The Leafs began the evening on the wrong foot, surrendering the game's first 6 shots and the opening goal on a series of defensive miscues that gave the St. Louis Blues chance after chance. Garret Sparks made several great saves in the opening minutes, but an off-speed shot on a 2-on-1 that deflected off Matt Hunwick's stick handcuffed the Leafs' green goaltender to open the scoring just 1:51 into the game.
The Leafs pushed back, and managed to draw a power play, but just 23 seconds in, Tyler Bozak took a holding penalty to negate the Leafs' advantage. On the ensuing 4-on-4 Nazem Kadri had a horrible brain cramp and blindly backhanded the puck backwards through the neutral zone as the team was changing, only to have David Backes walk in all alone on Sparks. Sparks came up with the initial save, and Dion Phaneuf took out Backes before any damage was done with the rebound.
Fortunately, the Leafs have Leo Komarov. With just over a minute left in the first, he picked up the puck in the defensive zone and carried the puck through the middle of the ice, taking a shot that Blues' goaltender Jake Allen struggled to handle cleanly. As Komarov continued to drive the net and Allen failed to clear away the rebound, Kadri cleaned things up around the net by chipping home his 4th of the season.
New for the Leafs in this game was the promotion of Peter Holland to the Kadri line and the demotion of James van Riemsdyk to the Bozak line. Realistically, it was probably a move by Mike Babcock to try to jump-start the Leafs' moribund offence by spreading some scoring around, but Holland has certainly been playing well lately, and deserves a chance to show how he can contribute in a more offensive role. He didn't look out of place on his new line at all.
Dion Phaneuf also had a very good period, making several important defensive plays, including a couple of great vintage-Dion hits. After wrecking Jori Lehtera in the neutral zone, he incurred the wrath of Steve Ott, who chased Phaneuf, only to have Phaneuf skate away, and send Ott flying into the boards at an extremely awkward angle. Ott did not return to the game.
That the first period ended 1-1 was fortunate for the Leafs, given how many early chances they gave up, but they did manage to claw their way back to parity in terms of shots, which were 15-15 after one.
The first fight of the entire Leafs' season happened in the opening seconds of the first, as Kadri got annoyed with Backes and finally goaded Backes into dropping the gloves. Backes won the bout, but Kadri hung in there. The fact that it was the first time this season that the Leafs had fought said volumes about the changes that have been made to the team.
At the end of a great shift from the line of Shawn Matthias, Byron Froese, and Brad Boyes, Roman Polak absolutely blasted a point shot towards the net, only to have Boyes make a great tip for a goal.
Two players formerly of the opposing team helping the Leafs? This is a new thing. Usually, it's former Leafs burning us. Carl Gunnarsson, for his part, had a quiet night.
Just a few minutes later, again with Polak on the ice, the Leafs' forecheck absolutely smothered the Blues' D, and got some great zone time. On a delayed power play with a mix of forward lines on the ice, Tyler Bozak, Peter Holland, and P.A. Parenteau teamed up to score a nice goal and chase Allen from the game.
As Allen left the ice, he appeared to have some choice words for his coach Ken Hitchcock, which, given Hitch's reputation, you would think would end poorly for the goalie. That said, the goals against Allen to that point were not particularly bad, and his argument must have been good, because although Brian Elliott came into the game briefly, Allen was reinstated shortly after.
It took until just past the halfway mark for the Blues to even register a shot in the second period, as the Leafs' tough forechecking and grinding physical play in their own end stifled the Blues. In fact, they didn't get another shot until there was only 1:41 left in the period, and that included a Leafs' penalty kill that saw the Blues held shotless.
Overall, this was a great period for the Leafs, especially on the road, especially against a team like the Blues, and especially after a very poor first 10 minutes.
Especially odd, given how well the first 40 minutes went, was this statistic:
Matt Hunwick leading both teams in TOI at 17:11. Hunwick with 3 shots and 3 hits as well.#TMLtalk— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) December 6, 2015
The third period was a slower-paced affair until Morgan Rielly picked up the puck in the neutral zone and walked in 2-on-1 with Kadri. Rielly dished to Kadri who danced in almost entirely unchallenged and tucked one in on the short side to increase the Leafs' lead to 4-1.
Considering the Blues' talent level and the fact that they were trailing, you might have expected to see them start hemming the Leafs in, pushing to cut the lead. In fact, the Leafs carried a lead in shots into the second half of the period.
Overall, this was a very sloppy game by the Blues, but you have to give the Leafs a lot of credit for capitalizing on what the Blues gave them. The Leafs looked very strong tonight, and even managed to get a smile out of Babcock on the bench. In fact, I suspect that a significant part of the reason the Leafs looked good tonight is the fact that Babcock and Hitchcock are friends and Babcock knows well how to coach against him.
Notes on individual players:
- Garret Sparks had a great game. The first goal was a bit of a strange one, but he bounced back and made many very difficult saves. If he keeps this up much longer, Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer may be contacting a real estate agent.
- OK, so both Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak wound up near the bottom of the Corsi pile tonight, but I still really liked what I saw of their play. The Blues are a big team, and both Dion and Polak were absolutely nails down low, leaving the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko was utterly invisible after his goal, as Tarasenko wound up -9 on the Corsi sheet.
- Nazem Kadri had a statement game. He refused to be pushed around by David Backes and fought him despite being outclassed in terms of fisticuff ability. Then, of course, is the fact that he scored two goals and kept Backes off the scoresheet. Kadri played a bit of a chippy game tonight, and it was perfect - except for that horrible giveaway in the first. He also wound up near the bottom of the Leafs' Corsi stat column, but I'll forgive that this one night.
- Morgan Rielly was flying tonight. Some great rushes, passes, and shots. He could easily have had more than one point on the night. He was the Leafs' best possession player.
- Tyler Bozak had a strong game, picking up a bunch of chances. He passed up a couple of opportunities to shoot but hey, that's nothing new. That's his game.
- Matt Hunwick had a great game. He had a few good chances and wandered a lot less all over the ice in his own zone and it showed in his War On Ice numbers.