Ahh, aren’t you glad the bye week is over? The Leafs get back into action tonight against the Blues, who took them to the cleaners the last time they faced off. Hopefully, we get some measure of revenge. There are some lineup changes to note - Travis Dermott is in, while Andreas Borgman is out. Frederik Andersen gets the start for Toronto, while Carter Hutton mans the net for the Blues. Let’s get into it.
The Leafs have a poor first shift, as they fail to exit the zone properly. Andersen makes two early stops to prevent the Leafs from falling in a hole immediately. It continues in the early going, as the Blues quickly fire six shots on net in the opening couple minutes.
Perhaps trying to fire the team up, Matt Martin levels Kyle Brodziak, and is challenged by Chris Thorburn. They drop the gloves, tussle for half a minute, and not much else happens.
Early on, the Matthews line appears to have it going tonight. Some great board work by Zach Hyman and William Nylander allows the latter to find Auston Matthews with room to fire his deadly shot. Later in the same shift, Nylander makes another excellent pass to find Hyman in some space in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, both shots are blocked, but there are signs of optimism for that line, who haven’t been as good in recent games as we’re used to seeing.
For a few minutes, the game is in a state of stasis. A lot of blocked passes, failed shots, and continuous play, without too much going on. With how the last game versus St. Louis went, I’m not too bothered by this development.Both teams are shooting almost exclusively from the outside. No great chances for either team after the first shift.
Roman Polak jumps into the rush, feeding James van Riemsdyk for a shot. Unfortunately, Mitch Marner failed to cover for him, and the Blues get a 2-on-1 going the other direction. Vladimir Sobotka chooses to keep and shoot, but Frederik Andersen sharply turns it aside.
Shortly after, the Blues get Brayden Schenn, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Alex Steen up against the Leafs fourth line. Predictably, this goes terribly, and Andersen has to make a ridiculous save on Robert Bortuzzo coming in off the point to keep it even. The Leafs’ fourth line is not that great, even when matched against other depth players. They have no shot against stars.
As the period progresses, the Matthews line continues to exercise dominance. Matthews, anecdotally, looks like he has some pep in his step, which is the best possible sign for this team. The other lines have been either uneventful (Bozak’s), poor (Kadri’s, though their issues were mostly concentrated on their first shift), or predictably bad (Gauthier’s).
The Leafs get a bit of a respite from St. Louis’ generally stronger 5v5 play, as Brodziak takes a penalty for slashing Leo’s stick. Kind of stupid of him - not like Leo really uses it anyways.
One utterly ineffective power play later, the period is over. Overall, the Leafs were outplayed in that period, with the only unit getting the better of their St. Louis counterpart being Matthews’. Even with that group, they had a lot of their shots blocked, and didn’t generate much from in tight on the St. Louis net. On the defensive side, no one has stood out positively, though Dermott has looked well... like a rookie, at times.
The Leafs start the second like they started the first - badly. St. Louis is living in the offensive zone, and the Leafs are not getting much going offensively. Their first real chance comes about 3 minutes into the period, as Carrick circles the net and feeds Bozak in front. His shot is adeptly saved by Hutton.
Immediately thereafter, the fourth line has their best shift of the game, as they hem in the fourth line of the Blues and generate a few point shots and scrambles in front. This feeds into the first strong shift from Kadri’s line. See guys, once you get started, it’s not so bad!
Nylander has made two really bad defensive zone plays in this period, both of which have led to point blank chances for St. Louis. In the first, he made a loose play behind the net when racing for a puck, and got beat. On the second, he passed it to no one beside his net, and put his defensemen in a tough spot. Andersen has saved him twice. But I can’t stay mad at him for too long, because almost immediately after, he and Hyman (who has been awesome) do some great work to set Dermott up for a good shot. Great work from Dermott on that sequence too, as he used his skating aggressively to cut off the Blues exit options before the play progressed to his shot.
The Leafs have tightened up their play a little as the second has progressed, but they’re still generating precious little in the way of dangerous chances, particularly if you look at their shot locations. But in particular, the Kadri line has looked way more effective at getting into the offensive zone this period.
Sorry to make this all about Nylander, but he did something that really frustrates me about his game. He had a step on a Blues defenceman coming down the right wing, and rather than dipping his shoulder and driving to the net, he tries to go wide and ends up centring it to no one. You have an incredible shot and great feet. Use them! Be more assertive! He always does this, and it’s endlessly frustrating. Nylander is not shy about going into the corners, so I don’t think it’s an aversion to contact. But whatever the reason, he’s neutering some of his best skills.
