As tempting as it is to just type my first few knee-jerk reactions and hit submit, let’s take a deep breath and consider some things. First and foremost, it was a lackluster performance from the entire team. some guys had a better go of it than others (more on that later) but generally speaking, this was just not good enough.
The story of the first period was non-stop scoring. I was late getting to the tv for this game, but I had the radio feed to listen to as I drove home. Brayden Point (in his first game of the season, playing on a super-line with Steven Stamkos and reigning league MVP Nikita Kucherov) opened the scoring just 2:28 into the game. The Leafs were able to retaliate less than 2 minutes later, thanks to Andreas Johnsson capitalizing on a power play with a very slick shot off the rush, his first of the season. Captain John Tavares also notched his first of the year, deflecting a Justin Holl shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Leafs their only lead of the night.
The penalty kill was an area of concern, I don’t understand why Babcock had Mitch Marner taking faceoffs but it was not effective, Kucherov scores, tie game. A minute or so later, Kevin Shattenkirk jumped into a rush and scored a nifty backhand, Morgan Rielly wears the goat horns on this one, making no real effort to properly defend until it was too late. It was also an off night for Frederik Andersen, he’s had a rocky start to this season, but outside of last season, that seems to be his norm, he’ll go back to his usual steady ways before too long.
Auston Matthews continues to do Auston Matthews things, he scores his 6th of the season, tying the game once more. However, Tampa goes to the power play once more before the period ends and Stamkos rips a one-timer from the slot to take the lead back for the Bolts, this time permanently.
A considerably quiet affair after a frantic first, so I’ll quickly touch on some general concerns. To start with Mitch Marner, I’m beginning to worry that he is not playing at 100%. He looks absolutely pedestrian on most shifts, and borderline invisible on others. Even something with his skating seems just a little bit off. Whatever it is, I hope he shakes it soon, because this team needs him to be operating at full-speed to contend.
The Rielly-Ceci pairing has quickly gone from pretty good to extremely problematic, especially in their own end, Ceci’s defensive warts are well-documented, but Rielly has steadily improved over the years. However, it seems as though Rielly has started to fall back into old bad habits since being partnered with Ceci, it may be in the team’s best interests to either dial back their minutes, to let Muzzin and Barrie carry the load, at least until Dermott returns.
Final major concern, Mike Babcock. Despite some assurances that he’s learned from past mistakes and agreed to change some of is coaching ways, he hasn’t exhibited that so far. He still insists on rolling all four lines, hard-matching them when he has the option to (and refusing to change assignments even when the game plan is going completely off the rails) and not utilizing his team to the best of their abilities (e.g. trying to make Spezza a penalty killer). Those factors all added up about halfway through the second period and resulted in the 4th line being out on the ice at the same time as Tampa’s super-line. They may have been at the end of a shift, but they still easily carved through the defence and Brayden Point scored his second of the night. Shots even at 24 apiece at the end of the frame.
Early in the period, the puck took an odd bounce off a ref’s skate, right to the stick of Ondrej Palat, who shoots and scores, Andersen didn’t have time to react before it was in the net. Three minutes later, Freddy mishandled the puck while Kucherov was racing in, Stamkos picks it up, smooth backhanded pass and Kucherov scores five-hole while Andersen was moving, a little slow on the uptake.
Andersen was pulled from the game after that, and it was all but over, the energy had been completely sucked out of the game. It was also around this point that I ran into some technical issues and missed about 11 minutes of the game, so apologies if I missed out on any redeeming plays. Michael Hutchinson saved the 5 shots directed his way, the Leafs lose their third straight game, making Saturday’s contest against Detroit a must-win (in my opinion).
Sandin and Holl played very well together in their limited time on the ice. Matthews continues to dominate at 5-on-5 and William Nylander also played well, despite an injury scare early in the first. Another thing to consider, the Leafs have played 5 games already. Most of the other teams in the league have played 3, some have only played 2. The schedule is very poorly drawn up in my opinion. There are too many back-to-backs in general across the NHL (I’d like to see the league eventually move the start date of the season up a few weeks into the last couple of weeks in September, if for no other reason than to cut down on the number of times each team has to go on back-to-back nights). A poor schedule is no excuse for the team’s overall performance, but it may be a factor.
One final thing, the season is still young, and the Leafs don’t have their full roster yet. I’m not saying Hyman and/or Dermott make or break this team, but both guys are significant pieces. It will get better. Burn the tape from this game, move on to the next one.