The Maple Leafs lost last night in the first game of the season, falling 4-3 to the Canadiens in regulation.
The Leafs were out-shot 32-27 and, in my opinion, were the best team on the ice in the first period, horrible in the second period and even in the third. Despite the loss, I don’t think they played terribly and that this game ultimately was a coin flip that could have gone either way.
For instance: Bernier – who we expect to carry this team quite a bit if they are going to have any success – was not at his best. Granted he had played once in the last week, but the first goal was still brutal. Pacioretty scored a soft one that Bernier would usually have stopped. As the announcer said, Phanuef was flat-footed on the play, although I don’t think that was a fair thing to say. Max P. had a full head of steam from his own blueline and was skating all-out for a 100 feet, which means that no defenseman is going to look good on the play and it’s only because it’s Phaneuf and this is Toronto that we’re talking about it at all. Phaneuf was in decent position but is not expecting to have to fend off a player skating unimpeded for a 100 feet.
Regardless, the goal was bad and put the Leafs down. That one aside, the game would have been pretty even. Though it’s Toronto and people will complain about a loss no matter what, the team cannot be judged on one game. There was good, there was bad. They even, after trading late fluke goals, almost tied it up with seconds left. The Leafs of old would have been deflated and not even got that chance. To lose by only one goal when your goalie is so clearly out-played by the other team’s goalie is something of a positive to take from the game.
David Clarkson: I thought the Clarkson – Santorelli – Komarov line was the Leafs best line all night. The cycled the puck, worked the boards and threw some checks. They seemed solid whenever they were on the ice. After the year Clarkson had last season, this is a very strong positive for the team. Clarkson had 1 shot, 13 and a half minutes and some PP time. Overall a decent game.
Nazem Kadri: To my eye Kadri also played a strong game and looked dangerous whenever he was on the ice. I thought his tip-in was beautiful and he threw a few hits and was generally noticeable when he played. I also really enjoyed the work of Kozun and Lupul. Hard to believe they didn’t get more ice time as the game drew on, but I’ll discuss that below.
Stuart Percy: This probably goes without saying, but he was great last night. He was a factor the entire game and the way he jumped into the rush to set up Bozak was the highlight of the game. It was heartbreaking that the winning goal went in off his foot, but I am sure he knows it was a total fluke and that it doesn’t detract at all to his five-star debut as a Leaf. If he plays another game like that, or if that is his regular game, then the injury to Cody Franson will turn out to be the best thing that happened to the Leafs in a while.
The Coaching: I know it’s the first game and maybe the coaches need time to get into the groove of things in the same way players do. If that’s the case, then hopefully what we saw last night wont be a common occurrence, because you can pin the loss on Bernier, you can say that the first line wasn’t very good or since it’s Toronto you can arbitrarily just blame Phaneuf – but you’d be wrong. Randy Carlyle made several blunders that I think need to be corrected for this team to have any hope.
First, Tyler Bozak played 7 minutes and 20 seconds more than Nazem Kadri. If they want to play Bozak on the top line, so as to not stack their three best forwards on a single line, there is merit to that. There is not, however, any merit to playing your team’s best centre 33% less than your team’s second best centre. It’s patently bizarre. By any objective measure, Kadri is the far superior player and if they won’t put him out on the top line, they should at least utilize him properly. In a close game where scoring was at a premium, they had one of their best offensive options on the bench for roughly 7 minutes he could have been playing.
Second, I like Kozun. Feel good story. Great wheels. Even got a point. But – and I think this is crazy – what in the name of Pat Quinn’s haircut is he doing on the ice in a tie game with one minute left? Making a rookie mistake, he attempted to pass across the zone just inside the blueline rather than getting it deep. The puck was turned over and the Canadiens eventually scored.
The team can’t be giving away points and all they have to do is get to overtime and the game is a success. So why put a rookie out there? It’s inexplicable.
Matt Frattin: Frattin was not really noticeable last night. I don’t want to say he was bad, because it’s more like he just didn’t distinguish himself. He was on the bottom line and played under ten minutes, so that’s not even really a crime. The problem I have is dressing him at all. The team has a lot of speed and finesse but sure could use a little grit. Especially when your fourth line is Winnik-Holland-Frattin. I like Holland and he played well last night, but if you put Ashton Carter out there, now you have something resembling a fourth line. They can still skate, even score a few goals probably, but with Carter over Frattin at least there’s that grit the line seemed to be missing.
The Ref Cam: The ref cam is a huge failure. It makes me dizzy and offers me zero insight. I do not need to see any upward facial shots of guys on the bench either, if we’re being honest. Actually, the whole Sportsnet thing takes some getting used to. The Stroumboulopoulos interview with Toews and Crosby was great, but TSN has always had a superior panel and it was missed for a mid-week Leafs game. Overall, I think SN has a long way to go if they want to match the TSN production values. Glen Healy was hard enough to take just once a week, but now that he’ll be between the benches every game, I fear greatly for my ability to enjoy the broadcast.
In conclusion, the Leafs are a work in progress, but they faced one of the better teams in the East and fared well. The game could have gone either way and while luck was a factor, it was coaching, unsurprisingly, that did the Leafs in on this night.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.