Minor penalties have become an area of concern over the past few games, 15 over the last 3 outings. That, along with the ongoing narrative of the team not starting on time tells the whole story in a nutshell when explaining Tuesday night’s losing effort versus Columbus.
Kasperi Kapanen (who’s looked much better since going back to RW) draws a holding penalty from Boone Jenner a mere 2:15 into the game. In the pre-game interviews, Auston Matthews stated that he ‘couldn’t wait’ for their next power play opportunity, but it’s hard to imagine that this is what he had in mind, as Mitch Marner coughed up the puck to Nick Foligno, who slid it to Riley Nash for an easy goal on a wide-open Freddy Andersen. Three minutes later, Pierre-Luc Dubois tucks one home after some poor defensive zone coverage from Matthews. Later in the frame, Andreas Johnsson is called on a slashing call, and the Leafs head to the penalty kill. Mitch Marner makes up for his earlier gaffe by setting up Kapanen for a shorthanded goal (his 2nd of the year) on a two-on-one break. The Leafs are awarded another power play shortly after, however they cannot capitalize. Auston Matthews scores with 40 seconds remaining in the period to even the score, but Alexander Kerfoot is called for tripping shortly after, sending the Leafs back on the penalty kill to begin the second.
After successfully killing off the Kerfoot penalty, the parade to the penalty box continues with Mitch Marner being called for hooking on Gustav Nyquist. Andersen exhibited many flashes of his usual self during this game, making many excellent saves to keep the game even through a slew of Columbus chances. Another penalty (this one by Spezza) is successfully killed off later in the frame and seemingly swings the momentum back to the Leafs’ favour.Right at the end of the period, Matthews (with some terrific hustle) makes a great play to get the puck on net, Johnsson slides it to William Nylander who has a wide-open cage to pot his 3rd of the season.
Nearly halfway through the frame, Gauthier is called for a (fairly soft in my opinion) tripping penalty. The penalty kill had been excellent all night, but the dam finally broke. An unfortunate bounce off a Morgan Rielly block led to Alexander Wennberg being uncontested right in front of the net, he puts the puck five-hole and we have a tie game. Outside of the first two shots of the game, Andersen was terrific in this outing, made big saves when they needed them, including an Atkinson breakaway later in this period. Neither team can retake the lead and we head to overtime, shots were 34-31 in favour of Columbus.
Babcock made the curious choice to not start Matthews, Marner, Rielly, or Nylander, instead going with Kerfoot, Kapanen and Barrie, we’ll talk more about that choice later. Dubois gets a breakaway about 15 seconds into overtime, but his shot is steered wide by Andersen. Matthews, Marner and Rielly finally make it to the ice, they make some good plays but cannot get a clear shot. In the ending sequence, Marner takes another hooking penalty on Nyquist, who is awarded a penalty shot and scores to take the win.
A lot has been made recently on some of Mike Babcock’s questionable choices both before and during games. The goalie rotation, line matching in overtime rather than using his best players, and making Cody Ceci a go-to guy in the defensive end and on the penalty kill when that is clearly not his forte being just three of the more common complaints. Add in the fact that Babcock seems to have taken on a real attitude when it comes to taking accountability to losses and the slow starts (something that he should be doing in my opinion) and it seems to equal many in Leafs Nation losing faith in the guy. I don’t want to add more fuel to the anxiety fire, but these ongoing incidents are starting to pile up, and I too am starting to wonder if this man is truly the right coach to lead the Leafs to a cup.
The Leafs have taken 15 minor penalties in their last three games, most of them are the result of undisciplined stick infractions. They’ll need to clean that side of their game up going forward, especially in their next game against Boston, who can and will take advantage of any power play opportunities they are awarded.
Justin Holl had a quietly excellent game. He was a steady force on the penalty kill, making small plays to separate the puck from opposing players and always had his man covered at 5-on-5. As much as Babcock likes and trusts Marincin, I wonder if he’s become the odd-man out when Dermott returns from injury, given Holl’s improved play, lower cap hit, and the proven chemistry he and Dermott have exhibited when they played together in the past.
*Game stats from nhl.com