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Special Teams Sink Leafs; Isles Win 5-4

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A wild one on the island goes against us.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Leafs journeyed to Long Island tonight so that the world’s bitterest exes could boo John Tavares again. Zach Hyman returned to the lineup on Johnny T’s left wing.

First Period

The first few shifts are not tremendously exciting. The Isles fans cheer when Tavares loses a faceoff. Mat Barzal forechecks Cody Ceci and Ceci, as is his wont, coughs the puck up. Credit where it’s due: Barry Trotz has taught the Islanders to play solid defensive hockey and it seems to work for them, but my God it’s dull.

The Leafs get a good shift for their top line after Jake Muzzin holds the puck in. The Tavares line also gets some zone time after a classic Zach Hyman rush—very glad he’s back. The Isles, as is their habit, concede the low-danger parts of the defensive zone but protect the house very aggressively; despite having a ton of zone time early the Leafs don’t seem to be getting to the most dangerous areas.

Ross Johnston takes a hooking penalty to send the Leafs to the power play. The Leafs have some decent movement but don’t really get a top-tier chance; I still think it looks better than it has lately, so there’s that. The Islanders almost break out for an odd-man rush at the end, but they can’t settle the puck down and Tyson Barrie knocks it away.

The Isles have their first sustained setup in possibly the whole period and yet Nick Leddy and Michael Dal Colle combine to...run it into the corner and give it away.

And...this is so fucking stupid. Andreas Johnsson makes an extremely dumb drop pass in the neutral zone, apparently in response to William Nylander calling for it, and the Leafs never recover defensively, featuring some bad d-zone work by Nylander and Rielly especially. Eberle passes to Mat Barzal, who has a wide-open net. It’s 1-0 Islanders on what was, honestly, their first legitimate chance of the game. Brutal.

The Isles wake up after that and actually start pressuring the Leafs in their zone. Pressure begets penalties, usually, and Travis Dermott takes a tripping call. Anthony Beauvillier floats a shot in on the power play and it’s 2-0.

That was a very demoralizing period. The Leafs owned the puck for about 14 minutes; they didn’t generate much, but the Islanders generated nothing. And then it blew up, and they fell apart (and got crushed in xG by the end of it.) That was tough.

Second Period

Leafs goal! Didn’t know they could do that. Kasperi Kapanen rushes in and holds the zone. John Tavares tips a Travis Dermott point shot and Kasperi Kapanen tips it again point blank, and it’s 2-1.

There’s a bit of back and forth and then a quite good sustained shift in the Islanders’ zone for the Matthews line—and not just possession, but a couple of chances this time. The Islanders come back with a strong shift the other way and wear out a tired Cody Ceci for a minute. Much more action than in the early first.

John Tavares looks reinvigorated tonight, either from being booed or from getting the dogged Zach Hyman back or both. The Leafs are trying their damndest to push through on this one and the Islanders are getting a few counterattacks but no shots on goal so far. The Leafs’ fourth line (!) runs the Isles around for almost a full minute, which is not a thing they often do. Despite my thoughts at the end of the first it’s been a pretty free-flowing game in the second.

Leaf goal! Nylander executes a perfect give and go with Johnsson, starting in the D-zone off a pass by Muzzin and ending with a perfect tip at the net front. 2-2.

The fourth line (?!?!) runs the Islander’s zone again. I can’t say I expected this but I’m enjoying it immensely. Nylander looks like he’s flying out there right now. The next shift features Hyman buzzing in the slot. The Isles pick up a SOG—allegedly their first of the period—just short of 15 minutes in as Guy I Forgot Was Still In The League Derrick Brassard puts one on Freddie Andersen. And then more fourth line goodness. Frederik Gauthier muscled a guy! I saw it!

Unfortunately all the fun comes to an end. Kerfoot loses a battle, Tyson Barrie flies the zone prematurely, Jake Muzzin gets caught after losing the puck on a breakout, and Anthony Beauvillier backs into the slot and backhands it past Freddie. Not a great goal against for Fred but he can also quite rightly point the finger at his defencemen. 3-2 Isles.

