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Leafs vs. Isles Recap: Revenge of the Snake

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Tavares leads his team to a solid 2-1 win, and a playoff spot.

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

I committed to recapping the Leafs vs Isles game. Why? I don’t know. Self-loathing, maybe.

First Period

You know, when I was like five or so, I thought the second line of the American national anthem was “by the donserly light”, and I just assumed sooner or later someone would explain to me what it meant. I was confident that the wisdom would come to me eventually. I was so much more Zen as a child.

John Tavares starts with a strong o-zone shift, and the Isles crowd chants to show everyone that they’re not mad and actually this is funny to them. The Isles get down the other end on the attack, and Freddie Andersen fends off an Adam Pelech slapper.

William Nylander fires a couple of harmless SOGs that are fielded by Lehner. The Tavares line gets a nice moment in the o-zone off the draw. There’s a bit of back-and-forth without A-grade chances, although I notice Frederik Gauthier stepping up on Dal Colle in a nice defensive effort.

The Leafs are what they are in the d-zone; Adam Pelech puts another shot in and Nikita Zaitsev relitigates the complex history of Russia-Finland relations with Leo Komarov. The Matthews line has a decent o-zone shift where they nonetheless don’t break into the danger area; Trotz defence at it again. You can see Matthews do a lap of the zone below.

Calle Rosen appears in this recap for the first time with a decent effort to put a shot in on net. He does it again shortly after at a bit of nice pressure results from the Tavares line, but again, the story seems to be the Leafs getting shots from the outside but having some difficulty penetrating, and then the Isles occasionally coming back for a rush. The Isles’ expensive fourth line comes in hard and ruffles some feathers.

The Isles generate a dangerous scramble as Mat Barzal streaks in and generates a rebound that Anders Lee tries to pounce on. The Tavares group runs it back the other way for more pressure.

New York gets a genuinely dangerous chance as Tom Kuhnhackl drops to the open man; lucky for us, the open man is Leo Komarov and he fires it well wide. The Barzal line gets some more zone time a bit later, and the Isles have definitely come on lately. The Kadri line, who are having an awfully quiet period, struggle to exit the zone for a while before going offside when they eventually do so.

Freddie Gauthier makes a pretty decent solo rush (?) with a little step around deke (!) and puts a pass through the slot for Tyler Ennis, though Ennis is unable to finish.

Tavares has another good shift, and Matthews then gets some play against the fourth line, ending in a Kasperi Kapanen SOG. The Tavares line has another solid shift—Zach Hyman backhands a chance wide and then Tavares draws a penalty on Tom Kuhnhackl for holding.

The Leafs’ powerplay gets some good looks, led by an absolutely heroic effort from Tyler Ennis that’s only foiled by a great lateral movement save from Robin Lehner. Close, but no cigar. Despite a little chaos to end the period on another Pelech point shot, this one ends 0-0.

The Leafs, if you buy the statistics, dominated that period. I would have thought it was mostly shots from distance, to be honest, but they got the better of the Isles in scoring chances (63-37), high danger scoring chances (67-33), expected goals (1.21-0.89), you name it—and this is 5v5. The Tavares line was on a mission, led by the man himself, who was unequivocally the best player on the ice.

All the same, I think the Isles showed a bit of what’s led to their surprising season: they generally keep their structure in the defensive zone really well, they counterattack when the chance comes, and they get really good goaltending. Toronto can feel reasonably good about their showing in the first, or at least the top two lines can, but so can New York.

A few other individual notes: the Kadri line as structured is struggling, as you’d figure. Rosen looks confident early and has employed his shot to good effect; he and Dermott look comfortable together. Mat Barzal’s line had the most genuinely dangerous opportunity for the Isles and their talent is obvious. Random defenceman Adam Pelech keeps shooting it a whole bunch.

Second Period

They love playing a dance remix of “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in arenas now, and I have to tell you it’s weird hearing one of the hipster bands of my youth instead of a bunch of Zeppelin and Zeppelin impressionists. What a time to be alive.

The Tavares and Cizikas lines exchange some neutral zone work, which probably counts as a success for the Cizikas line. Zaitsev struggles to hold the puck in and a partial 2-on-1 results for Cizikas and Eberle, but it goes wide. A couple of nice moments for the Matthews line follow, and then

CALLE ROSEN Y’ALL

I originally thought this was just a terrible blind miss by Lehner, but the puck hit a stick right after Rosen shot it and changed angle enough to drop in behind him. Either way, Rosen has his first career NHL goal. 1-0 Leafs!

Marner does a nice little drop back in the o-zone and then hits a pinching Zaitsev across the ice. Zaitsev fires a shot that Lehner struggles with but handles.

Auston Matthews takes a shot off what appears to be the inside foot or ankle and goes down hard before limping to the bench. He absolutely scares the daylights out of the entire Greater Toronto Area, but he seems to shake it off. Hopefully he’s none the worse for wear.

