The Toronto Maple Leafs got back to winning on Friday night in the front half of yet another October back-to-back when they hosted former teammate Patrick Marleau and the San Jose Sharks.
The Maple Leafs strung off four goals in a row to win 4-1 on their way to picking up another two points in what promises to be a tough Atlantic Division this season. That said, our focus isn’t just on the outcome of the game, but rather what can be taken away from the on-ice play and the numbers that come with it. With that, here’s what I saw on Friday night.
First Goal Problems
Even with the win, the Maple Leafs showed once again that they had to come from behind to secure the two points. For the ninth time this season – and in just 12 games – the boys in blue gave up the opening goal on a tip midway through the opening frame.
The goal – scored by Kevin Labanc – was yet another reminder of the defensive struggles that the Maple Leafs have faced this season, especially early on in games.
Still, the Maple Leafs are 4-3-2 when giving up the first goal of a game and have tallied 10 of a possible 18 points in those nine games. That, however, won’t last forever. The Maple Leafs will have to find away of shutting teams down early or getting off to a better start if they want to compete in a tough division this season.
It’s still early, but that doesn’t change the fact that something has to change. After all, come playoff time, the Maple Leafs can’t be chasing wins.
Matthews’ Makes a Mark
After calling out his teammates following a 4-2 loss to the Bruins on Oct. 22, Matthews played a stronger all-around game for the Maple Leafs on Friday. His hustle on the back check and play within the defensive zone showed many that he is willing to back up everything that he said regarding his and his team’s play so far this season.
Matthews played just over 18 minutes with 4:35 of power play time. He fired six shots on goal and tallied the second insurance goal following the Maple Leafs’ empty netter in the third period.
The goal also made Matthews the highest-scoring goal scorer before his 23rd birthday in franchise history. He has 120 career goals in 224 regular season games for the Maple Leafs.
And while his calling out of teammates was more a sign of leadership than frustration, Matthews did everything he could against San Jose to show that he wants his team to succeed.
Marleau’s Trip Back to Toronto
In his first trip back to Toronto since the Maple Leafs cooperated with him and traded him to Carolina, Marleau suited up for his 1,500th game as a member of the Sharks. Fittingly, it came against the only other team he’s ever played for.
While Marleau wasn’t the most offensive threat while in a Maple Leafs uniform, he did provide the young Maple Leafs core with a veteran presence and leadership that was much needed for their overall development.
Marleau was given a standing ovation by the home crowd and shared a moment with Mitch Marner and Matthews prior to puck drop. As for his numbers in the game, he played just under 17 minutes and saw about a minute of power play time for the Sharks.
Defensive Zone Structure
As it stands, Friday night’s affair may have been their best defensive effort as a team so far this season – and I’m sure Frederik Andersen was thankful. The Maple Leafs gave the Sharks just one power play in the game and Andersen faced just 17 total shots over 60 minutes of play.
Even on the power play, the Sharks had a hard time entering the Maple Leafs zone and only got three shots off on the Maple Leafs netminder. Overall, the team showed better defensive structure and better back checking by the forwards which allowed the team to break out better on a regular basis.
Like the slow starts in games, the Maple Leafs will make this a regular effort if they want to find success beyond the regular season.
Defensive Scoring Boost
On top of their defensive structure the Maple Leafs also got an offensive boost from their back end on Friday. Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly scored the first two goals for the team, both of which were tallied with the scorers making a play to come in from the blue line.
For Muzzin, it was his second of the season and eighth point in 12 games, while Rielly scored his third of the year giving him 12 points in 12 games.
Muzzin finished the game a plus-three with Cody Ceci raking in a plus-two rating, including two hits. While there has been a carousel to the Maple Leafs’ defence this year, it seems they are starting to click better within the team’s offensive plans. This will be important for the Maple Leafs moving forward.
Also Worth Noting…
Matthews left the game for a bit after taking a hard hit from Brenden Dillon that made contact with his head. Matthews was placed under the league’s concussion protocol, but returned to the game to score his ninth goal of the season. While the hit was questionable, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that Dillon won’t face any sort of supplemental discipline from the incident.
Marner also tallied two assists in the game giving him 11 on the year. While some have questioned his effort or his play of late, Marner has 14 points through the team’s first 12 games while having to change linemates due to the injury to John Tavares. That total is worth noting.
The Maple Leafs had just one penalty called against them on Friday. This is something I’ve been writing about, it seems, after almost every single game.
Finally, Ilya Mikheyev had a goal and an assist on Friday bringing his season totals to four goals and nine points through 12 games. The Maple Leafs rookie is fourth in team scoring behind Marner, Matthews and Rielly and is tied for second in NHL rookie scoring behind Victor Olofsson (11).
The team will look for another win when they head to Montreal on Saturday night. It’ll be their fourth back-to-back in the first month of the season and they are 0-2-1 in the the first three second-half games when playing on consecutive nights.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.