We nearly had to start this article with, “Will the Leafs ever score again? My column:”
After getting stonewalled by Dave Rittich for 58.5 minutes, the Leafs were finally able to break through with a greasy William Nylander goal after pulling their netminder. Nylander also scored the game-winner in overtime, which feels oddly poetic after a week of extremely rational discourse on the Swedish winger.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) February 25, 2021
The final score was 2-1 Toronto, although 95% of this game was played with the scoreboard showing zeroes. Calgary didn’t bury the game’s first goal until there was 3:27 remaining in the third period. It was a true battle of the backups.
Enough preamble. We all know why you’re here. It’s time to hand out some report cards!
Game Puck: William Nylander (RW, #88) — I’ve spent the last week reading and listening to a lot of William Nylander takes. Some are more nuanced than others, but the consistent trend you’ll notice among his critics is their disdain for low-effort plays like these.
That’s a bad look, especially considering the scoreboard.
Kudos to Sheldon Keefe for not making the typical 200 Hockey Men move and benching his star player immediately afterward.
Give Keefe credit – Willy could’ve been a step lower to help on Mangiapane, has been in the dog house … Keefe still has the guy on the ice – as he should – when the team needs to get one back. Not every coach operates that logically and unemotionally
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) February 25, 2021
By putting faith in one of his best offensive players with the game on the line, Keefe was rewarded with one of the greasiest goals I’ve ever seen Nylander score.
He somehow gets four separate whacks at it here and somehow finds a way to tuck it home.
His next goal required much more skill.
This is turning into a mini Nylander article — as it should. We’ve been talking a lot about him lately. Tonight’s game gave us a little bit of everything:
- Battling hard along the boards with Mikael Backlund
- Swinging low on the breakout and transporting the puck up the ice
- A frustrating moment defensively
- High-end skill to generate a few goals offensively
By now, I doubt anything I type is going to change your mind on how you feel about Nylander. Frankly, I just think he’s a good hockey player.
Michael Hutchinson (G, #30) — Other than that Alex Mangiapane goal from in tight he had little chance on, Hutchinson was perfect on Wednesday night. His biggest saves of the night came on a Josh Leivo wrister and 3v3 rush by Elias Lindholm.
We’re always dealing with small samples anytime we try to assess backup goaltenders, but that’s a couple of starts in a row where Hutchinson has looked solid.
Alex Barabanov (LW, #94) — I feel bad for essentially writing him off after playing poorly on the fourth line to start the year; he’s looked great in these past two games and is showing some encouraging signs he could be acclimating to the league. Right from Barabanov’s first shift tonight, you could tell he was playing with confidence. He tried that NHL 21 deke where you put the puck between your legs to dance around the defender.
Later in the third, he had a chance to pot the game-winner with a chance in tight off a Hyman pass, not to mention a breakaway shortly afterward where Barabanov almost tucked it five-hole.
Sign me up for more of this Barabanov moving forward.
Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — This was Travis Dermott’s best game of the season and I’m not sure it’s close. The coaching staff rewarded him by playing him over 22 minutes, by far the most they’ve trusted him with this season.
As always, he was making life difficult on opposing forwards by cutting them off early in the neutral zone. What impressed me more was how stable he looked defensively. He was getting his stick in the passing lanes and did a great job taking away the slot.
With Jake Muzzin out, Dermott was able to get some PK2 time with Bogosian. Both defenders did well to prevent Calgary from gaining the zone easily. This aspect of play is huge for Dermott; if he wants to earn more ice time in Toronto, he’ll need to find a way onto that second PK unit.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — He picked up an assist on that mad scramble to tie the game and another apple in overtime with his drop-pass to Nylander. Earlier in the second period, Matthews showed off some of his new-found speed on what Chris Cuthbert called a “dangerous dash.”
He was flying the rest of the period, up until the point where his hand got jammed awkwardly into the boards. That appeared to make high-skill plays a bit more difficult for Matthews the rest of the way; he missed an easy pass to Nylander the shift right after the collision.
That’s definitely something to keep an eye on. Those hands were made for goal-scoring.
Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — Mitch Marner & Co could learn a lot from watching Jason Spezza’s direct approach on PP entries. He doesn’t overthink things. He just skates north as fast as he can to gain the zone.
