With the defending Stanley Cup champions in town, Monday night’s tilt at Scotiabank Arena was viewed as a classic “measuring stick game” heading into puck drop. After what many would consider a poor outing on Saturday night, the Maple Leafs’ response is important early in this season to build good habit and character. Eyes remained on Maple Leafs’ forward Kasperi Kapanen going into Monday’s game, whose broken stick gaffe on Saturday against Montreal was a major contributor to the shift in momentum that resulted in a Leafs loss.
If you aren’t familiar with the St. Louis Blues, it would be an understatement to say that their style is defence heavy. It was no secret coming into Monday night’s game that they were likely going to try and suck the life out of the Leafs offence and the crowd at Scotiabank Arena.
However, the Leafs decided to “start on time” for once. The Blue and White came out flying, and the Blues were forced to quickly adapt and take part in the track meet. The first period was fast paced, and the Leafs controlled the pace of play for the most part. The Leafs top-line had a few great chances, including a goal post by Auston Matthews, and goaltender Frederik Andersen was solid at the other end. However, the first period ended scoreless with the Leafs outshooting the Blues 15-7.
The second period was when the game gained a bit more intensity. The Blues controlled the first half of the period, in the sense that it was a much slower pace. Oskar Sundqvist opened the scoring eight and a half minutes into play on a five-hole blast past Frederik Andersen. While the five-hole has been an area of concern for Andersen early this year, Sundqvist is also well known for targeting the five-hole on goaltenders. He beat Martin Jones and Connor Hellebuyck on similar shots during last year’s playoff run.
With the Blues up 1-0, the Leafs fourth line (or, Line 4B I guess, because of the rotation status that Mike Babcock has them subject to) found their stride and tied the game up. Jason Spezza batted a loose puck out of midair through the crease to Frederik Gauthier, who had a wide-open net, made no mistake for his second of the season. With Gauthier’s defensive ability, this second goal is a positive sign for a player that has struggled to contribute offensively during his NHL career to date. The tie did not last long, as William Nylander gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead just 24 seconds later on a beautiful passing play on the rush with Andreas Johnsson and Cody Ceci. Yes, that Cody Ceci.
24 seconds after the Nylander goal, the broadcast went to commercial break. When the broadcast came back, we came to learn Leafs defender Justin Holl had been given a penalty. Apparently, Blues forward Alex Steen fell somewhere in the vicinity of Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev. That’s it. That was the penalty given to Justin Holl, who was roughly 6-8 feet away from Steen at the time of the incident. Holl was understandably frustrated with the call. The Blues did not score on their powerplay, and the powerplay actually resulted in some masterful penalty killing by Leafs rookie forward Ilya Mikheyev. It was an odd incident to say the least, and luckily did not cost the Leafs a goal.
Despite a solid period, the concerning part came with less than a minute to go as Brayden Schenn hopped on a loose puck in the slot to beat Frederik Andersen five-hole. While the Blues were probably the better team in the second period, the goal was entirely preventable for the Leafs. The loose puck was the result of blown defensive assignments. Morgan Rielly, Frederik Gauthier, and Trevor Moore all let a Jaden Schwartz pass slide cleanly through the slot to a wide open Schenn. The issue on this goal was that Moore and Gauthier had been messed up positionally for about 5-7 seconds prior to this. It is up to Moore and Gauthier to communicate to with each other to make sure they divide their coverage up. In that moment, it was two Leafs players thinking the other player was doing a different job, and because of that, neither of them ended up doing it. It was a mixup that resulted in hesitation defensively, and lead to a tie score.
In the third period, the Maple Leafs were effectively contained by the St. Louis Blues. In the end, that proved to be a successful strategy for the defensive juggernauts. Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo snuck backdoor on the Leafs defence and buried a cross-crease pass from David Perron to give the Blues the lead. Although it was a smart pinch by Pietrangelo, Kapanen had covered some of the passing lane, but needed to come down a foot or two from his spot to cut off the pass. It was a positional awareness mistake from Kapanen, who was responsible for Pietrangelo, and thus a frustrating footnote for the Finnish winger who was hopeful to make up for a bad night on Saturday. His otherwise decent effort is clouded by a mistake in defensive coverage that he should have taken care of.
Coach Mike Babcock pulled Frederik Andersen for the extra attacker with about two minutes to go, and the Leafs had strong possession for most of the final minutes. However, the Richmond Hill born and raised Jordan Binnington stood strong for 32 saves in his first ever NHL game in Toronto.
TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
Credit where credit is due to the St. Louis Blues, who definitely looked like the defending champions that they are, and seem poised for another strong season. Ultimately, Monday night is a frustrating loss for the Maple Leafs in the sense that two small mistakes cost them the game in the long run. Moore and Gauthier both ending up out there in the middle of a line change caused a miscommunication. I do get the sense that these are communication errors that get fixed fairly easily as the season goes on. These are issues that championship teams have figured out by the time March and April roll around. If the Maple Leafs hope to get that far, then somebody was likely in their ear about these mistakes before I wrote this article.
All in all, the Leafs looked strong against the defending champs. Having played their fourth game in six nights to start the season, take the bad from Monday night’s game with a grain of salt.