"Don't Stop BeLeafing"
Normally, Leafs fans can be seen across the GTA, uniting for the annual pressing of the panic button after losing 2 games with this much on the table to prove. The Toronto Maple Leafs lost 3-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday night, followed by a 4-1 thumping by the St.Louis Blues two nights later. If you just scan the scorecard quickly, it tells a lot worse of a tale than for those who watched it in its entirety.
Being outscored 7-1 in those loses could cause for panic, especially with the Leafs putting focus in bolstering the offensive unit during the offseason. But in actuality, the first game felt more like a very hard fought, "tough pill to swallow" 1-0 kind of defeat, where you tip your hat (in this case helmet) and take away all the positives; and, there were tons to choose from! However the second loss was almost polar opposite in the way it played out for Toronto, and the outcome was well deserved.
Before I get into what the Toronto fan can take away from the recent struggles to score in games, let's highlight some of the key points in each contest.
The boys in blue proved against a stout Penguins team that, despite all the pressure stemming from all the additions and subtractions over the offseason, they have found an early chemistry, and showed just how good this roster can perform. After weathering the first period shot storm that was thrown at them, the Leafs were able to consistently get themselves into great scoring situations for the rest of the game. Unfortunately they ran into Matt Murray, who showed us exactly why he was able to steal two cups before technically completing his rookie season. The kid was stellar on a night where the Leafs actually matched the Penguins in shots, 38 apiece.
That’s not to take anything away from his counterpart Freddie Andersen. He allowed one absolutely brutal goal on 37 shots (2 goals were empty net) that did eventually come around to hurt the Leafs. But besides the one softie from the side of the net, he kept the Leafs within striking distance, stopping numerous open shooters, from one of the most dangerous offences in the NHL.
One of the biggest focuses of this game could be… what in the world happened to the Auston Matthews line? They seemed practically invisible out there when put against Sid the Kid’s line and were eventually rotated off of the Crosby matchup. This was really the first showing of the Maple Leafs missing William Nylander's Swedish touch.
Fast forward to Saturday night. After not playing since Thursday, and not having to travel being on back to back home games in the schedule, you would've thought Toronto would come out to show last games loss didn't harm their early season success. What appeared to be the perfect matchup against the struggling St.Louis Blues, turned into what I felt was another night off for the Maple Leafs.
They were beat in almost every puck race, and Freddie couldn’t stand on his head to bail them out again. The Leafs only managed to get 8 shots within the first two periods of the game. The Leafs consistently gave up too many quality opportunities and spent the duration of the game chasing the puck it seemed. I mentioned earlier that St.Louis was struggling, but this is still a roster that is deep down the middle of the ice and have many players who are more than capable playmakers in almost every position.. This was definitely a loss that felt like a manhandling and has plenty of fans on the edge of their seat....for all the wrong reasons.
With all the takeaways in game the Leafs provided to the opposing teams in their recent losing skid, it’s easy to overlook some of the positive takeaways we witnessed on the ice as well as what factors can help Leafs fans all breathe a sigh of relief that this is just a little hiccup.
The first, and most obvious, takeaway will be the massive missing piece that is Nylander. Normally playing alongside his best friend and long time line mate Auston Matthews, it could appear that his absence is noticeable. The false need to rush out and put pen to paper on a contract for whatever the young forwards asking price is should be brushed aside immediately. I understand that when the Maple Leafs envisioned this plan coming to fruition you had Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander all signed, playing and finding success; but, even with Nylander spending his days away from North America, the Leafs still have found the offensive success they were looking for. The three players mentioned prior, who are playing, were tearing it up on the point sheet before this stretch of losses.They don't appear to have any troubles creating and capitalizing on scoring chances, especially on the powerplay. Where Toronto struggled in the last two games was on the defensive side of the puck. They lost battles in corners, races to pucks, and gave too many shooters too many opportunities.
The goaltending that bailed them out game one, and then struggled the next. I am a firm believer that defence leads to offensive opportunities. With that being said, William Nylander doesn't provide the defensive spark when he's on the ice. Remember this is a guy who was relegated to fourth line duties just last season. So why the sudden rush to sign the offensive minded winger? Unless Willy comes in and decides focus on his presence in the defensive end, while letting his natural talent show on the offensive side, the Leafs should be working with those who are committed to the team already.
Speaking of the players on the team, how about the powerplay unit? Matthews and Marner are picking up right where they left off last season, but this time finding more time together on the powerplay. Tavares’ presence around the net has been the attention grabber to open up lanes for others to find the back of the net. What’s probably most surprising this year, is that Morgan Rielly is leading the way for the team with 6 points already, putting him amongst the top players in the league right now for powerplay points. The Leafs first powerplay unit has the personnel to put themselves amongst the elite in the NHL.
However, we can’t overlook just how dangerous the second powerplay line is when needed. Patrick Marleau is a proven player in the league and can make the smart pass to help the unproven unit. Jake Gardiner should have no issues being the perfect complimenting D-man, and “quarterback” of the powerplay from the blue line, setting up a hard working group of forwards. Josh Leivo is looking to prove why he deserves to stay on the roster as an everyday player. If he can find continuous success on a second powerplay unit, theres really no reason coach Mike Babcock wouldn't want him around the big club.
Where I was most skeptic coming into this season was in regards of Freddie Andersen and his ability to repeat another stellar year. There were certainly games that the Danish net minder stole the show, making 40 and even 50 save games at least twice a week it seemed. For me it was the reason why I feel the team had no urgency in the offseason to acquire a huge addition to the defence. Knowing that you have one of the most under the radar, elite (when healthy) goaltenders in the game was all the Leafs needed to trust that they had done enough to build from the net out, and could focus on bringing the “hometown hero” Tavares home.
Once again Freddie has started the season showing up in the big games while his team masks his known early season struggles by putting up high scoring games (obviously ignoring the most recent two). It is unrealistic to ask him to once again face 40+ shots on a nightly basis, and he has been a little shaky early in the season during the “easier” match ups. However, the team is that much more gifted upfront. They've shown this season they can bail out the net minder and give him comfortable leads, providing numerous high scoring games so far. Andersen still provides the big saves even when having a bad night as well as his ability to show up in big match ups early in the season (Washington and Pittsburgh).
So fans across the GTA, enjoy the recent legal changes nation wide, and chill out.