The Arizona Coyotes came to town tonight for the Peter Holland Grudge Match. Auston Matthews got to meet his childhood hero, Shane Doan. Doan congratulated the eager rookie in his customary fashion by blindside elbowing him in the head during warm-ups.
Things started off on a relatively dull note, as both teams struggled to turn possessions into genuine scoring chances. The Leafs did make a couple of sloppy d-zone plays while the Matthews line did the usual Matthews line stuff, though they subsequently wound up looking somewhat bad in their own zone.
The Bozak line had one of their best sustained shifts in recent memory, highlighted by an excellent tip from Tyler Bozak on a JVR shot. That shift seemed to cue the Leafs, who came on with a flurry of chances, and the Leafs had outshot Arizona 13-4 by the ten minute mark. Mike Smith, though, was equal to the task, making several excellent stops.
The Matthews line eventually had another firecracker offensive shift against the Coyotes’ fourth line, where Matthews and Co. predictably ran rings around the ‘yotes. The sequence ended with unheralded offensive presence Matt Hunwick trying to pinch for a goal and getting burned for a breakaway back the other way, which mercifully didn’t go in. (FWIW, this is not a “damn it Matt Hunwick!” comment, although I make them often; the Leafs D are encouraged to pinch, and Hunwick basically played to plan.)
Nylander treated the puck like a yo-yo and dangled it like he was the coolest kid in Grade 7. During one sojourn around the Coyotes’ offensive zone, he zoomed past Luke “Eraser” Schenn. Schenn wound up tripping him to send the Leafs to their first powerplay of the night. Unfortunately, the Leafs bumbled the PP away, allowing two bad chances off failed puck movement, and they were bailed out by first Andersen and second by a great Matthews deflection. Jake, hero of my heart, was at fault on the first breakaway, with the kind of inexcusably careless giveaway that people hold against him. Help me help people love you, Jake.
Jake made amends by drawing another penalty shortly after. This one went much better, as Nylander got two excellent shots on goal forcing good saves out of Smith. Finally, in the final seconds of the period, Matthews hit the far corner for his fourteenth goal of the season.
Aside from their abjectly bad first powerplay, the Leafs ran over the Coyotes this period, dominating in shots (21-7) and attempts (58-42 at EV). The Matthews line actually was the only line underwater in CF%, but I wouldn’t worry about it; it was basically one bad shift, and they were very good in the rest of their time. Nylander as playmaker and Matthews as sniper is a very fun development.
Also, Peter Holland played more at 5v5 than any Coyotes forward, centering Anthony Duclair and Jamie McGinn. He was functionally the Coyotes’ 1C. That’s where they’re at right now.
So the second period began on a low note as Rielly brutally botched an Arizona possession and wound up leaving Jordan Martinook wide-open at the side of Andersen’s net. Freddie made one point-blank save, but was unable to make a second. Given that Rielly was visibly directing Zaitsev and Rielly seemed to consciously misjudge his position on the play, it looked an awful lot like a player trying to execute a system he hasn’t mastered.
Things went from bad to worse as the Leafs took two quick penalties (Smith for hooking, Hyman for boarding) and the Coyotes scored on the subsequent 5-on-3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson fired a puck that Martin Hanzal may have redirected to bring the Coyotes to a 2-1 lead.
The Leafs were clearly a little knocked back by being suddenly behind in a game they had dominated. While they still forced Mike Smith to make more saves, they also struggled to stop the invigorated Coyotes. Jamie McGinn rang a post, and Andersen turned aside several saves. Things looked grim, but then...
MITCH MARNEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEER. Good to have you back, m’boy. (Also, who taught Roman Polak to pass like that?)
Luke Schenn forever alienated the franchise that drafted him by boarding Matthews. The Leafs wound up with a 5-on-3, but despite many chances, couldn’t cash. They went into the second intermission tied at two.
The story for the Leafs was basically the usual one of dynamite offence and flawed defence. Rielly’s total implosion on the first goal was something miserable to behold. The Bozak line looked reasonably good en route to a dominant Corsi showing through two periods. The stage was set for a competitive third.
Matt Martin took it upon himself to chirp Luke Schenn for his hit on Matthews, which actually, you know what, I’m down with that. Matthews and Co. had another excellent chance, but unfortunately Matthews lost control of his stick towards the end of the sequence and clipped Ryan White in the nose. Matthews was dinged for a double-minor, as the stick drew blood.
