The Leafs journeyed to the aging Joe Louis Arena tonight to face off against the aging Detroit Red Wings. The Leafs stoned ‘em cold.
After a bit of fast, early skirmishing where both teams struggled to get close to the net, the Red Wings had the first really dangerous shift, with Justin Abdelkader wiring a shot through traffic. Andersen had the positional save.
The Leafs got their first sustained pressure in turn a couple minutes later, led by the Matthews line. This one ended with more incident than the Wings’ shift. Zach Hyman dug the puck loose; it came to Matthews, who pulled it through a defender’s legs, streaked through the slot, and potted an effortless-looking backhand. Goddamn. 1-0 Leafs.
The pace reached an even faster gear as the Red Wings seemed determined to try and skate with the Leafs—despite their geriatric reputation, the Wings do have several quick, talented forwards who came out ready to rock. The Wings managed a couple more extended runs in the Leafs’ zone, something the deflated Calgary offence seemed to struggle with last game.
Paul Romanuk called Mike Babcock “Mike Bobcat.” This is outstanding. No other content in this paragraph; please just contemplate this for a while. Mike Bobcat.
Anyway, Nylander sought to get loose on a break, got tripped, and somehow wound up with the resulting penalty. The Wings PP looked more threatening than its feeble reputation, but didn’t score.
The Leafs threatened several more times, but the Red Wings seemed to be the more dangerous team, with more stretches in the Leaf zone than the reverse. Anthony Mantha came down the left wing and rang a shot off the outside of the post.
There was a scary moment when Nikita Soshnikov got clipped on the chin by a Detroit stick and stayed down for a moment.
Sosh wound up staying in the game.
The Leafs did manage to employ their speed, and it showed up to good effect right towards the end. The Leafs managed a good rush, where a JVR shot produced a rebound, and Justin Abdelkader took a hooking penalty stopping Mitch Marner from getting to the loose puck. The subsequent Leafs PP stretched into the second period.
All in all, when the Leafs looked dangerous, they looked very dangerous, but—as has often been the case this year—the opponent was able to set up in the Leafs’ zone for extended stretches. The adjusted possession battle was dead even. For Detroit, Anthony Mantha was dangerous-looking as hell.
This whole period flew by. My notes are episodes from a string of rushes and chances. When people say a low-scoring game can be exciting, this was the sort of game they mean.
The Leafs, as noted, started the second on the powerplay. The best chance of it went to Detroit, a shorthanded 2-on-1. Kadri missed a desperation play to hold the puck, then chased down the puck carrier and made another desperation stickcheck (this time successfully) to stop the rush at the last second.
The Leafs had a surprisingly dangerous shift where the Hunwick-Polak pairing pinched aggressively behind Tyler Bozak’s group. This was followed up, unfortunately, by Nikita Zaitsev (heretofore having an excellent game) making a giveaway to Henrik Zetteberg. Zetterberg and friends ran the Leafs around their zone at length, and the shift only ended when Martin Marincin took an interference penalty on Tomas Tatar.
The Red Wings powerplay looked more ineffective this time, and the Detroit crowd booed them somewhat towards the end—the best offensive chance was a Komarov slapper at Mrazek, cued by a Nazem Kadri takeaway.
There was more end-to-end rushing action, including a two-on-one that Roman Polak stopped with a kamikaze charge at the puck-carrier. Riley Sheahan scared the daylights out of me as the puck settled in the slot with Sheahan primed to whack it in, but Matt Hunwick—credit where it’s due—tied him up nicely. Matt Martin laid a very heavy hit on Wings defender Nick Jensen.
As you have no doubt noticed, Roman Polak—despite not being known for his offence—can lay on a shot pretty hard. Like this:
Roman Polak! 2-0!
Despite some close calls, that was how the period ended. The Auston Matthews line was—surprise—easily the most dangerous for the Leafs, clobbering opponents in shot attempts and consistently threatening. The Leafs had the overall possession edge, but it was largely driven by the Matthews line and the Gardiner-Carrick defence pairing; much of the team was slightly down (or in the case of the Hunwick-Polak pairing, significantly down.)
Also, Frederik Andersen was doin’ work.
The Red Wings started the period trying to mount a comeback, with a few more of those extended possession stretches. The Leafs got a very deflating goal, though, as JVR shot it from a sharp angle. It rolled across Petr Mrazek and over him into the net to push the lead to 3-0.
Soshnikov pushed the game out of reach on a Phil-Kessel style rush where he zoomed up the right wing and the ripped a shot past Mrazek. Holy shit, what a shot!
4-0. Andersen got his first assist as a Leaf on the goal.
A stretch pass to Darren Helm led to a break in, where Helm was stopped by the pad of Frederik Andersen. Andersen looked hurt on the play, briefly terrifying everyone in the GTA, but he elected to stay in the game despite the 4-0 lead.
From then on out, the tension in the game was mostly around whether Andersen could maintain his shutout. There were chances—Andreas Athanasiou had a great point-blank chance that Freddie stopped—but none got by him. 4-0, for the second game straight, is your final.
- I’ve had the pleasure of recapping both these 4-0 shutouts, but they were different. Last game against Calgary, the Leafs were easily the better team and the Flames were essentially defeated halfway through. Freddie was great, but didn’t have to be.
- Tonight was defined by the goaltending. Mrazek was shaky, and Freddie was superb. The Leafs were the better team, and won the adjusted possession battle, but they allowed a number of good chances against. If the goalies had been the other way around, the game would have been something like 2-1.
- The Matthews line was outstanding, backed by the Gardiner-Carrick pairing. Every time they were on the ice, they looked deadly, and Matthews might easily have added to his one goal on the night. Hyman was his usual relentless, dogged self, and Connor Brown did a bunch of little things to keep the attack rolling. Just a fantastic first-line showing all around.
- Anthony Mantha scares me every time he’s on the ice for the Wings, and yet he finished last in shot attempts on the Wings for the evening. Henrik Zetterberg showed considerable savvy operating in the Leafs’ zone, and Mike Green was the high-event defenceman he’s reputed to be. The Wings made an admirable effort to skate with the Leafs, but...some of them can’t quite do it anymore, especially given the Wings were on the second night of a back to back. (This win dealt another blow to the Wings’ chances at extending their playoff streak.)
- Freddie, man, Freddie. He only had to make 22 saves, but several of them were of the highly-demanding variety. The moment he looked shaken up was terrifying, because he’s central to our surprisingly plausible playoff hopes.
- The Leafs tighten their grip on a playoff spot, moving to 55 points in 46 games. That’s a 98-point pace—enough to effectively guarantee a playoff spot if they keep it, and in keeping with Mike Babcock’s six-points-every-five-games standard. They’ve been insanely hot lately, so let’s not get carried away, but...
- The Leafs play one more game before the All-Star break—against Philadelphia tomorrow. Picking up two points on the Flyers would improve the Leafs’ shot at a Wild Card spot considerably, should they fall out of the third seed in the Atlantic. Go Leafs go.