The Tavares line gets back going again and Kapanen just rings a post. The period ends without further incident.

That was a tough one. By and large the Leafs played very well in that period, definitely one of the better periods they’ve had all year. They dominated every metric and they were rewarded with two goals. And yet a brutal defensive miscue ends in the back of the net and the Leafs are still down going into the third despite a great effort.

Good showings from Hyman and Nylander, at least.

Third Period

The Leafs begin this one in highly unattractive fashion, getting pressured heavily in the zone and having Travis Dermott make a terrible giveaway. They get their bearings somewhat after that, though, and start pushing on offence again. The Tavares line looks better with Hyman and Kapanen on it than it did with Mitch Marner and whoever else. Obviously Marner’s a better player than Hyman but Zach’s abilities were definitely missed.

The Leafs’ pressure draws a penalty; Devon Toews gets booked for slashing Nylander’s hands. The Leafs powerplay has an extremely rough start as Casey Cizikas puts in a terrific solo effort to kill about 40 seconds in the Leafs’ zone, and gets a slot shot. The powerplay generates nothing of significance. The Leafs actually come closer to scoring on the grinder hybrid shift after the PP than they do on it—Frederik Gauthier throws it to the slot but Ilya Mikheyev can’t bat it in.

Jake Muzzin takes a penalty for cross-checking. Mat Barzal hits Derrick Brassard, who one-times it, and it’s 4-2 Isles.

Momentum has swung to the Isles again, and the Leafs are going to have to mount some kind of major pushback if they’re gonna tie this. They do a little bit, but this is not the effort you’d hope for. Derrick Brassard misses an open net.

Nylander takes an interference penalty, which is an extremely good way to come back in a game. The Leafs actually kill this one, but the lost time is pretty bad.

Matthews bobbles a back pass into his own net for the ENG, making it 5-2, which nails the coffin shut.

Or so I thought, but Justin Holl, of all people, scores on a wraparound with under two minutes left to pull it to 5-3.

With the net empty again, Rielly fires a point shot on Varlamov, and John Tavares pounces on the scramble to cut the deficit to 5-4 with 37.5 seconds left. That’s as close as they come, unfortunately. 5-4 is your final.

Thoughts

  • The Leafs have become a genuinely disappointing special teams squad. The powerplay is ineffective and the penalty kill is worse. It hurt them badly in this one. It also lowers the ceiling on the team overall. The PK you’d hope can be better, but the PP has no excuse. Paul MacFarland ought to be worried about having one of the shortest assistant coaching tenures in Leaf history the way he’s going.
  • At 5v5, the Leafs were pretty good for a lot of this one—they finished way up in shots (about even in xG, as per Natural Stat Trick.) They were dominant, even, during the second. But when they gave up a chance it was off a hideous misplay and it led to a super high percentage chance against. Even granted this is how the Islanders try to win hockey games, it was glaring.
  • The Leafs charged back hard in the second and then made a belated comeback in the third, enough that Matthews’ absurd own goal is actually the GWG for the Isles.
  • This wasn’t Freddie’s best game. We lose when he doesn’t have his best game.
  • Tyson Barrie’s play is frustrating me as much as it is him, I’m sure. It’s tough to watch him waste possessions on missed point shots and it doesn’t help when he has a memorable defensive blunder. He’s struggling right now.
  • Zach Hyman coming back did seem to reinvigorate that line. This was the best Tavares has looked all year, to my eye, and Kasperi Kapanen is much more comfortable on the RW than the LW. If the Leafs weren’t under true .500 by now you could find plenty of silver linings in this one, but...
  • The Leafs do not have unlimited time for their results to improve in the direction of their talent level. If the team keeps losing something is going to have to change. I recognize a lot of people have an idea what that ought to be.