He shot it on this play, but usually, he finds an open man right after stepping over the blueline. Spezza had the highest success rate on 5v4 zone entries last season among Leafs players. If I’m Matthews or Marner, I want to learn his secrets.
On the Maple Leafs, that sounds a lot to me like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev. Neither player is a game-breaker offensively, but they’re able to use their speed and length to apply pressure and force turnovers. It can be frustrating to watch Mikheyev fail to convert Grade-A chances on the penalty kill, but at some point, one of those is going to go in…right?
Alex Kerfoot (LW, #15) — It was Kerfoot who completed the 2-on-1 pass across to Mikheyev. Those two have created quite a few odd-man rushes on the penalty kill this season.
At even strength, Kerfoot has looked a lot more explosive in transition, using his speed to carry the puck up the ice. My theory is that John Tavares taking more of the defensive responsibilities at centre has helped open up ice for Kerfoot off the rush.
The 1st Pair — This was a good but not great game from Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie. The former helped create two of Toronto’s most dangerous chances offensively, while the latter covered lots of ice when he was defending the neutral zone.
Brodie also does a great job of settling things down on the breakout, which I wanted to show by pulling up the following clip.
Again, you can make any player look good or bad by cherrypicking the right clips. It’s worth noting Brodie has a long history of advancing the puck up the ice with possession, which is why I don’t feel too bad sharing this clip.
The 3rd Pair — Early on, I loved Mikko Lehtonen‘s play. He was closing the gap well in transition and starting the breakout out of his own end. Lehtonen also uncorked a big shot on the power play that made it through traffic and appeared to give Rittich some trouble.
Zach Bogosian was excellent on the penalty kill. As we mentioned, that combination of him and Dermott works well when defending the blue line, which has also been the case at 5v5 this season. There were a few plays Bogosian completely botched in the offensive zone, but for the most part, I thought he was doing his job as the Leafs‘ stay at home 3rd pair defender.
John Tavares (C, #91) — One of these days, Tavares is going to score on Rittich. This is not that day. He got robbed in tight again by Calgary’s goaltender on his best chance of the game.
I’m not too worried about a goalie making a big save. What does concern me is the fact that it was Tavares’ only Grade-A scoring chance of the night. He hasn’t looked very dangerous off the rush this season, which was the case again tonight.
We all know Tavares is an elite offensive talent, but he certainly hasn’t been putting up those kinds of results lately.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — That tidbit on PP entries in the Spezza section was directed mainly towards Marner. He’s the one Toronto typically trusts to gain the zone for them at 5v4. In his last two games, he’s really struggled in that department.
Marner was excellent on the PK again, although you’d like to see a bit more from him at 5v5.
Zach Hyman (LW, #11) — Aside from a wrist shot that Rittich had to fight off, this was a fairly quiet game from Hyman. As Toronto’s “energy” forward, I’d like to see him bring a bit more in the 6:48 he played against Matthew Tkachuk.
Travis Boyd (C, #72) — He did have a couple of decent passes in this game, along with a strong net drive that resulted in a tripping penalty. Otherwise, I didn’t notice too much from Boyd tonight.
Justin Holl (RD, #3) — Although his pairing put up great results at even strength, I thought that had more to do with his partner. Holl flubbed a few passes on the breakout, which isn’t common for him. He also lost body position on Joakim Nordstrom, leading to a tripping penalty.
As a final piece of criticism, if you watch the Mangiapane goal again, you’ll notice Holl had a chance to block the passing lane out front. Multiple things have to go wrong for a puck to end up in the back of the net (i.e. Nylander on that play), but Holl deserves some share of the responsibility, too.
Jimmy Vesey (LW, #26) — I’m starting to feel bad for Jimmy Vesey. For some reason, the Leafs tried him on PP1 tonight. It went about as well you’d expect. With his lack of passing ability, a lot of plays tend to die on his stick.
I don’t hold any personal vendetta against the guy. I just don’t think he’s been a very effective NHL player this season.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
The Leafs controlled 58 percent of the shots and 54 percent of the scoring chances at 5-on-5. They almost got goalie’d — then Calgary got Nylander-ed.