Anyways, while I was writing that up, Hyman took a penalty, and the Leafs will go to the penalty kill for the first time. The Blues fart around and do precisely nothing, so the game remains tied. The period ends without further incident (though Kadri’s group had another strong shift at the tail end of it), and we go to the third knotted at 0’s. The Leafs as a whole really turned it on in the back half of that period. They’re still not generating great shots, but they did generate shots, and that’s better than nothing.
I sort of wonder if both teams are content to play conservatively in the third, and preserve a point. I wouldn’t say no to that right now... I’d like our chances in 3 on 3.
Once again, Nylander is a little loose in his own zone and makes a stupid turnover. He’s been by far the worst member of his line today. Hyman has been a demon on the forecheck and Matthews back to his best.
Roman Polak has looked shockingly passable tonight. He makes a nice little pass to Gauthier to relieve some pressure in the defensive zone. Oddly, his shot metrics are much nicer than his partner’s (Dermott).
The game starts to open up. Matthews does some Harlem Globetrotters stuff in the offensive zone, and a few shifts later, Ivan Barbashev nearly gets a breakaway before Rielly rushes back to prevent it. Rielly still isn’t great defensively, but his wheels give him a fighting chance on plays where his offensive instincts get him into trouble.
Connor Carrick’s been having a pretty solid game to me, but he takes an absolutely brainless penalty, swiping wildly for the puck in a defensive zone scramble, and tripping Brodziak in the process. He’s fortunate that St. Louis has a terrible power play, and didn’t take advantage. In fact, the opposite occurs, as Brown deflects a pass heading to the point past Alex Pietrangelo, races onto it, and pots it on the breakaway. 1-0 Maple Leafs, and what a time to get it done!
Predictably, the Blues big guns start to pour it on. Tarasenko’s group has an absolutely dominant shift, though one where the Leafs handle it about as well as they possibly can. The Leafs appear to be content to counterattack, with about five minutes left. It very nearly works, as Nylander is able to feed Matthews on a 3-on-2. His shot is stopped, as is Nylander when he tries to pounce on the rebound. It’s hard to feel too safe right now, despite the generally decent game the Leafs have played.
The other thing that must be said about today’s game is that St. Louis is amazing defensively. The Leafs have gotten basically no chances at even strength from in tight, and even with their uneven play over the last three months, that’s something they’re typically good at. The Blues also block a tonne of shots.
Anyways, with about 90 seconds left in the game, the Blues pull the goalie, with Kadri unsurprisingly being trusted to see the game out. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Alex Steen pots the rebound from a Pietrangelo shot. No real shot for Andersen there, and we’re tied at 1.
Matthews’ line has one more strong shift, but is unable to break the deadlock. Overtime beckons. On the whole, that was probably deserved from St. Louis. The Leafs haven’t played horribly, but St. Louis has gotten more shots, and more dangerous shots over the course of the game. I think Kadri’s line has been good for much of the night, but they’ve had 3 or 4 shifts where they were absolutely caved in, which has sewered their shot metrics. It’s hard to blame them, being hard matched against Tarasenko’s line, but it’s still hard to say the current matchup-heavy setup is working
Kadri/Hyman/Rielly starts for the Leafs, but changes within 30 seconds for Matthews and Nylander. Unfortunately, the Schenn/Steen/Parayko trio keeps them away from the puck for much of their shift. Nylander makes a great play to get a breakaway for himself, but Hutton stones him. Nylander gets his own rebound and feeds Matthews, but his shot is blocked.
The next shift sees a 2-on-1 with Vince Dunn and Paul Stastny, after the former totally leaves Mitch Marner in the dust. Dunn makes no mistake, and ends the game. Brutal loss to take, with another squandered lead.
- Overall, this wasn’t an unfair outcome, but the way it happened made it feel like a point lost, rather than a point gained.
- The positives: Matthews’ line was great, Gardiner/Carrick had a solid night, and Andersen was his usual excellent self. The Bozak line didn’t generate a whole lot offensively, but they also didn’t get victimized, and were generally positive in shot share. Roman Polak looked pretty decent too! Rielly had a typically solid game with Hainsey.
- The negatives: The Kadri line, even though they defended competently for most of the game, still got run over in terms of shot attempts. That group isn’t working, and I’m not sure the fix is as easy as ‘jettison Leo’. The fourth line did very little, aside from Brown’s moment of brilliance on the penalty kill. Dermott had his first game where he looked somewhat out of his depth.
- Well, onwards and (hopefully) upwards from here. The Leafs next play on Thursday against the Flyers. See you then.