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Leafs vs. Red Wings Centennial Classic Recap: Everything Happens At Once

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Leafs win 5-4 in overtime after an insane third period.

2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic - Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Leafs and the Red Wings squared off in today’s outdoor game at BMO Field. It was a glorious, sunny day down at the Exhibition—too sunny, actually, since the start of the game had to be delayed half an hour to accommodate ice glare. Between the sunshine and the spectacle, the real (preceded by the ceremonial) puck drop didn’t take place until about 3:55 PM.

Despite some early concerns of poor sales, BMO looked to have a strong crowd. Even cynics who think the outdoor games are overwrought tributes to bad ice (like me) had to admit it looked cool.

First Period

After a bit of early skirmishing, Nazem Kadri provided some early action by cutting to the centre of the Wings’ zone and drawing a trip from Brendan Smith. This was no careful Kadri dive, either; he stayed up as best he could and got a shot off. Kadri’s historical penalty drawing certainly has involved some embellishment, but a lot of it is simply that he’s a fast and dangerous offensive player.

The Leafs had a couple of decent looks but didn’t convert on the PP. We did, however, get this very cool GIF of Jake Gardiner carrying the puck up.

Despite not scoring, the boys in blue were clearly energized coming out, and they ran the Wings ragged for the first five minutes. Anthony Mantha had the Wings’ best chance of the early going, streaking in on Andersen in a partial break and being turned aside.

By the firewagon Leafs’ standards, the middle part of the period was relatively slow, with few very dangerous chances. The Leafs seemed to have the better of the play in a conservative game until the final four minutes, when the Wings came on with a few chances—some slot play from Frans Nielsen, a screened shot from Xavier Ouellet, a back-door shot from Gustav Nyquist. Andersen was equal to all of it, but the Leafs were lucky not to waste a good start by allowing a late goal. The game went to the intermission tied 0-0.

All in all, it was a quiet period; the Leafs were strong for the first fifteen minutes but allowed most of the best chances that occurred in the final five. Strong periods for Jake Gardiner and Auston Matthews. Speaking of which:

Second Period

As the sun went down, the lights came up for the second period. The hapless Wings PP got its first opportunity as William Nylander got called for holding the stick. The Leafs killed it without much trouble.

The period settled down into a fairly dull few minutes. The Leafs’ high-event hockey seemed to give way to the Wings’ slower-paced style, as both teams tried to avoid making mistakes and mostly succeeded.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, when some action finally broke out, it was in favour of the Wings. Anthony Mantha—who’d been buzzing—did a tricky fake at the top of the circle, then fired a puck over a blocking Auston Matthews and into the top corner. 1-0 Detroit.

Mantha followed up his goal by drawing another penalty, which the Leafs killed. The Leafs needed a spark to get their offence back to its normal level, and they worked for one; they had their best offensive shift thus far following the penalty kill, as the JVR-Bozak-Marner line did solid work backed by Gardiner and Carrick. A follow up shift from Kadri and co. ended with William Nylander drawing a penalty. Gardiner fired a puck off the post on the ensuing PP, but the Leafs then took a too many men call that cut the power play short. The Leafs killed successfully yet again.

Another uneventful segment was broken up first by a stopped chance for Thomas Vanek, then by rough hit on Frederik Gauthier, who went into the bench boards ribs-first. To Gauthier’s credit, he cleared the puck before sitting down, in obvious discomfort.

The rest of the period ended dully. Detroit generally did a good job bogging down the Leafs and turning this game into a tedious, low-scoring muddle. The only players who seemed to consistently avoid being kept to the periphery were Anthony Mantha for the Wings and Kadri/Gardiner for the Leafs, though Matthews and others showed flashes. The first two periods were mostly nothing-happens-twice.

Third Period

Just when it seemed your faithful recapper might slip into a coma, the Leafs got on the board. William Nylander threw to the far corner, and Jake Gardiner pinched for the puck (while Kadri criss-crossed to cover for him—nicely done.) Jake threw to the front of the net and a waiting Leo Komarov, who knocked the puck in point-blank. 1-1!

After a good shift from the Gauthier line, Matt Martin took on Steve Ott in a brawl. Martin pulped him; the two trash talked each other extensively in the penalty box, with their discussion apparently devolving into a game of charades.