Matthews gets back out after the commercial break and challenges Lehner with a quick wrister, but Lehner gets the glove. The Barzal and Matthews lines trade chances. Willie has one of his poorer defensive moments and the Cizikas line gets a couple of dangerous slapshots from the high slot. Freddie Andersen makes a couple of agile moves to keep the game 1-0.

Nazem Kadri takes a penalty defending Andersen’s honour or something, and the Isles have their first powerplay of the night. The Leafs wipe out 40 seconds without too much trouble, but a failed clear by Zach Hyman almost leads to a dangerous chance that Freddie handles.

There’s a long point shot from Nick Leddy that Freddie swallows up also. The Leafs get through the two minutes without further incident, but right after, Morgan Rielly takes a tripping penalty on Cal Clutterbuck, and they’re straight back to the penalty kill.

The Isles don’t really set up until the second minute of this one, and the Leafs are spared a good chance against when Jordan Eberle fans on a shot. They set up again, and Cal Clutterbuck (on the powerplay? huh) puts one into Andersen’s crest. The Leafs survive the second penalty.

The Kadri line has its finest moment of the game off a Dermott point shot, generating a wild scramble and several hacks at the puck that somehow stayed out.

Ron Hainsey gets away with one here:

Kasperi Kapanen sets up Nylander, but Lehner has the answer.

The Leafs once again owned the numbers that period, and I generally think they earned it, although they still didn’t have the number of ten-bell chances they do at their best. The Auston Matthews line, scary shot block aside, had a good period, and Mitchy was dancing. Freddie was steady. Good times.

The Isles had a few moments, and Lehner is still strong, but (aggressively knocking on wood) for two periods the Leafs have been the better team they’re supposed to be.

Third Period

A little back and forth starts the period, but the important thing happens 3:50 in, because JOHN TAVARES

His forecheck helps provoke a giveaway, and Mitch Marner cuts across the o-zone and then throws a lovely back pass to John Tavares, who makes no mistake. 2-0 Leafs!

Tavares follows up his goal with a slashing penalty, which is not my preferred way for him to celebrate. Oh well. Mitch Marner really seems to enjoy the penalty kill; he seems to make full use of the extra room to zip around causing havoc. The PK hangs in there; the scariest moment is right after it ends when Devon Toews rings the post. Still, the good guys survive.

Nylander has had his moments tonight but he’s had a couple of bad giveaways, and this one ends up going the other way and ending in a mad net scramble that Freddie Andersen has to survive. The Barzal line runs around, and the press is on, but Freddie scoops it up through traffic.

Tyler Ennis does his best to create a Royal Road pass to Trevor Moore, but it bounces on Moore’s stick.

John Tavares, who is absolutely feeling himself tonight, provokes an Adam Pelech holding penalty as he tries to stop a deke. The Leafs set up on the powerplay and play shooting gallery but no goals to show.

Auston Matthews takes a penalty tying up Jordan Eberle, but it was one of those penalties you’re probably willing to take, since Eberle was in a high danger area with the puck looking mighty scary.

Unfortunately, we don’t really get relief on it; after spinning the Leafs around and around, Eberle catches a great lateral pass from Nelson and fires it from almost the same spot Matthews hooked him at. 2-1.

It’s a hell of a final five minutes, and the Isles make it scary, and the Leafs don’t hit the empty net, but the bottom line is they get out with the 2-1 win, with the two points, and with a playoff spot.

Thoughts

  • This was the game the Leafs wanted to have the first time they visited the Islanders this year. The Leafs were solid in shots and chances, they held the balance of play and the Isles’ late surge wasn’t more than you’d expect. This was a game to feel good about.
  • John Tavares was in peak Tavares form. He was the best player on the ice by far, and you could tell potting the winner to silence the crowd for a while was a good time for him. We love our Snake God.
  • It was the kind of game that makes you think a guy deserves to have his number retired, to be honest.
  • Mitch Marner deserves a bullet point even if he was the second name on his line tonight. He was a lot of fun on the first two penalty kills and had a lovely assist to set up his centreman.
  • Freddie Andersen was in peak Steady Freddie form. He bore no responsibility for the one goal against and provided the kind of performance that we’ll need from him against Boston.
  • Because we’re playing them. We all more or less knew that two months ago, but we are now officially clinched; we can’t drop below third in the Atlantic. There is a slim chance we could still get home ice, but we’d need to get at least four more points than the Bruins do over the last three games, so it’s faint hope. Still, I don’t have to go back too far to remember years where making the playoffs was an unfulfilled hope. This is good stuff.
  • Calle Rosen had about everything he could have wanted in a debut—he bagged his first goal, he looked very comfortable out there, and he led the team with a sterling 70% CF. This was a pretty nice night, all things considered.
  • The Isles really are a decent team now, and they were solid enough defensively. But if you squinted, you could see that they had a limited arsenal of great offensive players. Barzal, Eberle and Lee are all very good, and...they don’t quite have enough after them. If Lehner is at his best they can certainly beat anybody, but I’d bet Pittsburgh over them Round 1.
  • Go Leafs Go, baby.