It wasn’t pretty, but the Toronto Maple Leafs bounced back from a tough road trip with a shootout win at home against the upstart Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Prior to the highly-entertaining 3-on-3 OT, this was a low-event game — shots were 23-23 after 60 minutes. It was probably never going to be pretty coming off of the road trip; coaches universally refer to the first game back from a long away stint as a trap of sorts (Anyone who has returned home on a Sunday after a bunch of travelling and has to go to work all groggy the next day can attest). After tonight’s game, Mike Babcock said exactly that while referencing his experiences coaching the easternmost team in the Western Conference all of those years in Detroit.
2. The important part for the Leafs was that they kept it pretty simple early in the game, put pucks in deep, got their forecheck going, finally earned a couple of power plays by spending time in the o-zone, and were rewarded with a 3-1 lead. They got away from that a little bit — as far as taking care of the puck — in the second period and were out-possessed 57-43 while giving one back to Vegas on the penalty kill. The third was a pretty even period; the Leafs responded well to the goal against with three or four good shifts including a point-blank chance for Auston Matthews (it was called a miss wide on the broadcast, but he hit the post there). The Leafs then seemed to lock up in the final three or four minutes and needed huge saves from Frederik Andersen — on James Neal and then Erik Haula in tight — to prevent the game from getting away from them.
3. While the Leafs didn’t exactly close this win out like a confident group (probably because they’re not at the moment, although this win should help), you’ve also got to hand it to Vegas for battling back for another point. They are operating in that dangerous “hungry but loose, with nothing to lose” zone, and they don’t go away. They’ve got some nice pieces on the backend — Nate Schmidt was incredible tonight — and essentially four hard-working third lines with some skill sprinkled in with James Neal, David Perron, Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault. And they’re well-drilled under Gerard Gallant. I don’t expect them to be in a playoff spot by the deadline, but it’s a fun early storyline.
4. On the 3-3 Vegas goal, Connor Carrick can’t be as lackadaisical with his dump-in as his team changed (he got no air under it and essentially passed directly it to Shea Theodore), but Andersen obviously can’t get beat from here. He was down too early and didn’t seem to react quick enough as far as getting his blocker arm in position to make the save.
5. Andersen, to his credit, shook it off immediately and made a number of good saves late in the game and into overtime before shutting the door in the shootout. It had to feel like a big monkey off of his back to not only win in the shootout but also keep the sheet clean. Andersen lost seven of eight shootouts last season while stopping just 12 of 22 attempts — a .522 save percentage, which ranked 29 out of 32 goalies who faced more than 10 shots in the shootout in 2016-17.
6. The last Leafs’ shootout win? December 28, 2016 versus Florida, also won by Mitch Marner, who is now 4 for 9 in the shootout in his career. Marner needed something to go into the net for him. He’s still looking for his second goal after scoring in the opener in Winnipeg. Maybe this serves as a much-needed confidence boost.
Andersen got a much-needed break to set the stage for the shootout.
Correction: As pointed out in the comments, Luca Sbisa hadn’t cleared the Leafs zone when Haula launched the puck at the empty net, so it would’ve been offside anyway:
8. Lots of great moments from Morgan Rielly tonight. He bombed forward to join the rush early in the first period and seemed to really be going from the outset. In addition to a couple of nice gifs captured by @Flintor here and here, he had this really nice sequence in the third period just after the Leafs gave up the lead:
He also continues to do a good job of using his footwork to open shooting lanes at the offensive blue line in order to get pucks through, which led to Nazem Kadri’s 1-0 marker and Rielly’s 12th point in 16 games. Also visible in the buildup to that Kadri goal is how much of an asset he is on PP zone entries.
Here’s a little compilation I put together of Rielly getting his shots through so far this season:
9. Much like Marner, the Leafs need Jake Gardiner to rediscover some confidence and swagger here soon. After a brilliant early start to the year, he’s lacking that bit of sharpness in his game at the moment. There are some strange execution errors happening (he fell over multiple times again tonight) and his focus has drifted at times throughout games. I have little doubt he’ll emerge from the funk, but it’s gone on long enough now that it’s worth pointing out. Rielly went through a similar process last year with the shot to the confidence that can come with playing in the top matchups night in and night out.
10. Connor Carrick’s minutes continue to trend in the wrong direction. His 10:40 tonight was the lowest of his Leaf career (outside of the game he left injured last year). He was once a regular 17-18 minute guy for this team in stretches last season but seems to have lost Babcock’s trust altogether at even strength; of his paltry 11 shifts, nine started outside the d-zone. He’s not going to be able to edge his way into power play minutes anytime soon with the 1-3-1 setup and Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev all ahead of him in the pecking order. He also doesn’t kill penalties for Babcock. That leaves him in a really tough spot. The Leafs need more from their 6th D — the goal has to be to find three pairings that are reasonably trustworthy given there is no go-to pair on the blue line.