The Leafs came into Washington on the second night of a back to back and played 22 minutes of hockey — the first period and the last two minutes of the third. That isn’t going to win you many games, if any, and certainly not against Washington. For some reason, Rielly played almost 28 minutes on the evening, three (!) minutes more than the next Leaf. That’s way too much on a regular night, never mind a back-to-back. The Leafs showed what they can be in the first period, which is why their lacklustre performance in the last two periods is infuriating to many.
Here are my thoughts:
Well HALLELUJAH! The game started at 7:07 and shockingly, so did the Leafs. It’s no secret the Leafs have an issue starting on time. In 4 of the Leafs first 7 games, they got scored on within the first minutes of the game and against the Wild, it was 5:30. three of those goals, were before the games were two and a half minutes old.
This has long been a bad habit for the Leafs, but not against the Caps. The Leafs dominated the first 10 minutes of the game and were rewarded with a 2-0 lead, which included a shorthanded goal. Considering the opponent, travel and back to back situation, it was a nice change from the starts Leafs fans have grown accustomed to.
Right off the hop, the Leafs forechecked ferociously, won puck battles, protected the middle of the ice through the neutral zone, and created turnovers off the Caps aggressive play. On more than one occasion, the Leafs puck support led to a Caps turnover and an odd-man rush the other way. Mikheyev provided puck support to Kapanen coming through the middle on a zone exit by consistently making sure the passing lane was available, which is what allowed Kapanen to make the pass leading to Mikheyev’s goal. This is the type of structure and details the Leafs need to consistently play with in order to have success this season.
In the first six and a half minutes of the 2nd period, it was a vastly different story. Prior to the Caps actually scoring, Vrana nearly scored with a puck off the post, too – almost everyone in the building thought his puck went in. Nevertheless, the Caps scored 3 goals in 1:18, two of those goals came within 11 seconds of each other. Once the third goal was scored, 11 seconds(!) after the second, the Leafs were rattled having coughed up the lead and Babcock needed to call a timeout. He elected not to, the Leafs took two penalties in quick succession, and it led to the 4th goal on a 5v3.
I say Babcock should’ve called a timeout because once the Caps scored the 2-2 goal, out loud, I said, “Here comes the third, too.” It was clear the Leafs were jittery and if I could feel the goal coming, so could the players. In that situation, a timeout allows the players to get a breather, you bring everyone in, impart some calming words and allow for a mental reset. More times than not, that’s all a team needs when they’re getting run over after playing a really great segment of hockey. These guys didn’t forget how to play, that’s a point where you depend on your coach to call a timeout and your leadership to calm everyone’s nerves and refocus.
By the time 8 minutes had elapsed, the Caps were outshooting the Leafs 12-1 in the second period. With the help of a 5-on-3, they’d run the Leafs right out of the rink. While the Leafs found their footing in the final seven minutes of the 2nd, it was too late. With a team like the Caps, you cannot afford to have mental lapses where you leave Nik Backstrom all alone in the slot, or let Kuznetsov walk right down the middle of the ice, uncontested. That is going to cost you almost every time.
This has been a big problem for this team for some time. The team plays very well, looks like a world-beater and it gets undone by a 90-second to 30-minute mental lapse where everything goes wrong. It happened TWICE in the same period against Montreal, with the Habs scoring two goals each time, one pair in 62 seconds, the other pair in 78 seconds. Everyone is so focused on not making a mistake that they start thinking too much, which is exactly when mistakes get made. That’s when pucks are bobbled, coverage is blown, and guys get left wide open, leaving the team looking as if they’re running a fire drill in their own end.
Much has been made about Kapanen’s lack of production with Tavares and Marner, culminating in his demotion to the third line against the Wild. He was flying to start the game and was rewarded with a shorthanded goal. This goal was a manifestation of Kapanen’s struggles so far this season, and perhaps, it’s what allows him to loosen up a little.
