Without their best player, the Leafs played host to the Minnesota Wild tonight.
That Wild first line of Mikael Granlund, Nido Niederreiter, and Mikko Koivu is a strong trio, and they sustain some pressure in the Leafs zone. The man I call “Neato Underwriter” finishes his shift like a goon, nailing Nazem Kadri with a blatant hit from behind and taking a penalty.
The JVR + Bozak + Marner PP unit doesn’t really come close, as a nice hold at the line by Marner dies on Bozak’s stick when he shoots into a block. The reconstructed Nylander unit—Josh Leivo is on it in place of Matthews—doesn’t do much better. Jake Gardiner seems confused on the power play, not looking at all like the smooth offensive d-man we know and love. Penalty killed.
Marner looks good so far, say the colour commentators, and I would agree; he looks energized, possibly thanks to his shootout winner the other night. No one else on either team has looked particularly impressive; shots are 3-0 Minnesota (oof), but Minnesota hasn’t seriously threatened since the first minute.
The Wild’s Jason Zucker misplays a two-on-one enough for Gardiner to disrupt him with a stickcheck.
Jason Zucker draws a rush but Jake Gardiner says no pic.twitter.com/TFhDEmvT3A— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 9, 2017
Nylander and JVR run a nice little play that JVR finishes with an attempted backhand, but Devan Dubnyk is there with the save. Minnesota comes on a little bit, but no one seems to be getting a really grade-A chance; a Rielly shot that Connor Brown deflects is probably the best of the bunch.
But wait: an actual goal! Nazem Kadri shoves the puck to William Nylander, who turns and throws it to Morgan Rielly at the point. Rielly rifles it off the boards, Kadri tips it, and it bounces off the boards and then off Devan Dubnyk and in. it’s 1-0 Leafs.
Marner continues to dazzle, narrowly missing a chance and leading a great chance for his reunited line with Bozak and JVR. The Leafs’ fourth line actually manages a nice zone shift, but Matt Martin gets caught unsure of his options and winds up tossing it into the corner. Sigh. Let’s see more of those assists, bud.
A rough shift for Rielly and Hyman costs Toronto late. Rielly gives Hyman a pass he can only chip at, and then he struggles in response to a resulting forecheck from Chris Stewart. The Leafs don’t recover and Jason Zucker shoots one past Freddie. 1-1.
Well, that goal against at the end is disappointing. By and large, this was a dull period in which neither team generated all that much outside their goals. Mitch Marner was easily the Leafs’ best player in this period, looking fully restored to his 2016-17 form with his old linemates. Beyond that, a lot of point shots from the Leafs and not much more from the Wild. If the Leafs can turn up the heat a bit, they can win this game.
Morgan Rielly throws it up the boards and gets cut off by Mikko Koivu, who comes back in for a quick shot. Maybe the most prominent Leaf problem during this recent slump has been their struggles transitioning to and through the neutral zone, and Greg Millen correctly notes that teams have begun to adapt to the long passes the Leafs like. We’d better adapt in turn.
The fourth line has a decent o-zone shift but Josh Leivo can’t get in for a shot.
After a clown-shoes defensive sequence, Matt Cullen (he’s still playing!) gets a point-blank chance off a pass that Freddie stones with a huge pad save. Hot damn.
And then the Leafs strike back! Look at the patience on this Zach Hyman spin and pass to the trailing Patrick Marleau, who finds a gap and then wires a puck past Devan Dubnyk. Beautiful. 2-1 Leafs.
That was career goal No. 514 for Patrick Marleau -- moving him past Jeremy Roenick for 39th all-time.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) November 9, 2017
After some good Minnesota shifts, Andreas Borgman takes a tripping call as he misses a hit on Luke Kunin. Wild to the PP.
The Leafs generally fend off the Wild PP, but they need a very good save by Frederik Andersen at the end of it. I don’t want to jinx anything so I will merely observe that he has made some quite good saves.
And again! Borgman makes a brutal giveaway, and Freddie has to rob Tyler Ennis. Man. Worse, Tyler Bozak makes an ineffective slash on Ennis and takes a penalty in the process. (Greg Millen attributed Borgman’s giveaway to the forwards flying the zone too early, and he’s right that responsibility could be shared there.)
The best clear on the PK is Freddie’s, who whips the puck the length of the ice because he has decided he has to take care of everything now. The Leafs manage the kill.
Minnesota is bombarding the Leafs at this point, and while they don’t have THAT many really scary scoring forwards, Freddie has to be sharp. Look:
There’s another ugly sequence where the only bright spots are Freddie in net and Patrick Marleau heroically beating out an icing.
38 year old Patrick Marleau beating Spurgeon & Suter in the icing race pic.twitter.com/jfvejPnmdQ— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 9, 2017
Beyond that, though, yeesh. Borgman winds up taking another penalty as he trips Nido Niederreiter.
The Leafs actually do quite a good job killing this one, although they don’t have to kill all of it; Niederreiter slashes Nikita Zaitsev with 47 seconds to go in the penalty and gets sent off.
Nylander zooms around on the 4-on-4 almost at will but can’t seem to find anyone he wants to pass to. The Leafs don’t achieve a ton on the 4-on-4 or their partial PP; Toronto does get one Patrick Marleau shot after it ends that Dubnyk has a bit of trouble with.
