Typically when I do takeaways pieces, it’s easy to pick out three. Wednesday night’s game was one of those rare occasions where there was really only one talking point to discuss from the game. Well, two. But only one of them had a major impact on the game’s outcome. The night after beating the Vegas Golden Knights in a shootout, the Toronto Maple Leafs fell 2-1 to the league-worst Arizona Coyotes.
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With Scottsdale native Auston Matthews making his first trip to the desert since Nov. 21, 2019, and former Coyote Michael Bunting facing his old team for the first time, there were already a couple of things that made tonight’s game worth watching heading into it.
But every once in a while, the Maple Leafs will play a game that brings everybody down to earth and reminds them that anything can happen in an NHL hockey game, and last night was one of those games. Here are three key takeaways from Wednesday night’s loss to Arizona.
Maple Leafs Don’t Have an Answer For Coyotes’ Vejmelka
The term “getting goalied” gets thrown around quite a bit with the Maple Leafs. Sometimes, they pepper their opponent’s netminder with lots of shots but no real high danger chances. That wasn’t the case in this game. If you missed the game and looked at the stat sheet, the shot totals look about how you’d expect they would. The Maple Leafs outshot the Coyotes 46-18 yet lost thanks to an unbelievable goaltending performance from rookie netminder Karel Vejmelka.
A fifth-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators in 2015, Vejmelka had never played in North America before this season. In his rookie NHL season, the 25-year-old Czechia netminder has a record of 3-13-1 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.18 and a save percentage (SV%) of .910. Considering how astronomically bad the Coyotes have been this season, these stats are pretty impressive.
And when you factor in how the Coyotes kicked off the season with an 11-game losing streak and how they didn’t score more than one goal in each of Vejmelka’s first seven starts, he’s made the best of a bad situation, all things considered. And his potential was on full display tonight. Not only did he keep the Coyotes in the game for all 60 minutes, but he made some absolutely ridiculous saves to keep the score tight.
This isn’t even Vejmelka’s only start like this in the new year. On Jan. 4, he stopped 46 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, further proving that oftentimes, he’s the only reason the Coyotes have a fighting chance. You can make all the excuses that you want, pick out missed calls against the Maple Leafs, but in the end, the Maple Leafs simply ran into the hottest version of a hot goalie. And looking at it from a big picture standpoint, games like this will happen from time to time no matter how good your team is.
Maple Leafs’ Matthews Sets a Franchise Record in His Home State
If Vejmelka didn’t stand on his head for the Coyotes, this probably would have been the main takeaway from the game. It’s always a fun game when Matthews gets to return to Arizona. His family always makes it out to watch, and the fans give him a warm reception. And last night, he set a franchise record for most road games in a row with a goal, scoring in his ninth straight.
Matthews had been producing at a torrid pace heading into the game, with 16 goals and 22 points in his last 14 games. And he added to his total after finally breaking the ice for the Maple Leafs 14 seconds into the third period. He had been playing with an edge for most of the game, clearly hungry for the record. And watching him break it in his home state with his family in the crowd was almost poetic.
Matthews, skating with Bunting and Ondrej Kase on either side for the second game in a row, came close on several occasions, most notably in the final minutes. With the goalie pulled, Jason Spezza deflected his wrist shot over the net and wide. When all was said and done, Matthews was buzzing more than anybody else on the team tonight. And while he likely could have scored ten times, Vejmelka’s performance was his biggest obstacle.
Maple Leafs’ Burned By Sloppy Play, Mrazek’s Mistake
When I say “burned,” I mean it in the sense that these two things got in the way of any chance the Maple Leafs may have had at pushing the game into overtime. While Petr Mrazek only allowed two goals, with one of them being a flukey bounce, he made a costly mistake on Arizona’s game-winning goal in which he missed a poke check on a 2-on-1, putting him out of position for Ryan Dzingel’s tap-in.
This may not have been as prevalent had Mrazek not made a similar mistake earlier in the game. Luckily for him the first time, Phil Kessel tipped the puck wide, and the missed poke check didn’t end up costing them. The same couldn’t be said for the second time around, however. This was his fourth start of the season, and he’s yet to have a game with a SV% over .900. It probably doesn’t help that he hasn’t seen any game action since Dec. 11 against the Chicago Blackhawks. But with him making $3.8 million while Jack Campbell has performed the way he has at under half the price, the Maple Leafs need Mrazek to be more than just average.
And while the Maple Leafs dominated the Coyotes in the shots department and throughout the game in general, there were still sloppy instances that worked against them in pivotal moments. They were 0-for-3 on the power play and couldn’t get settled in the offensive zone after they called a timeout with the goalie pulled and 90 seconds left in the game.
Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe wasn’t happy with his team’s inability to capitalize in these moments and even took it upon himself to question the team’s conditioning following the long layoff. They’re 3-1-1 in the new year, so clearly, it hasn’t drastically affected their ability to win games, but there has been a trend of flat-footed play in the past three games, and they haven’t always been lucky enough to get the wins with it.
Maple Leafs Will Close Out Western Swing on Saturday
If you asked me which team would beat the Maple Leafs in regulation after these past three games, odds are I wouldn’t have guessed the team who had only won three games at home before Wednesday night. But as we’ve seen all too many times with this team, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
The Maple Leafs will visit the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night to close out their western swing of the road trip. With next Monday’s home game against the New Jersey Devils postponed due to capacity restrictions in Ontario, the Maple Leafs will visit the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders before their next possible return home, which would be Jan. 26 against the Anaheim Ducks.
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While losing in regulation to one of the worst teams in the league is never something you want to do, the Maple Leafs can’t dwell on this loss. They will look to bounce back Saturday against the 21-10-5 Blues.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.