The Leafs traveled to Missouri tonight to take on the St. Louis Blues, who were playing their first game under new head coach Mike Yeo. The Blues have been bedeviled by poor goaltending all year, undermining their impressive possession numbers.
The game was preceded by the Blues’ retirement of #5, in honour of defenceman Bob Plager.
The first real action of the game was St. Louis defender Colton Parayko cutting to the net, then bowling over Frederik Andersen. Parayko is a very large man, and he terrified Leafs nation for a moment by knocking over our most essential player. Andersen didn’t seem to suffer any long-term effects and stayed in.
The newly formed line of Marner-JVR-Kadri nearly connected for a lovely tic-tac-toe play, sparked by a zone entry and a threaded pass from Marner to JVR. JVR threw to Kadri in front of the net, who tipped it on Jake Allen; Allen made the save.
Perhaps sparked by the return of Ben Smith, the fourth line had an excellent offensive shift, though Matt Martin wasn’t able to get around on a net-front puck to try and jam it in.
The Blues got their best chance of the early going as Alex Steen hit David Perron with a great pass. Perron streaked in alone, only be stoned cold by Frederik Andersen.
The Blues seemed to be energized by the chance, and the Leafs had several of their extended stretches where they couldn’t exit their own zone. Jake Gardiner, coming off a rare bad game against Dallas, had a rough shift where he botched a zone exit, his partner Carrick recovered, and Carrick then did the same thing. The Leafs went shotless for several minutes.
Mike Babcock decided to cut short his new-lines experiment and return to the old ones. He was rapidly rewarded: Bozak, Marner and JVR generated some offensive pressure; Marner picked up a loose puck in the slot and fired it past Allen. 1-0 Leafs.
The Blues came on again, and fulfilled the inevitable “ex-Leaf scores on the Leafs” checkbox. Alex Steen fired a shot from the point, which was screened but not tipped, and it beat Andersen. 1-1.
Jori Lehtera took a penalty on his compatriot Leo Komarov, hooking him as he streaked to the net front. The Leafs had a truly excellent chance on the PP generated by Nylander, which Matthews proved unable to put on net. The period ended with 19 seconds left in the powerplay.
It really didn’t feel like the Leafs got the better of the play in this period—yet according to NST, they did, taking the edge in both attempts and scoring chances. I will say there was one particular stretch in the middle of the period where the Blues looked clearly better, and the Leafs looked decent the rest of the time. I doubt Babcock goes back to the new lines anytime soon. Gardiner, whom I love, had a pretty rough period, mostly during that one awful shift mentioned above.
The Leafs concluded their powerplay unsuccessfully, but Jay Bouwmeester put the Leafs right back on the advantage by tripping Connor Carrick. The Leafs next powerplay was even less impressive than the first, lowlighted by a dangerous St. Louis shorthanded shift in the Leafs’ zone. I guess at least they didn’t get scored on?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before they did get scored on. Polak got bullied by David Perron below the goal line; Steen took the loose puck and threw it out front to Paul Stastny, who wired it past Freddie. 2-1 Blues.
The Blues didn’t wait long to strike again. Vladimir Tarasenko, who has one of the best shots I’ve ever seen, took Rielly for a walk and absolutely rifled the puck from above the hashmarks. This goal was 35 seconds after the prior one, and it put the Leafs in a 3-1 hole.
Mike Babcock was understandably livid at the implosion of his team. The Leafs at least recognized that they now had to make a charge, and they generated a bit of offensive pressure. Unfortunately, they took a penalty, and on the powerplay, Colton Parayko did this:
here's my recap for the last ten minutes pic.twitter.com/8ybi4LmtPi— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) February 3, 2017
Marner took an interference penalty on Blues’ forward Ivan Barbashev; the Leafs survived this one, at least. Leo Komarov and Ryan Reaves got caught in an extended hug, but Leo wasn’t interested in fighting the much larger Reaves.
Matthews, who had had a mostly quiet game heretofore, at least had a nice rushing play where he whirled around for a spin-o-rama pass into the slot. Connor Brown wasn’t able to pot the puck for a goal, but it was fun.
There was an unfortunate moment towards the end of the period as linesman Jonny Murray took a puck in the side of the head, off a weird bounce. He recovered and stayed in the game.
