With eight goals from seven different goal scorers, the Toronto Maple Leafs built a 5-1 lead, gave it up, and came back to score three more in a thrilling home opener at the ACC on Saturday night.
Your game in ten:
1) The Leafs came out in waves and pounded the Rangers into the ground in the opening 20 minutes. New York isn’t a slow team; they’re also a good team, particularly on the road, where they had a league-best 27-12 record last year. The Leafs just overwhelmed them with pace and an aggressive five-man attack (there were a few glimpses between the whistles where it seemed like a few Rangers players were actually having a laugh with the Leafs players as if to say, “Can we have the puck now?”).
2) If the Leafs, to borrow some Babcock verbiage, were “loose and drivin’” in period one, they were “loose and dumb” in period two. This game quickly went from a globetrotters performance to a keystone cops routine inside a ten-minute span in the second period. They were maybe feeling a little too good coming out of the master class that was the opening 20 minutes and got into some cute, high-risk plays in dangerous areas of the ice. Once the turnovers started, the Rangers gained a foothold in the game and the Leafs were swimming upstream for spells in the second period.
Yet, even at 5-5, you got the sense the Leafs would just go get a couple more now that they needed to. They did just that with three unanswered in the third. The first week of the season always produces some wild outcomes, but this team legitimately looks like an offensive powerhouse that could put up some head-turning numbers this year.
3) I was excited to see Moore and Brown together, as my thought process before the season was that it has the makings of a high-end fourth-line. They did not disappoint in game #1, generating the goal that got the ball rolling and finishing tops among Leaf forwards with 57% and 58% possession, respectively. I like Moore as a fit here more than Brian Boyle would’ve been because he can play with pace and he’s a better overall complement to Brown’s game (and fit for the team’s identity). The two should be a rising tide that lifts Martin’s game a little, too. After not opening his points account until November last year, Martin registered an assist in his second game last night – on the 1-0 goal, he torpedoed in on the forecheck after Brown and Moore bogged the Rangers down below the goal line, collected a loose puck in the slot, and kicked it back to the point prior to Moore’s tip.
4) On top of his goal and possession numbers, Moore also went nine for nine in the faceoff circle, with six of those faceoffs coming in the defensive zone. Eric Fehr playing in the opener was a nod to a good preseason by dressing a respected vet in his hometown game, but Moore should be here to stay.
5) The Leafs’ bottom pair is very far from settled through two games; Rosen-Carrick looked overwhelmed by the Rangers forecheck often in this game and struggled to get the puck moving north, finishing the night at the bottom of the team with 43% and 46% possession, respectively. Some kinks need to be allowed to work themselves out here given the relative experience of the Borgman/Rosen – Carrick pairing. Babcock has suggested this will be a work in progress over the first 10 games or so, which is the type of patience that’s required when introducing rookie defencemen with zero North American experience to the league next to a relatively unestablished NHLer in Carrick. If I were to guess, though, Babcock is monitoring Polak’s status closely and his trigger finger has gotten a little itchier through two games.
6) What didn’t help the bottom pairing’s cause, though, was spending a good chunk of their even-strength ice time with the JVR – Bozak – Marner line. The pairing’s first minus on the 1-1 goal was largely the fault of Marner, who got cute with the puck along the boards and turned it over twice, although Calle Rosen didn’t take care of JT Miller well in front (and generally looks like he’s going to struggle in strength battles). Marner made up for his mistake later in the game. That said, “the JVR-Bozak line giveth and the JVR-Bozak line taketh away” has been a theme since the Randy Carlyle days, so to see them struggling to get out of their own end several times in the game wasn’t exactly a new or surprising development.
7) We certainly saw lots of the bad from his line defensively in this game, but the word I’ve liked using to describe Bozak offensively over the years is “sneaky,” and his game-winning goal is a good example of it. He quickly read off of Gardiner pinching and identified where the play was going before spinning off his check and finding the quiet ice (with TJ Miller caught puck watching).
There isn’t an obvious solution here to fixing what ails that line defensively, short of the oft-discussed (dating back years and years) idea of breaking up JVR and Bozak. With the Matthews and Kadri lines rolling along so well — Kadri carried 70% possession head to head with Mika Zibanejad, and had another multi-point night — that seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. As James Mirtle pointed out, the only thing Babcock can really do without breaking all of the lines up is manage their minutes and zone starts a little more tightly if the defensive results don’t improve.
8) The swagger is just oozing off of Jake Gardiner this year, and you’ve got to give some credit to Mike Babcock for totally rebuilding his confidence inside a couple of seasons to the point where he’s simply playing and creating every shift, not freezing up as much as he used to. There was a lot of good and some bad on display – the turnover on the Nash breakaway — but he just kept coming back and making plays, including setting up the game-winner with a fantastic pinch and pass to Bozak in front. He was on the ice for three even-strength goals for, finished with a 55% CF, and his 3-1 power play goal was stunning – crossing up Brendan Smith with a little head fake/change of pace before walking in and burying inside the post. This was an incredible performance by Jake Gardiner.
9) If you had to frame one play that would sum up Zach Hyman’s game, it was his second goal – two or three Rangers were draped all over him below the goal line, and he simply willed the puck out front and got a friendly bounce off of Michael Grabner in what was one of the uglier goals you’ll see all season (about time Grabner scored for the Leafs!). Babcock launched into a passionate defence of Hyman after the game in response to a question from the media that was actually complimentary of the player, which tells you how aware (and sensitive) they are in the dressing room to some of the fan and media criticisms out there about his placement in the lineup. With two goals in two games, Hyman has already matched his output after 21 games last year.
10) As much as Frederik Andersen would’ve wanted a save somewhere along the way during New York’s run back to 5-5 (there were no egregiously bad goals, but one or two could’ve been stopped), it unquestionably would’ve been a 6-5 or 7-5 game for New York without him as he battled back with good saves on Rick Nash’s breakaway and a few additional odd-man rushes. For a starting goalie, just as important as those low goals against and high save percentage starts is battling back in the ones that start to drift off the rails. Andersen certainly did that with some bounce-back saves late in the second period.