Under normal circumstances, hockey in July just feels wrong. But after a sudden stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March and months of wondering when it would return, the wait is finally over.
Hockey is back.
And in their first game out of the break, the Toronto Maple Leafs took down the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 on Tuesday night in their lone tune-up event before the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway on the weekend.
It is just one game, and it was an exhibition, but it is the only chance for audiences to see the Leafs play before the pressure is on when their best-of-five series begins Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Taking into account that the chips were not on the table, there were still some notes that could be taken from their performance against the Habs.
Toronto’s penalty killing was the difference in this game. Not only were they 6 of 6 on the PK, the Leafs scored two shorthanded goals.
The Leafs’ penalty-killing strategy was the same as it was during the regular season and was at its most effective, using the speedsters to take advantage of the open ice and create opportunities on the counterattack.
The result was two goals scored when outracing the Montreal powerplay. In the second period, it was Kasperi Kapanen breaking out and getting a shot off which created a rebound for Alex Kerfoot to bury.
In the third period, Zack Hyman busted through before dropping the pass to Morgan Rielly who buried his own rebound.
Of course, the fact that the Leafs were shorthanded six times is concerning. You cannot spend almost a quarter of the game a man down and expect to win in the playoffs. But at least it was encouraging to see how well the Buds are capable of taking advantage of their own disadvantage.
It also bodes well considering that the Leafs finished the regular season with only the 21st-ranked penalty kill in the league and the Blue Jackets had a worse powerplay than Montreal during the regular season.
Trouble Creating Quality Chances
The positive spin on the Leafs’ offensive performance on Tuesday night was that the bottom six looked strong, with Kerfoot providing half of Toronto’s scoring.
The downside was that the big guns were not particularly impressive and the team as whole struggled to make an impact in the offensive zone.
Just look at where the goals came from. Three of the four came on the counter-attack. Only one, Kerfoot’s second which was a deflected Rielly shot, came from sustained possession in the offensive zone.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander all had a couple of chances but could not convert. And for the most part, the Canadiens did a good job of keeping them boxed out of the middle of the ice. While Matthews did lead the team with three shots, only one was really a quality chance in front of the net. Nylander did not register a shot on goal.
John Tavares did have an assist on Ilya Mikheyev’s goal under a minute into the game, but otherwise, he too failed to make a significant impact.
Overall, when the Leafs had the puck in the Montreal zone, they never felt particularly threatening and only managed 23 shots.
Throughout the night, you could see the big guns giving in to their worst instinct, their desire to be too fancy, too respected, and too perfect.
The best example came in the second period when Mitch Marner managed to sneak in behind the defence and found himself face to face with Carey Price, only to try a cross-crease pass to Tavares. Had Tavares been two feet closer to the net, it would have been the right play and an easy tap in. But the captain was too far and had too tight an angle so he failed to bury the shot.
It was just one game, but some of those trends were common problems in the regular season. These guys will have to be better considering that Columbus allowed the third fewest goals in the league during the regular season.
Terrible Play in D-Zone
Everyone knows that the Leafs are an offensive team and their defense is notoriously questionable. While their D looked pretty much like their normal selves against Montreal, that is not a good thing.
The common issues on Tuesday night were controlling rebounds, getting the puck out of the zone, and covering the open man.
On both Montreal goals, someone managed to sneak in behind the defense and tap in a cross-ice pass while a number of white sweaters were looking the other way. Once, ok fine. But it happened twice which is concerning. Someone always has to make sure that man is covered. Four defenders do not all need to try and block the pass.
Fortunately, when the Leafs broke out of their zone, they were effective, scoring three times on rushes that started in their own end. But for a lot of the night they had a hard time getting out of their own zone or if they did, getting through the neutral zone.
As a result, the Canadiens outshot the Leafs 30-23.
The good news is that, like Montreal did to their offence, the Leafs did a good job of keeping the Habs attackers from getting quality shots. While Freddie Andersen did have to make 28 saves, he hardly had to single-handedly win the game for Toronto. He did not have to make many, if any, game-saving stops, which is a positive. And he even nearly made the impossible save on Montreal’s second goal.
Other than the simple return of hockey, the biggest bit of intrigue going into Tuesday night’s game was the debut of the Leafs’ top prospect, Nick Robertson, who was added to the playoff roster after an outstanding OHL season with the Peterborough Petes.
Robertson logged just over ten minutes, managing one shot on goal and an assist on Kerfoot’s second goal late in the second period.
It was a solid performance. He hardly stole the spotlight, but he was not a drag on the team either. He showed strength in the offensive zone, even throwing him small 5’9 frame around. And of course, made a nice pass to Rielly to set up the Leafs third goal as time ticked down in the second period.
With such a small sample size, it’s hard to say whether or not Robertson did enough to earn himself a spot on Sunday. A lot could depend on what strategy head coach Sheldon Keefe wants to employ against the stingy Blue Jackets. A player with Robertson’s offensive gifts could go along way in this matchup.
At the very least, Robertson showed in this game that he can keep up with NHL players, so at minimum he proved that he is an available option when play gets underway this weekend.
The Maple Leafs will kick off their first round series with Columbus on Sunday.