After this burst of excitement, the game actually reached a level of some sustained action, with more chances and speed—in other words, more like a Leafs game, with both teams coming closer to scoring than previously. Rielly then made a quality pinch to get Marner the puck. Marner then took the puck and did this.

Holy shit. 2-1 Leafs.

Not to be outdone, the two less heralded members of the Matthews line went to work. Zach Hyman did his usual workmanlike job below the goal line to hit Connor Brown in front. Brown rifled a shot over Red Wings goalie Jared Coreau to push the Leafs to a 3-1 lead.

The Leafs were now going full Leaf, reminding us how lucky we are to watch an actually exciting team after two periods that evoked the dead puck era. The Matthews line got a three-on-one and—well, just watch.

Matthews is one of the best snipers in the NHL. Goddamn. 4-1 Toronto.

The Red Wings, however, were not ready to become the Dead Wings. Mantha set up Jonathan Ericsson, and the game narrowed to 4-2 Leafs, setting up an intense final six minutes.

The Leafs and Wings continued to trade chances, and the crowd went wild singing “Livin’ On A Prayer”. I don’t even like Bon Jovi and it was great. But the Wings kept right on coming with the extra attacker. A Tomas Tatar goal with 1:45 to go shrank the lead to one.

4-3. Deep breaths.

The Wings tied the game 4-4 on a bullshit goal, where Thomas Vanek flopped into Frederik Andersen. Because this league doesn’t have goaltender interference rules that make any sense, we went to overtime.

Overtime

I don’t think you can sensibly recap a Leafs 3-on-3. There was just end to end madness. Coreau made a spectacular save. William Nylander did everything possible to set up Nazem Kadri, in the slot, and Kadri fired a good shot, and it didn’t matter. Rielly had a breakaway, and couldn’t score. The Wings had a couple of shots, and I mostly just screamed at the television.

And then, Auston Matthews picked up the puck and dropped it to Gardiner. Gardiner fired it behind the net, and then Matthews backhanded the puck into the side of the Wings net. The Crown Prince saved the team from another it was 4-1, putting them on the right side of the 5-4.

Thoughts

  • The first two periods of this game were some of the dullest I’ve seen the Leafs play this year. The goal, while a nice shot from Mantha, wasn’t even from all that dangerous a spot, and there were (it felt like) about two good chances. It was very, very dull, and I was thinking about how outdoor games are mostly much ado about nothing.
  • The third period of this game was insane. Seven goals, and there could have been more, and most of them were gorgeous. We have, for better and for worse, the most exciting team in the league when they’re on.
  • Auston Matthews. I feel like every recap I do lately I point to Matthews as the best player on the ice, and yet every time he’s that or close to it. Matthews is a phenomenal goal-scorer in addition to being a good and improving all-around centre. His defensive work against the Zetterberg line was spotty in the third, but that feels like a quibble in a game he dragged us to victory. This is the dawning of a new age, folks.
  • Few notes: Matthews pulled into the rookie goal-scoring lead with his 20th of the season (Patrik Laine has 19), and also tied the Leafs’ goal-scoring leader from all of last season (P.A. Parenteau, with 20.) He also likely earned himself a nice little bonus:
  • That tying goal was terrible. Seriously. I’m still pissed about it. Show me how Frederik Andersen was supposed to make that save, and don’t tell me Vanek was pushed in.
  • Anyway, Matthews will rightly be the hero tonight for the Leafs, but several other Leafs had good games. William Nylander was quietly excellent and could have had three assists instead of one. The Gardiner-Carrick pairing had one of those nights where it dominated; Gardiner was a spark plug for the Leafs in the third and OT and was also nearly the only guy generating in the first two periods.
  • It feels like beating a dead horse at this point, but Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick got killed, both finishing with less than 17% of the adjusted shot attempts. This is despite playing most behind the Bozak line, who generally did well. Whatever else you think they do well, you really can’t succeed getting dominated like that. (In fairness, while they routinely are bad, this was unusual even for them.)
  • Anthony Mantha was definitely the most dangerous Red Wing offensively, although his possession numbers were middling. It seemed like every time the Wings had a chance, he was involved, and his statline certainly bears that out: two goals and an assist. He can shoot, he can pass, he can do all sorts of things.
  • Andersen was, by his standards, ordinary. Still pretty good, and we needed him a lot.
  • They didn’t do it the easy way, but the Leafs have now won five straight. Hold onto your hats, this team might be doing something.