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Leafs vs. Hurricanes Recap: Carolina Is Good Again

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The Leafs fall 2-1 to a quick, defensive Hurricanes squad.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

First Period

Carolina is one of the few teams in the NHL that doesn’t give up a speed disadvantage to the Leafs, and you could see early the Leafs were going to have trouble generating another six-goal night. This was the second-scariest thing for the Leafs in the early going, however, as Jacob Slavin ran over Mitch Marner. Marner slid to the bench seeming to favour his leg, though subsequently he underwent the concussion protocol for an impact to his head on the ice. He played a couple of shifts, went to the dressing room for the protocol, then returned, apparently okay.

Despite their rush difficulties, the Leafs notched the first goal. Cam Ward played a puck around the boards, which Kadri retrieved and threw back to Connor Carrick, who passed D to D to Jake Gardiner. Jake fired through a heavy screen to hit the corner over Ward’s glove. Nah bad!

Unfortunately, that was not the only scoring in the period. Connor Carrick took a holding penalty on Jordan Staal. On the subsequent powerplay, the Canes produced a goofy goal. Ben Smith hit a puck, which fluttered over Andersen and went in off Jeff Skinner’s foot. 1-1.

While that goal involved some bad luck for the Leafs, the Canes deserved to get on the board one way or another; they had the better of the play and out-attempted the Leafs considerably in the first. Auston Matthews, as is his current habit, generated multiple excellent chances and didn’t score. Oh, and Ben Smith was worst on the Leafs in attempts; it’s unfair to zing him for it in such a tiny sample and frankly I don’t care. Ben Smith is terrible.

Anyway: I’ve seen the Leafs get the worst of periods before this season, but this was the first time I saw them get outspeeded. Carolina’s fast. They’re also good at keeping the opposition to the outside. 1-1 after one.

Second Period

The Leafs didn’t start the second much better than the first; the Teravainen-Staal-Aho line had a particularly dangerous shift where they had the Kadri line running in circles. As the highest event team in the NHL, the Leafs almost never have stretches where they don’t get any attempts, but they do have stretches where they get absolutely besieged—and where the chances they’re getting are inferior. This was like that. They even gave up two two-on-ones on their first powerplay of the night; one was broken up by a great play from Gardiner and one the shooter skyed the shot.

Unfortunately, the play by Gardiner seemed to come at a price; the pass he stopped hit his hand and he was left wincing on the bench for a couple of shifts. You wouldn’t have thought this would be the game the Leafs got banged up, but so it proved. Gardiner returned.

Matthews played very impressively in the offensive zone, as a bright spot for the Leafs. Here are two tweets about that from mid-game:

Sigh. It’s not even like he should be doing something different; he really is generating legitimate chances left and right, and was doing so tonight. Literally as I quoted these tweets, he had another shift where he dominated the puck and drew a penalty.

There was a goal on the subsequent powerplay, but unfortunately it was Carolina’s. Bozak’s pass at the blueline was cut off by Elias Lindholm, who made an incredibly slick interception in mid-air and then sprung Viktor Stalberg. Leaf fans will recall Stalberg is a quick skater, and he zoomed away and scored on Andersen. 2-1 Carolina.

The Leafs simply could not get clean entries against the Carolina PK, and the powerplay was very much more dangerous to Toronto than the Hurricanes. As you can see on the above goal, Carolina has three of their penalty killers playing right up at the blue line, with the forechecker retreating to join them. The result is that the Leafs’ typical PP entry—which has four or five players going over the blue line as a unit—is completely stifled unless it can make a very precise pass or a successful dump-and-chase. And if Carolina’s defence succeeds in intercepting a pass at the line, which they did here and multiple other times, they’re in a great position to rush back past the Leafs for a shorthanded chance. A combination of aggressive defence and speed is a hell of a thing.

Carolina has the best PK% in the NHL, by the by.

Aside from the heroic efforts of Matthews, this period was one to forget for the Leafs. Elias Lindholm crushed the Leafs’ powerplay and the unheralded pairing of Slavin-Pesce gave the Leafs fits. 2-1 after two.

Third Period

Mitch Marner had a shot at an open net and a Hurricane deflected it and arggggghhhh.

Anyway. Things didn’t get any easier to watch. The Leafs weren’t noncompetitive—Andersen was on his game, and as mentioned, the Leafs still had chances—but Carolina put in a very impressive performance. They’re fast, they’re skilled, they’re defensively sound, and Cam Ward has remembered how to play goal. Also, Matthews regrettably offended the hockey gods and is still doing penance.

Auston Matthews drew another penalty. Despite some impressive cycling, the Leafs ultimately couldn’t cash. The Hurricanes just set up in the slot and waited.

Carolina hung on and just didn’t let the Leafs break in; on the rare occasions the Leafs did so, Ward was there. Despite their obvious speed and skill, it ended up being a surprisingly tight game. Carolina choked the Leafs’ off for a 2-1 victory.

Thoughts

-Auston Matthews was easily the Leafs’ best player, by a lot. In a just world he would have had a two-point night, but ours is not a just world.

-Frederik Andersen was solid, only getting beat on a goofy bounce generated by his own atrocious teammates and a breakaway.

-Other than that, this was not a banner performance for most of the Leafs’ lineup. They really struggled to get anywhere near the danger areas and as a result, Cam Ward didn’t have to do all that much work to hold them to one goal. This was one of the rare games this year where the Leafs’ offence looked neutralized.

-It feels like a broken record at this point, but the fourth line (Martin-Smith-Soshnikov) and the third pairing (Hunwick-Polak) all got slaughtered in shot attempts at 5v5 (all <37% adjusted CF%.) That number didn’t cost them the game—the Leafs didn’t give up an even strength goal and the many better offensive players were struggling—but it’s a problem that Mike Babcock insists on playing combinations of players that are fucking terrible. This is a more pressing point because Peter Holland is on the trade block, because the Leafs play the useless Ben Smith instead of him.

-As you might expect, a bad night for the Leafs was a good night for the Hurricanes. Centre Elias Lindholm in particular impressed me—his shorthanded work in the second was the murder weapon tonight—but you could as easily pick the Staal line or Slavin on defence. If Ward’s recovery is for real, Carolina is a solid threat to make the playoffs this year.

-While the third period was going on, the Las Vegas franchise announced its name and revealed its logo and colour scheme. The team name is the Vegas Golden Knights, which sounds fittingly like it’s associated with a cheap casino. (They excised the “Las”.) I actually kind of liked the logo and colour scheme, to be honest, but hockey Twitter does not seem to have agreed.

-Back to the game: this was a frustrating one, because the Leafs were close all night...but the win went to the better team. Carolina was fast enough and defensively sound enough that the Leafs struggled to break through, and some timely offence did the rest. Better luck tomorrow night.