With pre-playoff training camps finally wrapped up, the Toronto Maple Leafs got their first official game action last night as they defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 in exhibition play.
A frantic if not slightly sloppy game provided a nice little sneak peek into what we can expect from the Maple Leafs heading into their qualifier round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It may have been just one game, but we saw enough draw some early conclusions.
Ilya Mikheyev Could Be an X-Factor for Toronto
Out with a gruesome wrist injury since Dec. 27, Russian winger Ilya Mikheyev was given a recovery timeline of about three months, meaning he would have been ready to suit up in April for the playoffs. Obviously the entire world has been turned upside down since then, but that may have been a blessing in disguise for Mikheyev, who has had even more time to rehab and find his game.
In fact, the 25-year-old has impressed so much throughout training camp that he may have not only found his game, but found a new level as well. After capping off the final scrimmage of training camp with a hat trick, Mikheyev was named the Maple Leafs’ Phase 3 MVP. He carried that momentum into Tuesday night’s exhibition game, scoring the opener just 33 seconds in on a cross-seam feed from captain John Tavares.
If the Maple Leafs are hoping to defeat the Blue Jackets and make a run in this year’s playoffs, they’ll be relying on Mikheyev to keep up his current pace in a top-six role.
The Maple Leafs Need Steady Freddy in Net
Much has been made about Frederik Andersen’s disappointing season as he put up career-worst numbers in goal. But the good news for the Maple Leafs netminder is that with over four months off since their last game, this is almost like a new season – a totally fresh start. Andersen can clear his mind and put the struggles of 2019-20 behind him because none of that matters now. All that matters is that he gives his team the consistent goaltending that they need, and that he’s known for.
Andersen showed flashes of his old self in the exhibition victory, stopping 28 of 30 Montreal shots for a sparkling .933 save percentage. He’s poised to go toe-to-toe with Blue Jackets starter Elvis Merzlikins, who was arguably a top-five goaltender this past season.
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Can Andersen outperform his counterpart in the best-of-five qualifier series? He’ll likely need to in order for the Maple Leafs to advance.
Nick Robertson Should Make His NHL Debut Against Columbus
Despite scoring 55 goals in 46 games for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League this season, Nick Robertson has flown somewhat under the radar of most Maple Leafs fans. But if there were any doubts about his game or NHL readiness, they should be mostly cleared up by now.
The former second-round pick skated on a third line with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen on Tuesday while also featuring on the second power-play unit. The youngster ended up collecting his first (unofficial) NHL point with a secondary assist on Kerfoot’s second-period tally.
With Andreas Johnsson still sidelined for at least another few weeks, Robertson looks like the front runner to fill that left wing slot in the Maple Leafs top-nine. We know Robertson has the skill and scoring prowess, but does he have the physical and mental quickness to keep up at the NHL level – especially as things ramp up in the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but given what the 18-year-old has accomplished so far, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Morgan Rielly Looks Refreshed and Re-Energized
It’s no secret that Maple Leafs No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly had a frustrating season, dealing with several injuries and putting up just 27 points in 47 games. He returned to the lineup in the team’s final game before the stoppage in mid-March, and now after several months to reflect and recover, Rielly has an opportunity to turn his season around.
The smooth-skating defenceman looked to be in prime form against the Canadiens, flying up and down the ice and creating offence in transition. He was eventually rewarded for his efforts late in the third period, scoring a shorthanded goal after following up on his own rebound.
That’s the Rielly that Maple Leafs fans have gotten used to seeing, and his puck moving ability will certainly be key for the Maple Leafs as they try to deal with the Blue Jackets’ heavy forecheck.
Rasmus Sandin May Be the Odd Man Out
With teams being allowed to dress 13 forwards and seven defencemen in their exhibition games, the Maple Leafs opted for Martin Marincin as their last defender, leaving Rasmus Sandin to watch from the sidelines. The decision came as a bit of a surprise given that Sandin had cemented himself as a fixture on Toronto’s blue line from January onward.
The 20-year-old will still be with the club as part of the 30-man playoff roster, but it seems unlikely he’ll see any game action barring injuries.
Regardless of roster choices or individual performances, it’s a welcome sight to see the Maple Leafs back on the ice. Overall, the team looked relatively sharp, but they’ll certainly have their hands full with the pesky Blue Jackets come Sunday night.