This was just a grotesque period for the Leafs. The Leafs won the 5v5 adjusted Corsi battle (especially the Bozak line), but got crushed in scoring chances and on special teams. Roman Polak looked weak on the second Blues goal, while Rielly looked bad on the third. With present-day Jake Allen playing like 2015-16 Jake Allen, the Leafs looked dead in the water, and indeed they were.
Towards the end of games like this, you just start hoping for individual positives. I was pulling for Auston Matthews to get a point. I’ll tell you now, he didn’t do it, which is partly responsible for the tone of this period’s recap.
William Nylander managed a nice one-man rush that ended in a shot he couldn’t put past Jake Allen. Perhaps more interestingly, Nylander won a puck battle to get past forechecker David Perron, who dominated Polak on the second goal. How odd. It’s as if Polak’s physicality is an overrated skillset that mostly helps him take visible interference penalties.
The Bozak line, who were really the only impressive Leafs for much of the night, had a decent chance as JVR fired one from the slot. Morgan Rielly made a banner defensive play to stop a Jaden Schwartz breakaway; I wish it had come in a closer game, because where it happened no one’s going to remember it.
Carrick had a shot through traffic that might have done something, but didn’t. Life is but a series of distractions in the shadow of death. Patrik Berglund took a penalty slashing Auston Matthews. The Leafs had several chances on the powerplay, mostly centred around the work of William Nylander, but couldn’t convert. Nothing matters.
The Bozak line again generated some good but ultimately unsuccessful pressure. By the waters of Babylon I sat down and wept. After a Colton Parayko shot, Paul Stastny managed to get the puck in front of the net and whacked it past Andersen while falling over, bringing the game to 5-1. Here is no water, but only rock.
Roman Polak made an abysmal giveaway that wound up an Nail Yakupov’s stick; Yak chip-shotted it hard at Andersen but was stopped. The Leafs made a few more feeble efforts to score which failed. Soshnikov tried to hit Tarasenko, which provoked a shoving match in the final minute and brought the teams to 4-on-4. Tyler Bozak had a shot with a few seconds left, and the game ended. Shantih, shantih, shantih.
- You’re never as good as you look when you’re winning, and you’re never as bad as you look when you’re losing. Every team has losing streaks, and this is possibly the worst one the Leafs have been in thus far. This is the first time they’ve lost in regulation three times in a row, and these last two have been real flops (though you might count the stretch of no goaltending and blown leads from October.)
- The Leafs looked absolutely catastrophic defensively, which is not new. Unfortunately, they were also stifled offensively, which is less common, but which obviously dooms them when it happens. Man, that was an awful second period.
- Frederik Andersen was neither very good nor very bad, despite the .839 line. He might have done a little better on goal one and goal four, and the Leafs need better from him to be competitive. But he got virtually no help from his defence.
- Speaking of whom: I was hard on Polak above because I’m tired of him, but that’s not to say any of the Leafs’ defencemen had particularly great nights. Rielly at least had some good plays to go with his bad, and we can sort of try to explain the third goal against by saying it’s his first game back and the guy he was trying to contain is Tarasenko. That’s the best I can do.
- Speaking of which: good God is Tarasenko dangerous. What a release. Several Blues had banner offensive games, as you’d expect—Paul Stastny and Colton Parayko stand out—but Tarasenko is just incredible to watch when he’s on.
- The Bozak line, once reunited, had a strong game. They were a rare bright spot for the Leafs, scoring the only goal, putting together strong possession play while the game was competitive, and managing not to get scored on.
- If I want to find another consolation, it would be that the powerplay looked dangerous, as usual, when it could get set up. When it couldn’t, also as usual, it looked atrocious; the Leafs really need that flood-the-blue-line-and-drop-pass entry to succeed for the PP to work. But once they were in the Blues’ zone they looked as fine as ever, and they could easily have potted a goal.
- The Blues are a better team than we are as long as Jake Allen is good. Jake Allen was good, and so the Blues were a better team than us. I said last week after the Flames game that the Leafs can look very good against bad teams and very bad against good ones, because they’re excellent on offence and miserable in their own zone. Tonight was the flipside to the Flames game.
- Okay, okay, enough doom and gloom. The Leafs are still easily within striking distance of a playoff spot, which is better than most of us thought they’d be at this point. They were going to hit some adversity at some point, and if they don’t overcome this stretch, at least it’ll clarify their trade deadline strategy. They’ve got the skill to stay in the hunt, and if they win against Boston on Saturday, that’ll be hugely helpful. Just one thing—games in hand only help if you win them.