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Leafs vs. Predators Recap: Return of the King

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Auston rides again, JVR and Marner rock the powerplay, and the Leafs beat Nashville 5-2.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs journeyed to Tennessee tonight to take on probably the best team in the Western Conference, and maybe the NHL.

First Period

Nylander has a couple of physical run-ins with some Predators, getting the worst of one exchange with Ryan Johansen. Leafs buzzing a bit but don’t get a quality scoring chance off the first shift. Kasperi Kapanen streaks in but settles for a chip-in on goal.

Mike Fisher, newly unretired, bowls over both Travis Dermott and Frederik Andersen, and winds up with the game’s first penalty.

The Leafs’ Murder Unit nearly cashes early, as James van Riemsdyk gets some point-blank hacks at the puck around Pekka Rinne and then almost passes to Nazem Kadri. The Matthews unit (MATTHEWS BACK) also gets some pretty swell chances; Auston Matthews forces Pekka Rinne to make a damn good save from short range.

But the powerplay isn’t done, and the Murder Unit gets back out, and Jesus, how incredibly hot is JVR right now? (You know what I mean, Species.)

Operating in his customary spot near the net front, JVR tries to do a back pass through the legs to Tyler Bozak. Roman Josi tries to block it and ends up putting it in. 1-0 Leafs!

Matthews looks like he’s ready to rock; he charges in for a puck and hits the trailer for a chance. God bless William Nylander and Zach Hyman, both of whom did well with Matthews out, but he turns that line into something absolutely terrifying. The Leafs sustain momentum almost start to finish for over six minutes. Unfortunately, Tyler Bozak stops it by taking an interference penalty.

The Preds get a heavy PK Subban shot on net for what is, I believe, their first shot on goal of the evening. He gets another, and then Andersen makes a huge in-close save on Victor Arvidsson. That’s the best chance, and the Leafs get the kill, but the Predators get some momentum out of it and keep coming for another shift or two. Roman Josi makes a rush to the slot that gets a bit scary but doesn’t end in a great shot.

After some early action, the game fragments a bit, with icings going both ways. The Preds’ fourth line gets a bit of play as Guys You Didn’t Realize Were Still Playing Mike Fisher and Scott Hartnell connect for a high-slot shot.

William Nylander gets two minutes for tripping and I am damned if I can figure out why. Anyway, the second Predators powerplay doesn’t achieve much and winds up with zero shots. Zach Hyman gets a semi-chance shorthanded.

Matthews and Nylander get a chance that’s really only a chance because it’s Matthews and he can score from anywhere: they do a pass and pass back that ends with AM34 whipping a shot from the side boards.

Bozak and JVR buzz around the net a little bit in the final minute, but the period ends 1-0.

That was fun. Aside from the first Predators powerplay, the Leafs played a pretty solid period, and they were dazzling on their own powerplay. Everything JVR touches is gold right now, but also give Marner a shoutout, he’s been flying. Matthews looks entirely in form. Toronto didn’t quite get the high-danger chances I would have liked to see from them at their best, but a good twenty minutes against an excellent team.

Second Period

PK Subban puts some muscle on Nazem Kadri in the neutral zone for a big hit. A bit after that, Craig Smith tips a Roman Josi shot to make for a tricky save by Andersen.

Matthews does some work to get out of his own zone and then rifles a quick shot off the rush, and man I just really like having him back. On a subsequent shift, Morgan Rielly makes a nice effort to get a high shot on net.

The Preds come on a bit again, as Matthias Ekholm has a solid shift that generates a lot of zone time. It ends with Matthews taking a penalty (!) interfering with Nick Bonino. It is another odd call, since Bonino seemed to honestly just fall over. I don’t like complaining about the refs but these last two calls have been a bit hard to understand.

This one has consequences. The Leafs get overeager thinking they’ve got the puck and are going to clear the zone, but they don’t. PK Subban recovers it and fires it to Victor Arvidsson, and pretty much the entire team is in no man’s land except Roman Polak. Polak can’t cut the pass, so Arvidsson comes in with a ton of space and scores. 1-1.

After a Jake Gardiner giveaway, there is a scramble shift in the Leafs zone where Andersen spends a terrifying amount of time not standing upright; Kevin Fiala gets a hack at it in close. Preds are awake now.

