The Toronto Maple Leafs closed out their Western road trip at 1-3 and fell to their fifth defeat in their last six games with an ugly loss in St. Louis on Saturday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Let’s make an effort to start with some positives here. The Leafs held a lead against the Blues, who had given up a total of four first-period goals through 14 games, after the opening 20 minutes. The “fourth line” of Matt Martin, Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner put in a workmanlike first period, generating the goal and a couple of good o-zone shifts. The Leafs got a couple of solid kills out of their PK, and while they were outshot 10-6, all in all, it was a nice road period to start the game in a tough building.
2. While the rotation continues for the final spot on the right side of the defense – Connor Carrick played just 12:43 last night – Andreas Borgman is showing clear signs of progress on the left. His 18:07 was a season-high and Mike Babcock called him the team’s best D last night. He scored two goals on the road trip and is growing in confidence when it comes to pinching in, joining the attack and making plays. He’s starting to clean up some of his early issues with turnovers and getting caught out positionally, as well. In addition to picking his spots better, the game is beginning to slow down for him and he’s not as panicky under pressure in possession. That was a well-taken goal on the 1-0.
3. Credit where its due to Matt Martin – he looks like he’s been a good pupil of skills coach Darryl Belfry and skating coach Barb Underhill over the last year, and it’s paying off. He’s getting around the rink and making plays better than he ever has in a Leaf sweater. You’ll never convince me he should be an everyday’er with the options currently sitting in the press box or with the Marlies, but to his credit, Martin is no doubt aware of the talent he’s playing over and looks to have put in some work.
His career-high three-assist game gives him six points through 14 games. It took him until January 21st (44 games) to hit six last season. A big part of that is playing next to Dominic Moore and Tyler Bozak instead of Ben Smith, but the puck hasn’t died on his stick as often this year. Those were two legitimately nice passes off the rush (for any player) on the Tyler Bozak and Borgman goals.
4. Auston Matthews sticking up for William Nylander after he took a shot from behind from Chris Thorburn (uncalled) late in the first period is the first occasion I can recall that Matthews has allowed his pulse rate to spike above 60 on the ice. Normally a hockey-playing android that channels any anger into dominating between the whistles (I can’t recall an occasion where Matthews has even mouthed anyone, be it a ref or an opponent), it was fun to see.
5. The first few shifts of the second were also just fine from the Leafs — the Matthews line generated a good push on their first shift of the period – and then it started to unravel with the Rielly – Hainsey / JVR – Marleau – Brown unit out against the Blues’ top line of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko beat Hainsey in a puck battle on a cross-corner dump-in, JVR put a pass right into Brown’s feet in the middle of the slot in the d-zone, and the Leafs got to running around. Tough bounce for Andersen on the initial shot, as well.
It was a tough night for the Rielly-Hainsey pairing amid a good start for them overall. They drew the Blues’ top line for roughly 7:30 of their even-strength ice time, were snowed under possession-wise, and were on the ice for three goals against. The common thread is obvious here: Whether it’s the Gardiner – Zaitsev pairing or Rielly-Hainsey, the struggles start when they’re drawing top matchups. The Leafs didn’t have an answer for this last season, and given their only addition to the blue line over the offseason was Ron Hainsey, it was fully predictable. Until management finds a solution at an incredibly difficult position to fix via trade, the Leafs are going to have to find a way to get it done more often by-committee and improve as a team defensively, which they did a better job of as the season wore on last year.
6. We all saw how it went in the second half of the game. It’s been a sobering couple of weeks here, to say the least, for the Leafs. The Blues and Kings, in particular, starkly exposed some of the shortfalls in their game at the moment.
Both teams were well known for their rigid structure and heavy forecheck under Ken Hitchcock and Darryl Sutter, respectively, and that foundation is still evident in the way LA and St. Louis play the game. The recent coaching replacements in Mike Yeo and John Stevens have taken the reins off a little and are allowing some more breathing room for skill and creativity. The result (so far) is that the two teams are currently residing at the top of the Western Conference.
Against a couple of teams in the Blues and Kings that were heavy on the cycle and effective at activating their defense, the Leafs were a mess with their sort-outs defensively – the 2-1 and 3-1 goals, in particular, were panicked fire drills. When the Blues were cycling the puck in fluid five-man rotations, it caused the Leafs massive headaches inside their own zone.
The confusion on those two goals was writ large; you could see Morgan Rielly, over on the right side, directing/yelling at Nylander on the 2-1 goal to close down on Schenn — who could’ve set up a tent in the high slot — while Matthews and Hyman were caught in no-man’s land. Edmunson was left open at the back door.
The 3-1 goal was even uglier. Again, the center in Schenn is in possession up high inside acres of space, the Leafs are collapsing and overloaded on one side of the ice with the points wide open, and Alex Pietrangelo has free rein to slip in unmarked for what amounts to a partial breakaway created inside the Leafs’ defensive zone.
The Leafs spent long spells unable to win puck battles and foot races in order to break cycles in the last two periods. It was ugly to watch, and frankly, reminiscent of the Carlyle-era Leafs at times in the final 40 minutes.
7. I’d argue, as far as structure, the Leafs have never looked this disorganized since Mike Babcock took over the bench – never for this long. 55 goals against in 15 games is a red flag, to say the least. I wouldn’t hang any of the goals on Andersen last night, either. Structural breakdowns, head-shaking giveaways in dangerous areas of the ice (Kadri on the 4-1 goal after his debacle in LA, JVR on the first goal) and leaving the goaltender out to dry were the story of the road trip.
With the chances we were giving up, I don’t think any goalie in the league is stopping a lot of them.
– Tyler Bozak after the 6-4 loss to the Blues
8. About that sixth Blues goal: Disappointed with the effort, did Babcock give up on the game to send a message in the third? Did the video guys on the staff not see it at all? We may never know because no one thought to ask Babcock about it in the post-game scrum. Needless to say, whether it was down to his disgust at his team’s performance or because he and the staff flat out missed it, it was unacceptable on coaching staff’s part – full stop. Hard to know how the game plays out if the Blues’ lead is three instead of four, but regardless of the outcome, Babcock has got to be there for his goaltender on that one. Hard to know where the blame lies without an explanation though.
9. Good quotes from Babcock yesterday on Kasperi Kapanen gaining some heft over the offseason, but I still would’ve preferred Josh Leivo in for this game. Kapanen did draw the first-period penalty with his speed down the wing, but a bigger body that thrives down low and can work the boards would’ve been a welcomed element. The Leafs got pushed around a little in this game in the final 40 minutes and struggled to generate enough heavy shifts of their own.
10. As the coaching staff looks to get the myriad issues with the team’s structure sorted out, practice time will remain at a premium with a game every other day this week followed by a back-to-back on the weekend. Going 1-3-0 on the brutally-tough Western road swing (four games in six nights) isn’t the end of the world, but the Leafs can’t allow it to snowball on them this week at home against lesser opponents. They’ve got to find a way to pick up some points before they get their chance to take a breath and regroup on their four-day break starting next Sunday.