Hockey is a funny game, and sometimes the best team on the ice for a particular evening doesn’t win the game. Although I might be too optimistic, that’s what I saw during the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 loss to the Stanley Cup Champs, the St. Louis Blues. In fact, perhaps this was the Maple Leafs best game so far in the season and they still lost.
Toronto held the edge in shot attempts (62.6 percent), high-danger chances (85.7 percent) and expected goals (65.2 percent). They lost. As I say, hockey’s funny that way.
Why the Blues Won
The Blues won because they hung around, even though they were out-played and out-shot. Alex Pietrangelo scored the winner in the third period. Oskar Sundqvist and Brayden Schenn also scored. And, young goalie star Jordan Binnington (who, by the way, is from Richmond Hill, Ontario, and made his first start at Scotiabank Arena) stopped 32 shots and the goalposts stopped at least three others.
In this post on player reviews, I usually review four or five Maple Leafs players. However, after the game against the Blues, it seemed more fruitful to review two players in more depth.
Those two players are William Nylander and Jason Spezza. I chose Nylander because, in my mind, he was the best player on the ice – for either team. I chose Spezza because I thought he was really strong in less than nine minutes of ice time, and I think that isn’t enough.
Player Review One: William Nylander
William Nylander was the best player on the ice, by a long shot. Funny, that’s no longer a surprise to me. I’ve become a convert. He really has been strong all season, both on offense and on the forecheck. He seems to see the ice better than any time during the last two seasons.
He’s an offensive force and has great finish with the puck. His goal was simply beautiful. But not to forget the helpers. His goal was set up by a nice passing play from Cody Ceci and Andreas Johnsson.
And, Nylander could have had another. But that was the storyline for this game – the Maple Leafs either lost or fumbled their chances. Auston Matthews, ever-dangerous on the power play, rang another shot off the goal post – how many is that this season already? But, although Binnington was completely out of position, Nylander simply couldn’t control the loose puck.
In the end, Nylander scored a goal on four shots. His goal was scored less than a half a minute (24 seconds to be exact) after Frederik Gauthier scored his second of the season (only one less than he scored during the entire 2018-19 season). Although that short offensive spurt couldn’t carry the team to the win, it is showing fans that Nylander’s announcement that he was going to dominate this season wasn’t simply hot air.
So far this season, Nylander has two goals and two assists in four games. Should he continue to play as he has, I see no reason why he can’t be a point-a-game player. Last season, Nylander didn’t get his second goal until his 24th game following a long contract impasse that dragged into December. He’s now collected a point in every game this season for the Maple Leafs.
Player Review Two: Jason Spezza
I believe Jason Spezza needs to play every game. However, Spezza is stuck in a cycle of playing one game and sitting one game. From what I saw tonight, however, his skills are too valuable to let him sit this much – both in the press box every other game or on the bench for the games he’s playing.
Although Spezza isn’t the only reason for their success, the Maple Leafs fourth line is strong. Frederik Gauthier is a hunk, and he takes up space in front of the net. That’s where he needs to be.
Spezza got his first Maple Leafs assist by tapping a rebound up in the air to himself and then tapping it back in front of the goal. I’m not sure he knew Gauthier would be there because space simply opened up as players moved this way and that, but Gauthier found the opening and batted the puck into the net for the team’s first goal.
Whether he saw a specific teammate or not, Spezza’s experience to know where people would probably be and the offensive instincts to put the puck into goal-mouth traffic is huge. Matthews will score pretty goals, but ugly goals count just as much.
Spezza has figured this game out. It showed. He thinks the game well. You can see that on the ice.
He noted after the game, “I thought we supported the puck really well. I thought we moved as five-man units. We had five guys in all zones, forced them to turn it over — and they don’t turn it over a lot. There was a point there where they kind of turned it over a bit and the game opened up and we could have put ‘em away.”
However, the Blues were not put away.
In wrapping up, Spezza noted, “there was definitely some positive things.”
Spezza was a healthy scratch for two of Toronto’s first three games, and the game against the Blues was his first home game for his new team. He also had three shots on goal and saw only 8:41 minutes of ice time.
“It’s a huge honor to play here,” said the 36-year-old. “It was nice to play in front of the home crowd … something I was looking forward to all summer.”
What the Game Meant to the Maple Leafs
In simple terms, the game was a Maple Leafs loss. On the bright side, it might have been the team’s best game of the season. For hockey fans of any team, it was good hockey. For Maple Leafs fans with a big-picture view of the season and the post-season, it was the kind of game that pushes the team towards self-definition.
Toronto played desperate hockey in the last half of the third period. Their passing was artistic – the stuff of highlight reels. They played with enthusiasm. But they didn’t score. That’s why they lost this game.
Questions remain. Why did they wait so long to be desperate? Can they learn to play with enthusiasm all the time? What will the team learn from tonight?
Those questions will be answered quickly when they meet perhaps the best team in the NHL on Thursday night – the Tampa Bay Lightning.