The Toronto Maple Leafs moved to 4-1-0 on the season with a long-overdue victory at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.
Some next-day thoughts:
– After ending a 12-year slump of failing to make the playoffs in a full 82-game season on the back of never-before-seen offensive contributions from their historic rookie class, there was one itch left to scratch still holding over from last year: The 14-game losing streak to the Canadiens. Adieu.
– With the benefit of last change, Claude Julien matched the Jonathan Drouin and Max Pacioretty line up against the JVR – Bozak – Marner unit consistently, and the results weren’t pretty for the Leafs: They gave up two goals and were outshot 6-1 during Bozak and Drouin’s 7:45 of head-to-head time at even strength. Thankfully, they got the nice bounce off the draw in the first period for JVR’s 1-1 goal; otherwise, this was going to be a really miserable night for the trio.
Trouble in the defensive zone contributed to the 1-0 and 3-2 Habs goals and they weren’t taking care of the puck well enough when they had it — a persistent problem for this line. Here’s an example where they cavalierly attempt low-percentage plays in dangerous areas of the ice against the Habs’ top line, leading to a series of turnovers and a shot against:
– If I were Mike Babcock, I’d rotate Connor Brown onto that line if the opposition coach is targeting them on the road and they’re not engaged (He used to move Brown onto the wing with Hyman and Matthews on the road as they were adjusting to the league early on last season).
There’s a larger point worth making here at some point, too, about Mitch Marner’s spot on this line and the habits it seems to be encouraging as he develops. For a high-skill winger who was a dominant force offensively, Marner earned a good defensive reputation coming out of junior; he has the ability, but bad habits are contagious.
– It took Mats Sundin, the franchise record holder for game-winning goals with 79 over his 981-game Leaf career, 116 games to accumulate 10 game winners after the trade to Toronto, and he was a 23-24-year-old at that time. Matthews just recorded his 10th game-winner in his 87th regular season game.
– That was also his second overtime winner in five games, both scored in jaw-dropping fashion. The slow-motion replays of Matthews’ winner do the skill it takes to pluck Nylander’s saucer pass out of the air justice, but not the speed at which he did it while releasing his shot in one smooth motion. Ridiculous.
I saw some taking away points from Matthews’ brilliant solo effort on the 2-1 goal based on Carey Price falling over, but it’s not the first time Matthews has made a good goalie look silly. All manner of goalies shit their pants on this guy, and how can you not with a release like that? He pulled the puck from the outside into his feet and picked the top corner in one rapid, smooth motion while storming down the ice at incredible speed.
– Loved this shot of Price frozen while looking over his shoulder at the Matthews shot:
– Quietly, after going 30% in the opener against Winnipeg, Matthews has won 25 of his last 38 faceoffs (66%). Getting pretty close to hockey perfection.
– The combination of the Gardiner – Zaitsev pairing and the Matthews line continues to be a dominant force as an attacking five-man unit:
– Speaking of Zaitsev, he’s yet to record a minus game this season — even coming out with a +1 in the New Jersey loss; he’s now a +7 through five games — and is currently leading NHL defencemen in even strength points (five, tied with Alex Pietrangelo) while also leading all NHL defencemen, save Ron Hainsey, in penalty killing time-on-ice per game (5:35/night). He is currently tops among Leafs defencemen with 22:16 in TOI/game.
– As impressive as that is, playing Zaitsev and Hainsey over 5:30 and 6:00, respectively, on top of their top-four even-strength duties seems like a big ask going forward. Penalty minutes are up across the league due to the rule changes and will decline as the year progresses, but even still, Carrick and Gardiner are lightly used in PK situations (Carrick never, Gardiner around 0:50/game this season), and Andreas Borgman is playing a minor role so far. Eventually, someone is going to have to pick up some of the slack.