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Leafs vs. Isles Recap: Valentine’s Day Massacre

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Toronto lays a beating on Tavares and friends in a 7-1 blowout.

NHL: New York Islanders at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Islanders came to town tonight to take on our Leafs. After being left for dead a month ago, the Isles dumped coach Jack Capuano and had a resurgence. They came into the night only one point back of the Leafs for the second Wild Card spot in the East.

First Period

As you’d expect, the Leafs started the Kadri line against Tavares and friends. The first blush didn’t go too well, as the Isles jumped into the Leafs zone and Andersen had to make a calm-down freeze. Mitch Marner had a decent rush the next shift that looked neat, although it didn’t end in a great chance.

Speaking of chances, the Leafs’ first came on a surprisingly solid fourth line shift, and Josh Leivo continued his very strong audition—he got the puck in, forechecked it effectively, and generated a scoring chance for himself that he fired over an empty net due to a Boychuk stickcheck. I’ve been low on Leivo’s chances of making it with the Leafs simply because he’s struggled for so long to get into games, but he’s been doing his damndest to prove me wrong of late.

The Matthews line had one of their dominant shifts and hit a goal post; I’ve thought several times the Matthews line was unlucky not to score more in recent games, and it keeps seeming that way. After a bit more skirmishing, the Isles took the game’s first penalty when Nikolai Kulemin cross-checked Connor Carrick. Despite some close calls, the Leafs failed to convert the opportunity.

The Leafs did strike soon, though. Matt Pelech made an absolutely brutal giveaway to Josh Leivo. If you can get him in position to shoot the puck, Josh Leivo has one hell of a shot, and he had an inside lane here. Boom.

1-0 Leafs.

The Isles had the better of the next stretch, hitting a post and looking dominant when Tavares was on the ice. The Leafs did have a good chance when Hyman rushed the puck in and Auston Matthews tried a sneaky backhand coming around from behind the net.

Connor Brown took a holding call to give the Isles their first PP of the game. Josh Bailey hit another post, and every Leaf fan thought—hey, we’re getting awfully lucky here...anyway, Marner livened up the penalty kill by rushing it into the Isles end and holding it against the boards for an extended stretch. No one could move him, and he killed several seconds. Remember when he was supposed to be too small?

After a rush by Matthews, the Leafs sustained possession in the Isles’ zone, and the sequence eventually led to a goal. Nylander got the puck low in the zone, and threw it across to Zaitsev at the right point. Zaitsev streaked in and fired a puck that Greiss couldn’t corral, and Nazem Kadri poked it into the open net behind him. 2-0!

That was the action for the period. There were multiple posts hit at either end of the ice, and the first was actually fairly even. The Matthews line impressed greatly every time they got into the offensive zone (as usual), and Mitch Marner was sparkling. In less heralded Leaf forward news, it was a strong showing by Josh Leivo in limited work. John Tavares is a monster and was dangerous every time he hit the ice. The Leafs were probably a little lucky to be up two goals with none allowed, but they played well. Good stuff.

Second Period

Anders Lee took a hooking call early, but the Leafs did little with the powerplay. Casey Cizikas had a workhorse PK shift where he just hung onto the puck for dear life in the Leafs’ zone and Mitch Marner wound up taking a hooking penalty trying to get the puck off him. Right at the end of the abbreviated Isles’ powerplay, Tavares was the recipient of a Royal Road pass that seemed to give him an empty net to shoot at; Frederik Andersen threw himself over in desperation and made a wild save with his helmet.

Andersen followed this play up with a great short-side save on Alan Quine. The Islanders had some quality chances, and the Leafs relied on Andersen to hold the line.

Still, it’s not like the Leafs were turtling. They had some sustained pressure on another superb Marner and friends shift, and they had the game’s next goal. Nazem Kadri threw the puck to the net front, where William Nylander was rushing to the net. The puck went off Nylander’s knee as he wheeled, and went in. 3-0 Leafs.

Roman Polak took an interference penalty on John Tavares to send the Isles back to the PP. The Isles were buzzing in terrifying fashion on the powerplay—they had four shots, and there was one sequence where I was sure Ryan Strome had an empty net to shoot at. But between good luck and the magic of Frederik Andersen, the Leafs managed to shut the door. The ACC fans were appreciative of the goaltending clinic going on, and a chant of “Freddie, Freddie” started up.

The Leafs had a three-on-one for the Bozak line, but they managed an “after you my dear Alphonse” exchange and passed the puck to death. Jason Chimera came up the other way on a breakaway, which Andersen stopped.

Referee Dean Morton, however, felt that Chimera deserved a second chance, based on the absolute softest hooking call on Matt Hunwick. It was, and I mean this sincerely, total bullshit.

