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Leafs 7 - Blackhawks 6 (OT): They are who we thought they were

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The Leafs star centres carry them to a win

Toronto Maple Leafs v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Facing sky high expectations for the first time in more than a decade, the Leafs haven’t exactly set the league alight in their first two games. An unconvincing win against the Habs was followed up with a better effort against the Senators, but no points. They’ll try and rebound tonight in the first game of an extended road trip in Chicago, facing a Blackhawks squad that’s looking to reclaim their spot among the elite in the NHL — they have two wins from two games thus far. Let’s see how they do.

Two lineup changes for the Leafs; Garret Sparks makes his first start of the season, and Martin Marincin takes Igor Ozhiganov’s spot on the third pair.

First Period

The Blackhawks dominate the first shift, with Jonathan Toews’ line capitalizing on a couple sloppy turnovers from Auston Matthews. Sparks has to be sharp early on. The Tavares/Marner line coms on and has some zone time of their own, but as the play goes the other way, Sparks is forced to save a Brandon Saad shot from the slot.

Yikes, really not a good start. The very next shift, Artem Anisimov gets a partial break, splitting through Travis Dermott and Martin Marincin. It seems inevitable that the Leafs are going to give up the opening goal if the play continues in this manner. Chicago is getting everything they want through the neutral zone, and the Leafs haven’t generated any offence to speak of.

They finally have a productive shift, but it ends with a Martin Marincin point shot that gets tipped, resulting in a fairly easy save for Cam Ward. But it’s something.

The game starts to open up as we head into the midsection of the first. Off an end-to-end play, the Blackhawks get a chance through Brandon Manning, but the Leafs are able to counterattack, and Mitch Marner is stopped in tight on the backhand after being found by John Tavares. It’s been slightly more even since the opening couple minutes, but only slightly.

With 11 minutes left in the period, Jonathan Toews deflects a point shot by Dominik Kahun, but it looks as if it’s a high stick. The goal gets reviewed, but is not overturned... I definitely thought it was over the bar, but it’s hard to say that their lead is undeserved based on how the game has progressed. The Leafs trail 1-0 for the third consecutive game.

Following the goal against, the Leafs get some zone pressure through their fourth line, but like most fourth lines, they’re unable to generate real chances.

It doesn’t get any better for them after that... Kasperi Kapanen turns the puck over to Toews at his own blueline, and the Blackhawks execute a beautiful passing play where their attackers outnumber the Leafs defenders. Alex DeBrincat eventually pots it into an empty net after two cross-ice passes. Not really anything the defense or Sparks could have done there. Leafs are down 2-0 and are staring down the barrel of another loss.

Of course, as I type that, Auston Matthews flips the puck out to a streaking Kasperi Kapanen who outraces the Chicago defenders for a breakaway before finishing on the high glove side of Cam Ward. The Leafs needed that... it was only their fourth shot, but hopefully represents a significant momentum change. 2-1 Blackhawks. The home run pass finally connected for the Leafs.

By the way, for both of the previous goals, Kapanen was on the Matthews’ line, presumably due to the ineffectiveness of Tyler Ennis... Shortly following them, he makes further use of the opportunity he makes use of it immediately. The Leafs win an offensive zone draw, Kapanen wins a board battle, and finds Matthews in front. Matthews fans on the first attempt, but makes no mistake on the second, and the Leafs tie it 2-2! 34 seconds after the Kapanen goal, Matthews gets goal #4 of the season.

Now, this doesn’t change the fact that the Leafs have been butt to start the game... but they have a new lease on life, and can hopefully take advantage for the rest of the game. The Leafs had two chances, and took both. Perhaps relatedly, Cam Ward is in net for the Hawks.

With about 2:30 left, Hainsey makes a play that just drives me batty. Matthews gives him the puck in his own zone, and makes himself available for a return pass. Toews applies light pressure to Hainsey, but the pass is available on his forehand. Instead, he goes to his backhand and ices the puck. Toews wins the ensuing faceoff and creates a chance. The Ron Hainsey experience, right there.

With under two minutes to play in the period, Tavares takes a penalty for holding in the offensive zone. Not a smart play from him, but Chicago doesn’t score on the power play.

The Leafs escape the period with a 2-2 tie, and given how they played for the vast majority of it, ‘escape’ is the right word for it. As the period went along, the balance of play leveled out a bit, but really, the Leafs have just been incredibly clinical with their chances... the only major chance they didn’t convert on was Marner’s early in the game. They’re losing the shot attempt battle 23-16, and from watching, the same flaws seem to be there. Little puck support when transition defense to offense, no effective pressure applied in the neutral zone, and poor tracking in the defensive zone itself. The Leafs created very few chances off actual controlled entries into the zone, because they had so few of them!

Anyways, on to the second period, tied at 2.