That was a bad, bad period, notwithstanding the Leafs had the only goal in it. The Leafs got seriously outshot and, unlike the first period, many of the shots were dangerous, coming off bad passes by the defence trying to hit high forwards. Marleau looked lively and Andersen was absolutely tremendous, but beyond that? Yikes. The Koivu line in particular has been giving us fits. Clean it up, guys. Would it kill us to be good in a second period for once?
Jake Gardiner makes a nice defensive play (bumps out a forechecker and recovers the puck). I mention this because we need him to be good.
Willie later has a pull up shot from the circle but it’s deflected by the stick of Jonas Brodin.
A great fourth line shift, led by bit player Josh Leivo, ends in a puck back to Connor Carrick, who fires it in! Matt Martin is initially credited with the tip, but it’s later given back to Carrick. 3-1 Leafs!
Nylander and Komarov come on a bit in the o-zone, but nothing really materializes. Down the other end, Freddie makes yet another good save on Niederreiter.
Terrifying moment at 9:37 of the third: Andersen’s right (blocker) arm gets wrapped awkwardly around the post as he tries to go cross-crease. It looks rough for a bit, but Freddie thankfully stayed in.
Frederik Andersen tweaks his arm while trying to prevent a Nino Niederreiter chance. Doesn't look good as he heads to the bench, though it is a TV timeout so who knows. pic.twitter.com/az7DIOVD0W— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 9, 2017
Thank God, because as the Wild get more chances, he keeps making big saves. The Leafs look better in the third than in the second, but they’re still giving up shots that make me more than a little nervous.
Connor Carrick takes an unfortunate roughing penalty in a scrum after an Andersen save. While post-whistle shoving is common, he cross-checked Joel Eriksson Ek in the face, which is not great.
All those penalties finally catch up with us. Ryan Suter takes a long shot that Freddie can’t quite corral, and he drops it. Jason Zucker jumps on the puck and whacks the rebound in. 3-2.
If you want to be really unforgiving, you can say Freddie has to make sure he hangs onto that, but that was a pretty hot shot and he got no assistance. In the context of tonight, anyway, I’m giving Freddie all of the passes.
Freddie gets run on a play, but goalie interference penalties do not seem to be on the menu tonight. We’re down to four minutes left and we appear to be in full hang-on-for-dear-life mode. Help.
It’s tense as hell, but finally Connor Brown gets out, gets to centre, and lofts the puck into the empty net with :30 to go. 4-2 Leafs, and thank God, that is your final.
- So, in my last couple of recaps I’ve had reason to complain about Frederik Andersen’s performance. Tonight he was outstanding and without him we do not sniff two points. It was a vintage Freddie performance and we needed it.
- It may seem like I’m being too harsh with what follows, so here are all the caveats: the Leafs won a game without their best player, against a team that at least last season was pretty good, and their goaltender got his mojo back. That’s all positive news.
- The Leafs were not very good tonight!
I get that score effects are a thing, but the Leafs got kinda destroyed tonight. Andersen stole that one for them (it feels weirdly nice getting to say that) pic.twitter.com/1IQF8KuFdM— Ian Tulloch (@regressIan) November 9, 2017
- The late flurry as the Wild pressed for the tie doesn’t worry me so much, and the Leafs looked at least competent for the first and the better part of the third. In the second they were clown shoes bad, constantly failing to exit the zone, taking penalties left and right, and basically getting taken to school by the Mikko Koivu line. Toronto’s struggles to exit the zone with possession and then get to the o-zone are preventing them from being a very good team and at times, making them into a pretty bad one.
- Andreas Borgman had probably the worst night of his season, getting destroyed in possession terms, making multiple tough giveaways, and taking two penalties. Rookies have growing pains and I don’t want to condemn him by any means, it was just a rough outing.
- Ron Hainsey did yeoman service on the penalty kill, playing 6:22 shorthanded (!) That is an awful lot for any player, much less one who’s 36 years old. But Mike Babcock still doesn’t really trust any of his defencemen on the PK besides Hainsey and Zaitsev (4:46); he turned to Gardiner (1:21) and Rielly (0:45) as little as he could.
- James van Riemsdyk basically disappeared as the game went on, playing less than anyone outside the fourth line and more than two minutes less than Bozak and Marner. JVR’s usage this year has been curious that way, and I’m not sure whether it reflects a loss of confidence from Babcock or a nagging injury. Keep an eye on it. The Bozak line was the Leafs’ best in the first, but got caved in later.
- William Nylander can be frustrating when the puck isn’t going in for him, but despite the lack of goals he was very good tonight. He had the puck on the string, he led the Leafs in CF% on a night where most of the team was underwater, and he got an assist. He’s very due to break out soon, but for now, this was good stuff with Auston Matthews missing.
- In general? The Leafs looked to me like the same team that scuffled through the last two weeks, minus Auston Matthews, plus a great goaltending performance, and against lesser competition. At this point we shouldn’t be too picky about how the wins look so long as they happen, but the issues in transition are still there, and those excruciating stretches where they can’t seem to find their way out of the zone with a GPS are still happening. This team as constituted can make the playoffs. But they’re going to have to fix things if they want to do damage when they get there.