Chimera was awarded, and scored on, a penalty shot.

3-1.

The refs, apparently determined to earn the enmity of the GTA, didn’t stop there. On the next shift, John Tavares heavily cross checked Kadri in the corner and recovered the puck. Kadri poked Tavares with his stick for a tenth of a second and was promptly called for hooking. The crowd—a loud one, despite the Toronto stereotype—went into energetic chants of “REFS YOU SUCK.” The Leafs killed the penalty off and made it out of the period.

Man, that penalty shot call was trash. Anyway, I know it seems like the only New York Islander I’ve heard of is John Tavares, but this is honestly an accurate description of the quality of his play. He was outstanding and he was the Isles’ best player by miles. (I thought Leddy was good too, if you make me pick someone else.) The Leafs, surprisingly, had a dominant 5v5 possession period despite spending all of the second with a multi-goal lead. On the Leafs side, Nylander and Kadri were both doing what they did best—whirling offensive skill for the former, and aggressive, shit-disturbing productive play from the latter. You may not believe this, but the game was honestly close up to this point, although the Leafs were the better team.

Third Period

After some early exchanges, the first really good chance of the period came on a two on one from Nylander and Hyman. Nylander hit Hyman coming in high; Hyman fired the puck just past the post. The Leafs then owned the next fifteen minutes.

The Matthews line had yet another dominant o-zone shift—a great shot by Brown that Greiss saved, a Matthews backhand that sailed through the crease, and then a hooking penalty drawn by Matthews (taken by Kulemin.) Matthews was playing brilliantly and overdue to score. Wonder how that’ll go.

The Leafs struck on the powerplay. Komarov got the puck in the slot and fired a shot close-range; right on cue, Matthews streaked in, picked up the rebound, and backhanded the puck over Greiss to push the lead to 4-1.

An unexpected fight developed shortly after. Connor Carrick hip-checked Ryan Strome; Strome took exception, and the two of them brawled for a bit.

The Leafs pushed the game into laugher territory shortly after the fight. Marner knocked the puck away from Brock Nelson as Nelson tried to exit his own zone. JVR recovered and threw to Bozak, who chipped the puck over Thomas Greiss for goal #5.

5-1 Leafs.

The Leafs still weren’t done. Auston Matthews picked Casey Cizikas’ pocket and threw the puck to Connor Brown in the corner. Connor Brown waited and politely returned the puck to Matthews, who fired it in off Greiss for his second of the night. 6-1. Hoo boy.

The only drama left in the game was whether Auston Matthews was going to get a hat trick. He didn’t do it, but he gave it a hell of a try, shooting falling down on a one-on-two rush. The Leafs, however, scored yet again subsequently. Matt Hunwick fired a point shot that may have been tipped by Matt Martin for the seventh (!) Leafs goal. (The goal, at time of writing, was still officially credited to Hunwick.) Good God.

That was finally the end of it. I like when the Leafs score seven goals. They should do this more.

Thoughts

  • Fun thing about the Leafs tonight is that they totally defied score effects. The first period was close to even, but as the Leafs gained the lead, they took charge in the second and then crushed the Isles flat in the third.
  • Auston Matthews had a virtuoso performance. Two goals, a dominant possession game, and several great shifts, including a number he could have scored on but didn’t. His second goal (the Leafs’ sixth) is the best of the Auston Matthews experience: a pickpocket takeaway and a great finish at short range. Just incredible.
  • Nylander, Marner, and Kadri all also did their jobs very well. A less famous name: Josh Leivo, who had a great three-point night—not to mention a strong Corsi showing (albeit against weak forwards). It’s one game, but Leivo is starting to make it hard to send him back to the press box.
  • Said it before: Leafs often go as Jake Gardiner goes. Gardiner was good tonight. Polak also managed to end up as the only Leaf defender underwater in possession, because he is Polak.
  • Andersen was brilliant in this one, especially in the second, when the game was still up for grabs. Had he been off his game, it’s not totally implausible the Leafs could have gotten derailed and lost this one. With him on it, they were able to shine.
  • Poor John Tavares did his best, leading his team in adjusted CF% and being in on most of their best chances. The broadcast mentioned several times that Tavares is a free agent in summer 2018. I am not getting caught up speculating on that after Stamkos flirted with us and then decided to stay in his marriage, but the Leafs made a nice advertisement for their rookies tonight.
  • A couple of fun numbers tonight: Nazem Kadri has now set his career high in goals (21 and counting), while Frederik Andersen has his 100th career NHL win. Nikita Zaitsev is now second in rookie defenceman scoring, behind only Columbus phenom Zach Werenski.
  • Big win. Though they’re all big games now, aren’t they? Leafs take on the aforementioned Werenski and his Columbus Blue Jackets tomorrow night.