In order for Kapanen to be successful, he needs to use his straight-line speed, win puck races and drive the net. Against the Caps, he used the straight-line speed to drive the front of the net, beating Ovechkin no less, and gave Trevor Moore a target. Credit Moore for getting the puck through two defenders, but here’s where I expected things to go wrong. The puck was in Kapanen’s skates and you could tell his natural instinct was to kick it. Instead, he wrestled his stick to a position, waiting for the puck to get away from his skate, and tapped it in.
A player squeezing his stick too tight usually kicks that in or fumbles it wide. For Kapanen to have the presence of mind to be patient and wait for the puck to get to a spot where he could tap it in, is a step forward from his usual lack of finish around the net. The entire play demonstrated what Kapanen needs to do if he’s going to be successful. He’s never going to be a puck carrier. He’s going to drive lanes, win puck races, be a dependable penalty killer and hopefully score 15-20 goals.
Jake Muzzin is excused from this conversation. The Leafs gap control this season has been abhorrent. Rielly, Ceci and Barrie give out controlled zone entries like its candy on Halloween. At multiple points this season, all three defensemen have been torched for goals against because of poor gap control.
Ian Tulloch of the Athletic wrote an entire deep dive into the Rielly-Ceci pairing, and their lack of gap control. When you’re playing against tough competition, you cannot give up the blue line and the slot that easily. That is a recipe to give up goals against. There is no reason for any defensemen to be backed up to the circles as the opposing player crosses the line. Tonight, Barrie had a poor gap and it led to him lunging towards the boards at his blue line. A simple bump pass to bypass an off-balance defender and Kuznetsov walked right down the pipe to score on a backhand deke.
On numerous occasions tonight, the Leafs defensemen let Washington’s skilled players enter the zone with time, space and speed. They left more than two stick lengths between themselves and the Caps players, when you should be within one stick length. This allowed the Caps to make plays, find the open passing lane, and create high danger scoring chances. On more than one occasion, Alex Ovechkin had the puck in the slot, which is a detail that will cost you a goal more times than not.
If the Leafs are going to back in and allow entries, they need the forwards to track back and diligently take away the passing lanes to the scoring area. The problem is, it is very difficult to contain and keep players on the outside when they attack with speed, which is exactly what Washington did to turn the tide. The first three goals were created from zone entries that resulted in a goal within 7 seconds, and you can draw a direct line to the entry being the kick point for each goal. If the Leafs want to have success against good teams, the gap control needs to make a significant improvement.
A brilliant play by Jake Muzzin to keep the puck at the blue line led to a John Tavares goals with two and a half minutes remaining. It was a game they didn’t deserve to be in, but when you have that kind of star power, sometimes you’re in games you shouldn’t be. For the final two minutes, the Leafs created multiple scoring chances and lived in the Caps zone.
I had to pause the television and take attendance because I couldn’t believe that Matthews wasn’t on the ice. Sure, he wasn’t having the best game, but if you need a goal, there is no one more suited than him. How the Leafs had Kerfoot and Kapanen out there, or two defensemen in Rielly/Barrie over Matthews is befuddling. The Leafs have a luxury of an abundance of skill on the ice. However, there is never going to be anyone more dangerous in the goal-scoring category than Auston Matthews. Full stop. He has the best release, he’s their leading goal scorer and when push comes to shove, you want him shooting the puck.
To add to that, Mitch Marner was also nowhere to be found. That is…TWENTY-TWO MILLION dollars sitting on the bench. For whatever you think of the game they had, at no point are there six better options than those two. To not have them on the ice, unless they were injured, is completely unacceptable. That’s the time where you need a skilled play to create something and you have your best playmaker and best goal scorer on the bench. Kapanen and Kerfoot had pretty good nights, but on their off nights, I will take Marner and Matthews 100 times out of 100 to score me a goal. It’s not even a decision, either.
In a back to back situation, you don’t expect a full 60 minutes, there will be lapses. However, the Leafs played 22 minutes, had a catastrophic 90 seconds and when it mattered most, their two best players weren’t even on the ice. There were some baffling decisions on the ice made my multiple Leafs, but some even more baffling ones behind the bench. I have a lot of time for Babcock but he’s gotta call the timeout, he’s gotta play his big boys when the chips are down, and you cannot play anyone 28 minutes on the second half of a back to back.