Welcome to your worst nightmare. Okay, it wasn’t quite *that* bad, but last night’s playoff opener was about as unwanted of an outcome as the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to get for themselves. The blue and white’s offensive firepower fell flat on Sunday night, and the team dropped Game 1 of their Best-of-5 play-in series against Columbus by a score of 2-0.
- The most obvious thing to note about this game: Both goalies were incredible for 59:59 of this game. Joonas Korpisalo started for Columbus to the surprise of many, but rewarded John Tortorella for the trust with a front-to-back, first-star performance. Frederik Andersen was one of the best players for the Leafs last night.
All the same, that goal Andersen conceded to Cam Atkinson, an unscreened wrist shot from above the faceoff dot with Morgan Rielly cutting off much of the angle, was one that had to be stopped. Hard to place blame on your goaltender when you don’t get him any sort of buffer, but you can’t have too many more of those shots hit the back of the net if you want to win a series like this.
- The Mikheyev-Tavares-Marner line had the best possession numbers on the team last night, and are also taking the most heat in town after being on ice for the lone 5-on-5 goal, and not generating much offensively on their own. So who is right?
Both sides, really. The numbers are results, and it’s evident that the trio heavily outshot and outchanced their matchups (typically Foligno-Wennberg-Atkinson) last night. I thought that they did a good job in transition, particularly in exiting the zone, and they didn’t really give the opponents much.
Of course, we expect those players to score, and there’s a lot of pressure on them to do so. Marner in particular is in the midst of a multi-year playoff slump; seven games without a goal, four without a point, three of four without a shot. While he and the rest of his line did several little things right last night, they were invisible when it came time to tackle the big ones – and that’s a problem. The best way to describe this was a night that would be acceptable if others were performing, when the entire team is cold, you need your game breakers to game break.
- On the opposite end, you have Auston Matthews. His line didn’t fare well in the expected shares against the Texier-Dubois-Bjorkstrand-Werenski-Jones matchup, but he was engaged the entire night and had at least one all-but-sure goal taken away from him by Korpisalo. I also imagine the numbers are somewhat skewed by the fact that Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line was on for a flurry of close-range chances in late in the second period, which Andersen was able to turn away. I thought Hyman was good on the puck retrieval front as he often was, and that Nylander was just okay – again, something that would be acceptable if even one of the game breakers broke open the game.
- As many noticed, the Leafs tried doubling up the two lines with a Matthews-Tavares-Marner trio when they thought they had exposed a weak spot. Didn’t work this time, but I do like the creativity; Matthews’ underlyings with Tavares are unsurprisingly very strong, so it’s nice to have that safety valve.
- The fourth line basically did not play last night, which makes sense when you’re the team with last change and you spend exactly 0:00 of the game with the lead. This is also true when the group gets out-attempted 8 to 1. I’d like to see Pierre Engvall draw in for Game 2; preferably it’s Frederik Gauthier that draws out to facilitate that, but if this and the warmup game are any indication, I’m not sure Toronto misses out on much if Kyle Clifford were to be taken out.
- Penalties were non-existent in this game. I don’t like the idea of using that as an excuse for the loss, but the close score and the fact that neither team is prone to the egregious meant a game where just three penalties were called – by far the lowest of any of the games in the first two days (the average game had about 10). I’ve spoken many times over the years about hockey’s bias towards keeping penalties to avoid “deciding the game”, which ends up punishing disciplined teams – this is what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object in that regard.
- Nick Robertson looked like he belonged once again last night. That third line had several flashes where they looked good, and they could be a scary, speedy option if Kasperi Kapanen develops even a halfway decent hockey IQ. While Marner’s slap pass to the wall with two minutes left probably takes the cake for “most absurd play” of the game, Kapanen’s button hook and fanned shot on a breakaway was a strong second seed – and something he’s not new to doing.
- I haven’t spoken much to the defence, but I generally felt they were fine. Certainly, they look better than they have against Boston in previous playoff years – likely due to the fact that the pairs aren’t so obvious to match up against now. I thought the Muzzin-Holl pair was excellent, while the other two pairs were imperfect but still largely on the right side of things.
- The one thing I’d maybe change in those defensive pairs – I’d like to see the responsibility in Pair 3 swapped around a little bit. It seems like Travis Dermott was doing most of the puck carrying and activation, and maybe that’s because Tyson Barrie was better covered by his opponents, but if given another opportunity it would seem to make more sense to reverse the assignment there.
Overall, I thought this was a fine effort from the Leafs in terms of control, but the lack of an extra gear to create prime scoring opportunities was of definite concern. Matthews had his one robbed chance, but beyond that, how often did it really feel like they were in complete control of the offensive zone? That’s a point of concern to me; the team will need to reach into it’s bag of tricks and try some new material, even if it requires more of a march to the net than a sprint.
Not to mention, they’ll have to figure out this new plan sooner than later. A seven-game series already leaves minimal room for failure – in a Best of 5, there’s next to none. Toronto is suddenly tasked with winning three of the next four to keep their season alive – we know they’re capable at their best, but how soon can they get there?