For most casual fans, the idea of seeing their favourite team stripped of most of its NHL talent and patched together with a bunch of minor leaguers is a game worth missing. Not so for Leafs' fans:
Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 1, 2016
Yes, this Leafs' game featured the NHL debut of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, and Zach Hyman, while Ben Smith, Connor Carrick, and Brooks Laich all skated in their first game for the Leafs. Meanwhile, other youngins like Garret Sparks and Frank Corrado, making this perhaps the most interesting game of the season so far for Leafs' fans.
Certain things went about as you would expect: there was ample discombobulation among the Leafs' D in their own end, as members of the old guard struggled to coordinate with newer cast members, which made for a wild period, defensively speaking. Oddly, some of the more glaring giveaways came off the sticks of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, two men Leafs' fans have to hope set a better example going forward.
With the Leafs in complete disarray in their own end, the Lightning managed to hit the post no less than 3 times before the first period was half over, and out-shot the Leafs 16-9 in the first.
Each of the Leafs' lines had a good chance or two at the offensive end, including a flubbed 2-on-1 for Nazem Kadri and Soshnikov, a couple good setup plays by Nylander, and Kapanen ripping one off the mask of Andrei Vasilevskiy on a shift with great sustained pressure. Brad Boyes made several great plays as well, nearly setting up Kapanen with a tap-in, but Kappy couldn't quite get a stick on it.
The line of Boyes, Peter Holland, and Kapanen generated some good chances for the Leafs through the first 25 minutes of the game, but 4:53 into the second period, it was the Lightning who struck first, as Tyler Johnson lead a great rush down the ice, swerving around Leo Komarov, and then using a charging Braydon Coburn as a screen to rip one over the shoulder of Sparks.
Matt Hunwick should have challenged more aggressively on the play to take away space from Johnson on the rush, though Johnson certainly made a great shift to buy himself more time once he was into the zone. It seems like Hunwick was playing it like a 3-on-2, but Kadri was well on his way back, and so Hunwick probably should have stepped up earlier than he tried to, by which time it was too late.
As the second progressed, the Leafs pushed back. Several Leafs had great chances, including more from Kapanen, but also from Nylander. The shots began to level off as well, as the Leafs brought the total to within one from a deficit in the first.
Unfortunately, as Martin Marincin juggled a bouncing puck in the high slot while standing still, the puck got away from him and the Lightning's Johnson picked it up and fired a shot through Sparks that Sparks would undoubtedly want back.
Boyes came to within a fraction of an inch of putting the Leafs on the board on the power play, as he patiently handled the puck near the top of the circle and snapped it off the post with 2:50 to go in the second.
At the end of 40 minutes, the Leafs had pulled even on the shot count with 20, but were unable to cut into the lead that Johnson had given the Lightning.
Less than a minute into the third, Holland had a glorious chance to score on the power play, but simply wound up out-waiting his chance. With Vasilevskiy well out of position and an entire open net to fire at, Holland seemed to struggle to get the puck to settle, and wound up firing it at Vasilevskiy's chest.
Kapanen continued to wow as he absolutely danced two Tampa defenders en route to a great backhand chance. Earlier in the year, I would have told you that Kapanen was a very long shot to make the Leafs out of camp next season, but if this game is any indication of what he's able to do, it will be extremely difficult to keep him in the minors.
Mike Babcock began running an all-kid line of Kapanen-Nylander-Hyman mid-way through the third period, and the trio generated mixed results, spending some time playing in both ends of the rink, but certainly not looking out of place.
The play was more or less even through the third period, but the Leafs were unable to score until Babcock pulled Sparks with just under 3 minutes to go. It was Kadri who drifted a wrist shot into the top half of the net with Komarov on the doorstep providing a screen that brought the Leafs to within one.
Although Kapanen, Nylander, and Hyman applied great pressure in the final minute of the game, the Leafs came up short and lost this one 2-1. The Leafs wound up with a 32-28 lead in shots.
Notes on individual players:
- With everything said about the kids, it was easy to look past the contributions tonight of Peter Holland, who lead the team in shots with 5, and had a great game, overall.
- Nazem Kadri continued being a reliable 2-way forward for the Leafs, and potting the lone goal late in the game was just another reminder of why the Leafs chose to keep him around at this deadline.
- Connor Carrick looked solid handling the puck at times, but then also had his share of miscues. Hopefully, some of these will be worked out of his game as he acclimatizes to a new city, new teammates, and a new system. He had a fight towards the end of the game after laying a solid hit on TJ Brown, but I guess I don't mind.
- Zach Hyman had a solid showing. He attacks the puck well in all 3 zones, providing good backside pressure and challenges aggressively in the defensive zone. He had a couple good looks on net, and so will be an interesting player to keep an eye on.
- William Nylander had a relatively quiet game, but wasn't without chances, either. He snapped a couple pucks just wide on good chances and set up Michael Grabner once or twice as well - unfortunately, we know how that typically ends. Nylander isn't what you'd call an aggressive defender, but he reads plays well and helps his defenders out when needed, using a quick stick to dispossess opponents.
- Kasperi Kapanen was the best of the kids tonight. He was engaged at all ends of the ice and had a few great chances. As mentioned above, if he continues to play like he did tonight, the Leafs are going to have an extremely difficult time keeping him off the team next season.
- Garret Sparks made some great saves tonight. The team's defence was so out of whack that he was called upon early and often, and although he allowed a bit of a tough one on the second goal, he stood tall on enough other chances that it's fair to call this a good game for him.
- Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner both looked somewhat lost tonight. Certainly, some of this could be attributed to having so many new personnel to work with, but they made a number of strange decisions on their own that can only be chalked up to them. Rielly seemed to fight the puck most of the night, bobbling passes on the attack and while breaking out, while Gardiner skated himself into places he had no business being. To be sure, both had some redeeming moments - Rielly made a few great rushes and Gardiner played a 1-on-1 with Steven Stamkos perfectly - but this was an off-night overall for these two.
- Brad Boyes played a great game. I hope he's around next year.
- Martin Marincin seemed to have trouble handling the puck - again. The ice at the ACC looked bad tonight, and so perhaps we should be somewhat forgiving of the team tonight, but Marincin does seem to fumble it an awful lot.