide whether that matters, though.

Laine Lockdown

While they weren’t able to completely shut Patrik Laine down (he had a sick saucer pass to Mark Scheifele in the third period that broke Frederik Andersen’s shutout), the Leafs managed to limit him to no goals and two shots on goal in a game where they were on the penalty kill eight times. How? By isolating in on him.

This doesn’t always work, particularly on teams with a lot of shooting options, but Laine’s generational shot has made him the nucleus of Winnipeg’s man-advantage unit. Perhaps this was a lesson learned from facing Washington in the playoffs and dealing with Alex Ovechkin, but giving Laine enough room to make the pass seem feasible but not enough to get a direct shot proved very effective last night.

Equipment Malfunction

The league is trying its best to crack down on small little equipment rules, and it frustrated the Leafs heavily last night. Take Leo Komarov, for example, as Toronto’s first penalty kill of the game came because he was wearing his visor in a way that gave him no eye protection. Mike Babcock was baffled by the whole ordeal:

Things didn’t get much better when Frederik Andersen was forced to change his stick’s tape colour to start the second period (dark blue blends too much with the crease and puck for goal reviews), and Eric Fehr was reminded to keep his jersey untucked (Fehr explained that he wasn’t used to the new Adidas cuts yet).

Ultimately, these are really frustrating, insignificant looking grievances to players and even fans who have seen minor infractions get a blind eye turned to them for years. Could you imagine, for example, if every player who didn’t have their fight strap done up got the mandatory penalty for it?

But these infractions exist at such a scale because of the blind eye, and all of them are easily avoidable. Komarov can wear a bigger visor, tilt his a little lower, or thanks to his grandfather clause, go without. Andersen can reach for a different roll of tape. Fehr… well, if the jersey is tight on him, he might want to size up. Whatever the case, the players will figure it all out in due time.

Nasty Naz

Last year was Nazem Kadri’s breakout season as a player, as he barreled his way to the 30-goal mark (got the first of his next maybe-30 last night, on that note), and proved himself to be the star of Toronto’s shutdown line, going up against the best skaters in the league to slow them down.

He did lose one of his best prior traits, though, and that was his ability to drive penalty differential. Referees became stricter on infractions against him to balance his divers reputation, and he started taking more of his own as his quality of competition increased.

Last night, we saw the old Kadri come back a little bit, drawing two hilarious penalties:

Say what you will about him going down a little easy, but the reality is this: Nazem Kadri is here to win a ring, not a Lady Byng. Powerplays create goals, and Kadri knows how to create powerplays. Toronto didn’t convert on either penalty that he drew last night, but they managed to turn his second one into a 5-on-3 and score on the back half of that. These all add up, so as long as he doesn’t start taking embellishment penalties, I’m all for these grey-area collisions going in his favour.

Jake the Snake

Sometimes, an assist is so nice that you almost want to give the player two, or even award him the goal. Jake Gardiner’s effort on the 3-0 goal was just that.

As he curls over to the middle of the ice, Gardiner opens his body up and winds his stick to the left side. This gives two feasible options to an already screened Steve Mason; a shot, or maybe a hopeful pass to Auston Matthews, coming in on the right side.

Mason commits to the right. One problem; without breaking position, Gardiner has already made a hard, direct pass to William Nylander, who is standing right in the slot.

This gives Nylander all the time in the world to bury his goal, which he does without hesitation. These are the little things that many don’t pick up in Gardiner’s game; he’s constantly doing different and creative things, with and without the puck, but the ease in which he does them makes them hard to pick up on unless they lead to a goal or a mistake and counter-attack. The latter sullied Gardiner’s reputation for years, but as he’s become surrounded with talent that can receive and finish off the former, his respect level has bounced back in a big way. I’ll leave you with one more little play that I enjoyed before we wrap this up:

Coming up Next

A blowout win is a great way to get things started, but there are still 81 games to go in the season. Celebrate last night, reminisce this morning, get back to work this afternoon, right? Their next game comes on Saturday when they take on the New York Rangers at the Air Canada Centre for their home opener. Hopefully, it’ll be just as much of a treat as the last one.

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