Second Period

The second period starts off with the Blackhawks getting some half-chances in the offensive zone, where they just lack the finishing touch. Hainsey helps the Hawks out by giving the puck away a couple times. He is very frustrating to watch.

After a Chicago icing, Matthews wins a draw and creates a strong chance in front... he’s been responsible for a lot of the Leafs offense tonight. He’s really phenomenal off draws in the offensive zone, and it helps mitigate the loss of Nylander on his line, since there’s no element of transition play (assuming he wins the draw).

Another very frustrating Leafs sequence occurs... Sparks corrals the puck and gives it to Dermott at his own goal line, with Chicago applying no pressure and changing. Dermott has literally no support, and is forced into a stretch pass with all three Leafs forwards north of the red line.

As I type this complaint, the Tavares line initiates a cycle, and off a shot from Rielly, John Tavares pots the rebound and makes it 3-2 Leafs. And as much as I’ve complained about the Leafs play (deservedly, in my opinion), they’ve definitely improved throughout the game, and are creating chances around the goalmouth. Unlike the game against Ottawa, they’re also converting on them.

Shortly after, another Leafs turnover bites them. Dermott turns it over behind his own net, which creates a some opportunities for Chicago. Following a point shot, John Hayden wires a wrister five hole that Dermott nearly clears off the line. 3-3 tie. Sparks was scrambling a little bit there. The Leafs have been porous defensively, to say the least, though better in the second than the first.

Midway through the second, they get a power play to try and retake the lead... frankly, it’s a fairly soft call against Kane, but I won’t complain. Neither do the Leafs, and John Tavares does his best JvR impression, tipping in a Mitch Marner pass. We’ve seen that before, and the Leafs get the lead through their top unit on the power play. 4-3 Toronto.

Andreas Johnsson gives the penalty right back, as he high-sticks a Chicago player, who bleeds, which means it’s a four minute penalty. Big opportunity for the Blackhawks to tie the game, and a tough challenge upcoming for the Leafs. The Leafs rise up to it brilliantly... I’m not sure I’ve seen a better penalty kill from the Leafs in recent years. Chicago doesn’t get a single shot attempt worth noting, and the Leafs actually get a couple shorthanded chances through Kapanen, who has been excellent.

After the penalty, the Leafs run a Marleau - Matthews- Kadri unit. They don’t produce anything, but I expect that will be the standard post-PK unit for the season.

It’s interesting that the Leafs have been better this period.. I don’t think their systems or transitions have been any different. It’s still a lot of dump and chase. Accordingly, their shot attempts between the first and second are very similar. The defense has been the real difference between periods. It’s unclear to me exactly what they’re doing to instigate that change, or if Chicago is just not as crisp. Their defense hasn’t been good in an absolute sense, but judging relative to the Leafs usual efforts, it’s been an improvement.

Of course, I’ve jinxed the Leafs defense. A Gardiner turnover results in a 2-on-1, where Sparks makes an excellent save on Kane. That’s the last notable moment of the period, one where the Leafs showed much stronger than the first. They have a lead to protect in the third... hopefully they can do it.

Third Period

The Tavares line continues their dominance on the shot clock in the early part of the third. They’re going to destroy people this season. Deservedly, Tavares and Marner get the lion’s share of the credit, but Hyman has also been excellent today initiating cycles after dump-ins (which still comprise the majority of Leafs zone entries).

The Kadri line has been a disappointment at even strength so far this season, and they get scored on here. They, along with Dermott and Marincin get stuck in the defensive zone. Brown strays from his man on the point (Brandon Manning), who makes him pay by slapping a shot off the post and in past Sparks. 4-4 tie.

Even with Kapanen on his line, the offensive burden on Matthews is enormous. No one else on his line is a reliable zone exit or entry threat, or even an above average passer. It’s a very notable contrast to the Tavares line, where he, Marner, and Hyman are dummying Chicago. After a dominant shift, Marner has an open net after a rebound, forcing Saad to take a penalty to prevent a goal. Leafs go to the power play with a chance to take the lead again. Despite some excellent chances from their top unit, they are unable to do so. 13 minutes to play, still a tie game.

I’ve been harping on how excellent the Tavares line has been, and of course it had to be him to break the tie. Tavares knocks a Marner pass out of the air, and wires a shot into the roof of the net for the hat-trick...his first as a Leaf, and it comes at an important time. 5-4 Leafs.

That’s the second primary assist for Marner too. So far, his offense from last year has translated to this season. I don’t think Marner has been as amazing as he was last night, but if you can put up two primary points on an ‘okay’ night, it shows how special a player you are.

With about seven minutes left, Connor Brown makes a great defensive play to cover for Dermott, who had stumbled. I criticize Brown a lot, so it’s only fair I point out when he does something positive.

The Blackhawks are going to start riding their stars more for the rest of the game, so it will be a significant test of the Leafs defense to see if they can prevent any major chances in the final minutes.

