The Kings represent something of a boogeyman for the Leafs in the same way that the Bruins do, in that Jonathan Bernier has never beat his old team. This is a somewhat-parallel situation to the way the Leafs struggled to beat the Bruins post-Kessel deal, and it's certainly no coincidence that both the Bruins and the Kings play similar games styles.
The Kings' game (much like that of the Bruins') relies more heavily than most on dump-ins followed by strong forechecking play. At the other end, their defencemen move the puck very quickly down low, and make it very difficult for their opponents to gain any traction via their own forechecking work, and so the Kings often spend very little time in their own zone.
Right away it was obvious that the Leafs were going to have their work cut out for them, as the Kings checked extremely closely in all three zones and were very strong along the boards - an area of particular weakness for the Leafs.
The good news was that it only took until 5:31 into the first period for the Leafs to get on the board, with Leo Komarov opening the scoring on a great tip play. Matt Hunwick made a perfect wrist shot/pass to Komarov who was creating traffic in front of Jhonas Enroth, who tipped the puck towards the complete opposite side of the net. Michael Grabner, fresh off a goal against San Jose, got a promotion to the Nazem Kadri line for the evening, and picked up the secondary assist on the play.
Apart from that, the period really belonged to the Kings. They only out-shot the Leafs 9-7 in the first frame, but the Kings destroyed the Leafs on the shot attempt chart - the Leafs blocked 11 shots. They also forced the Leafs' defenders into making several big giveaways, and Jonathan Bernier had to be very good to keep his team in the lead.
The Leafs managed two or three stretches of extended possession in the Kings' zone, but often failed to even attempt a shot, as the Kings' hard work never allowed the Leafs clean possession of the puck.
The second period began with more of the same themes: the Kings dominating possession and heavy defensive structure on both sides. Two chances did manage to develop, however, as Bernier absolutely robbed Marion Gaborik only to see Peter Holland break in on a breakaway and then a partial breakaway immediately after. Enroth turned away both attempts.
The Kadri line was matched all night to the line of Anze Kopitar, but although Kadri manages the puck better this year than he ever has in his career, he and his line still got absolutely schooled by Kopitar's unit through the first half of the game. In fact, the Leafs' best chances often came from their bottom six set of forwards. Byron Froese had several great opportunities to score with the fourth line while Joffrey Lupul and Holland made some noise on the third line.
It strikes me as intentional on Babcock's part to try to win this game on the basis of bottom-line pairings instead of trying to match one of them against Kopitar to free up the Kadri line from its shutdown duties, which is an interesting strategy to say the least.
Through two periods, the Leafs actually managed to take the lead in shots 19-17, and closed the gap somewhat in terms of shot attempts. The Kings appeared to not be getting the bounces, as several very good chances simply dribbled off sticks and went through skates, but the Leafs had a few chances of their own as well.
The third period is when things all unraveled for the Kings.
For the first four minutes the Leafs attacked like sharks at a feeding frenzy. The third line and the fourth line came in with great first shifts, continuing on the theme from earlier periods, but it was the Kadri line that finally broke through. After some sustained pressure, Grabner made a great tip in front of Enroth on a long Kadri shot to put the Leafs up 2-0. The shots at that point were 26-18 for the Leafs.
The same trio followed up their effort on the goal with two great shifts spent entirely in the Kings' end, pinning down Kopitar & Co. and preventing them from generating any moment with just over half the third period left and the Kings badly needing a goal.
Bernier was called upon on several other occasions to make big saves, including a breakaway chance and a wild, broken rush that saw Garborik crash into him, but after making the save, the Kadri line turned things around on the Kings again by rushing back 3-on-1, with Morgan Rielly, Grabner, and Kadri flying up ice. It was a Kadri dish to Grabner and then a slide into the slot that opened up Enroth's 5-hole, and Grabner made no mistake, scoring his second goal of the game.
It was only three minutes later the the same line again found the back of the net. After some good puck possession in the Kings' end (again pinning down Kopitar) a puck shot wide by Rielly careened off the boards right to Komarov, who stuffed it in the open side, as Enroth reacted too late to the bounce.
To cap off an amazing night for the team, the Leafs' Byron Froese scored his first NHL goal, following up a rush by going to the net hard and collecting a rebound on a Brad Boyes shot to make it 5-0 and put this one away for Toronto.
With under 3 minutes remaining, the Leafs absolutely shut down the Kings and didn't allow any significant stretch of pressure to preserve the shutout for Bernier, who absolutely earned it. He was great all game, looking like the Bernier we knew from the last two seasons. Despite the blowout score, he made many great saves, and though with a few bounces going their way, the Kings could have scored, Bernier was a difference maker until the Kadri line blew the back doors off this game in the third.
Notes on individual players:
- Have I not talked about the Kadri line enough? They began this game by being absolutely run over, but slowly wore down the Kings as the game progressed, getting stronger and stronger. They had four goals and I suspect that Grabner is going to stay on that line for a while, because this was a big game for him.
- Jonathan Bernier was terrific, absolutely lights out. If he can do this again, the goaltending duel is right back on.
- The Bozak line had a tough night and were practically invisible. Both the Leafs' top two lines got buried in terms of possession by the Kings tonight, but no one is going to remember that because of the score.
- Leading the way for the Leafs in terms of possession tonight were the bottom two lines. Brad Boyes was again fantastic, and there really isn't any reason that he can't get more ice time.
- This was a strong game for Jake Gardiner. He made a lot of simple, quick decisions with the puck that allowed the Leafs to break out of their zone against a very strong forechecking club.
- Martin Marincin was quietly effective all night.
- Matt Hunwick is going to look great on the highlight reel, as he picked up two assists and made a few great defensive plays, but he also finished as the Leafs' second-worst player in terms of shot attempts.