Kadri and Marner have a pretty decent shift, although it ends with a dangerous-looking Ryan Johansen rush the other way that is stopped by an offside. Fiala breaks in on the next shift and man, the Preds are charging.

JVR takes a high-sticking penalty, and at least with this one I know what they were talking about, so okay. Nashville back to the powerplay. It’s a scary one; Ryan Johansen sets up a shooting gallery and keeps blasting right-hand shots from the left wing. Toronto makes it through, though.

OH MY SWEET LORD JESUS AUSTON MATTHEWS.

He’s so fucking good, guys. Just watch that. On loop. 2-1 Leafs.

But wait, there’s more! Zach Hyman pounces on a lucky bounce off the stanchion, then throws it out front. It goes off PK Subban to William Nylander, and Nylander smashes it in the net. 3-1 Toronto!

The Leafs are rolling late. Unfortunately Tomas Plekanec takes a tripping penalty. For the record, this one is 100% legit. The Preds go to their fifth powerplay of the night.

The Preds, as is apparently their habit, make some nice setups that they don’t finish. Kevin Fiala takes a dumb boarding penalty hitting Roman Polak, which cuts the Nashville powerplay short after a minute or so.

After a PK Subban misplay, Nylander gets a breakaway during the 4-on-4, but misses narrowly wide. That’s how the period ends, 3-1.

The Preds looked a lot more dangerous in that period to me, and the heat map seems to bear that out, with an ugly bright splotch in the slot and a big jump in expected goals. The Leafs got a goal that was essentially Auston Matthews being Auston Matthews, and then one lucky one, and they’ve had a bad whistle tonight. Not terrible, but this wasn’t quite as good as the first, in my opinion.

Third Period

The Leafs strike early on their remaining part-powerplay, and unsurprisingly, it’s that dynamite unit again. Mitch Marner snipes his 20th, after Morgan Rielly springs him for a rush. 4-1 Toronto.

Subban sets up Arvidsson for a one-timer, and Andersen is all over it. Lovely save.

The Leafs aren’t done yet! Connor Brown picks up in the corner and throws it back to Jake Gardiner at the left point, who fires a lovely slapshot past Pekka Rinne. And now it’s 5-1!

It’s nearing academic at this point, and the Leafs are kind of ignoring defensive coverage (not that they’re normally good at it.) Kevin Fiala gets left all alone, only to be robbed by Andersen, who has been excellent all night.

Zach Hyman takes a holding penalty. Not much happens, and then Filip Forsberg takes a trip, so it goes to 4v4 for a minute and then the Leafs are back to the powerplay. Nobody scores this time.

The Matthews line has a nice shift. They’ve been fire all night, honestly. So good to have the big man back. The game settles down into a kind of desultory back and forth, but the Preds do score one more: Andersen gets a bad bounce on a clear. Mike Fisher throws it from behind the net out to Scott Hartnell, who scores to make it 5-2.

It doesn’t matter much, though. 5-2 is your final.

Thoughts

  • Auston is back, and he is himself. He and Nylander gleefully demolished their competition in CF% until the garbage time part of the third, looked dangerous all night, and got two goals, one of the vintage Matthews variety. This is obvious, but it’s hard to overstate what a huge difference he makes for this team.
  • The Leafs’ first powerplay unit is just monstrous. JVR has an outside shot at 40 goals this season. Marner is a wizard. It’s all just great. Morgan Rielly had three assists.
  • Andersen was on his game, too. Lots of good saves.
  • All of this said: this game was closer than 5-2 makes it look. The Leafs allowed a lot of point-blank shots in the slot in the second, and this was no better a defensive effort than usual. Kadri and friends did not have a fun time against the Josi-Ekholm pairing and bled shots against. I don’t mean to rain on the parade so much as to say that this was a Leafs game. They do what they do. Tonight they did it pretty well, against an excellent team.
  • The Preds seemed to play true to type. They have a really, really great defensive corps (although PK Subban had some ugly plays to go with his assist tonight) and they play a heavy game, but they don’t have quite enough finish that I would say they’re definitively the #1 team over Boston, Tampa, Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg. They’re still a top-tier squad, and they could definitely win the Cup this year. But insofar as they have a weakness, that’s it.
  • When the Leafs are healthy and firing, they have a chance at beating any team in the NHL. And damn, that’s nice to have.