Andersen was dazzling on the PK, making save after save, fulfilling his role as the proverbial best penalty killer. Despite some close calls, Andersen and Friends got the double kill, and Connor Brown even managed a dangerous 1-on-1 break.
Have I talked about the Matthews line enough? I feel like I haven’t. The Matthews line was dazzling. I love them the most. But every Leafs line was playing shooting gallery after a while, as the Coyotes basically hung on for dear life. Nikita Zaitsev in particular was zooming all over the o-zone, showing the skating that made him the top offensive defender on CSKA Moscow.
Shane Doan got a breakaway. Frederik Andersen devoured him and spat his bones out.
Frederik Andersen robs Shane Doan of his 400th goal on a break pic.twitter.com/4b3PaftjO0— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 16, 2016
The Leafs easily had the better of the play for most of the period, though when the Coyotes got a chance, it was often a dangerous one. This is basically the story of the 2016-17 Leafs so far. Andersen, as evidenced above, was superb. Despite some close calls, nobody scored, and we went to overtime.
This was possibly the craziest five minutes in the history of the universe. Just go watch the whole thing if you can find it. Matthews had three chances to end it, including an insanely perfect baseball shot out of the air that Smith somehow saved. The OT ended with Radim Vrbata left alone in front of Andersen with all the time in the world, and he deked forever and then hit the post.
I did not take a single note during this OT. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. 3-on-3, at its best, is hockey cocaine.
I don’t hate the shootout as much as a lot of people, but after such an incredible 3-on-3, and given how badly the Leafs have done in shootouts, it was invariably a letdown.
The Leafs didn’t even play the shootout badly, is the sad thing. All three Leaf shooters (Bozak, Marner, JVR) hit posts or crossbars. After a save by Andersen’s post and then a save by Andersen himself, Peter Holland, with inevitable poetry, scored to end the game.
-The Leafs played well, were brilliant offensively, ran into a hot goalie, and made a few too many defensive mistakes. This feels familiar.
-Platinum Seat Ghosts on Twitter asked for a quick summary of the game. This was my best 140-character shot.
@3rdPeriodSuits Matthews and Nylander should play together forever and 3-on-3 is the greatest innovation the NHL has ever made. Goalies good— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) December 16, 2016
-The Leafs dominated in CF%, except, ironically, Matthews, who had a much better game than that indicated. As a whole, the Leafs played a game of dominant stretches with sudden, unfortunate breakdowns.
-Are the Leafs taking bad shots? I have to tell you, it didn’t look like that to me at all. It’s tempting to wonder if the Leafs are the kind of team that makes the opposing goalies look good, and I have to say I don’t think so. Mike Smith, he of the 40 saves, was fantastic, and he robbed both Matthews and Nylander on a number of shots that quite legitimately could have been goals. Nylander did miss quite a few shots in trying to pick corners, though.
-Frederik Andersen was brilliant. We almost take it for granted now. But he really was. The Leafs may have deserved a better fate, but they could easily have lost this game in regulation if Freddie hadn’t made multiple superb saves.
-Normally when I try to do recaps, I try to look for who on the opposing team performed well as a skater. In all honesty: none of the Coyotes really did. You might think it’s sour grapes, but I’ve recapped many games the Leafs deservedly lost to better teams, and this was not one. The Coyotes are bad.
-I guess if I have to pick, Jakob Chychrun finished well above water in CF%, on a team that otherwise got completely slaughtered, so he must have been doing something right. Peter Holland had a few good moments before his shootout winner, and Shane Doan had a couple of scoring chances. But seriously: meh.
-Obama is threatening retaliation for Russia interfering in the U.S. election, and CNN is sooooooort of suggesting it could plausibly lead to WWIII. So I mean, the consolation is we may not look back to this night thinking about Holland clowning us in the shootout.
-Anyway, from a coaching perspective, the Leafs’ sloppy turnovers leading to breakaways will likely be a source of discussion next practice. Morgan Rielly’s braindead performance on the first goal was excruciating for those of us who hoped this would be his leap-forward year. But progress shall hopefully come.
-Auston Matthews is on pace for 40 goals. While I would love a wild card spot and the Leafs’ shootout performance seems to preclude one, the real importance of this year is how the rookies progress, and the rookies are damn good.