Well, the Leafs don’t pass that test, but Sparks does, making an unbelieveable save on a cross-ice pass to Kahun. Shortly after, Alex DeBrincat blows a tire at the blue line letting Kapanen get his second breakaway. Unfortunately, it has a different result to the first. The pattern of the late game is established, with the Blackhawks exerting tremendous pressure on the Leafs, who are counterattacking through rush opportunities. Brown gets a partial break, but Ward denies him.

Interestingly, Kane and Toews haven’t been reunited for any appreciable amount of time in the late stages of the game. The Blackhawks pull the goalie with 2:30 left, and the Leafs will have to deal with being shorthanded for the bulk of the game.

Aaand, they aren’t able to deal with it. Truthfully, the Blackhawks don’t get many chances, but a Kane shot from the right flank sneaks its way through Sparks, and the game is 5-5 with 1:28 to go!

Looks like we’re going to over-NOPE MATTHEWS SHOCKS THE HAWKS!

The Leafs enter the zone with control, Marleau makes a low-to-high pass to Gardiner, whose point shot riccochets to Matthews in the slot. He seems as surprised as anyone, but rifles it high on Ward to make it 6-5 with 1:02 left. What a mad finish to this game.

Oh my God, are you kidding me? Kane ties it AGAIN, with 29 seconds to go. Surely now, it’s going to overtime, right?

It does. Good lord, what a bonkers finish.

Overtime

I barely have the energy to recap this... luckily, Morgan Rielly doesn’t make me wait long. Just 19 seconds in, he walks in unmolested, and his relatively tame shot finds a way through Ward. 7-6 Leafs. Holy hell, I need a nap.

Takeaways

  • Both goalies were awful... A lot of the talk from the Leafs fanbase will be about Sparks, who was not good. Ward was just as bad... it’s not JUST our shooters being amazing. According to Moneypuck, there were 5.54 expected goals in this game (across both teams). 13 goals were scored in total.
  • Hyman - Tavares - Marner is the Leafs best line... this is unequivocally true without Nylander riding shotgun to Matthews, and might still be true even if that’s the case. Hyman is a perfect complement to the two more skilled skaters, who are combining brilliantly in the early part of this season.
  • Matthews’ line had a fairly notable jump up in performance when Kapanen swapped places with Ennis. His speed helps a lot... he’s a more reasonable facsimile of Nylander than anyone else we have (besides Marner of course). As good as Matthews has been in front of goal this season, the Marleau - Matthews - Ennis line has struggled in terms of shot share, once you adjust for the huge amounts of offensive zone starts they’re getting. They still might with Kapanen (it’s very noticeable how many OZ starts Babcock is giving them, which I think is because he recognizes that they can’t transition the puck well without Nylander). But he’s more of a threat in that sense than Ennis.
  • How many times did Josh Leivo’s name show up in that recap? Not many. Same for Connor Brown, who had two nice backchecks, and one nice offensive play. Kadri needs better wingers. That group is not really succeeding on any level right now.
  • Andreas Johnsson has been fine for a fourth line winger... but the hope is that he is more than that. We need to see that soon.
  • I crapped on Rielly/Hainsey, but their top-line CF% numbers look nice. In large part, that’s because they got to ride with Tavares’ line, but hey, that’s the game. I don’t think they were doing much driving, and the Leafs were still really weak defensively.
  • Gardiner/Zaitsev is the same in reverse... I didn’t think they were awful, watching them, but they were with Matthews’ group a lot, and performed less well by CF%. Early on, Gardiner hasn’t seemed to be his usual dominating presence in terms of driving play, which has implications beyond this season if the Leafs decide to retain him.
  • I thought Dermott was fine, but made a few very notable gaffes. Interestingly, his partner, Martin Marincin, was more solid.
  • Moving back from the player level into the team level, the Leafs offense was very strong, which is amazing considering they’re missing a first line winger. Furthermore, it doesn’t look like their breakouts and transition play is remotely optimized. There’s a lot of dump and chase, and a lot of failed exits and entries. However, they are skilled enough to create some chances out of nothing, and when they do get the puck into the offensive zone, they are very strong.
  • Where that lack of transitional competence comes to bite them is in their defense. It means they need to play it a lot, and as good as they are at breaking opponent’s defensive zone structure, they’re just as bad at maintaining their own, and getting the puck off the opponent. The Blackhawks got so many amazing chances in tight, and if you’ll recall, this was not an elite team last year by any stretch. So far, every team has been able to get prime chances against us, which isn’t a great sign.
  • This was a wild game, and it sort of continues the trend of the Leafs being who we thought they were. Last year, they were amazing offensively, terrible defensively, and relied on special teams, shooting talent, and their goalie. This year, they’re basically the same, but with a face lift in the form of Tavares. I’m not sure if the result at the end of the season will be any different. But that’s an April problem.