Call it genius – or whatever you want – but Mike Babcock has found a way to juggle lines this season that has actually benefitted the Toronto Maple Leafs. Earlier this season when William Nylander went down with an injury, he moved Connor Brown up to the Auston Matthews line and put Nylander on the fourth line upon his return.
Many people questioned his choice and yet the Leafs coach didn’t waiver. Now, Nylander finds himself back on the Leafs’ all-rookie line and it seems to be working again for Babcock and Toronto.
Nylander seems to be playing with more confidence again, getting to a number of loose pucks in Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks, while Matthews is creating space for his line mates and Hyman plays the role of shot blocker in the defensive end.
But beyond that, the Leafs had trouble in the third period yet again. The loss continues a winless streak against the Sharks in Toronto that goes all the way back to 2002. While there will be some talk surrounding a questionable call in the first period of this game, the Leafs can’t be happy with their effort late in this game.
Like the Leafs, the Sharks roster a number of young, fast, talented players. The difference, however, is the perennial talent of their veteran players. Because of that, the Leafs had to play a fast north-south game to stay with the Sharks early in the game.
The Sharks did out-hit and out-chanced the Leafs in the first 20 minutes but the Leafs weren’t far behind. For a smaller team, they had five hits in the first period and unfortunately that’s accompanied with penalties from time to time.
The Leafs were called for three penalties in the first compared to the Sharks two, but fortunately for Toronto, San Jose wasn’t able to use their special teams to capitalize on their opportunities. On top of the penalties, the Leafs were out shot in the period 14-13. But as we saw in the Colorado game, shots don’t always mean the difference between a win and a loss and with that the Leafs had 25 shot attempts while the Sharks only mustered 21.
That being said, the Leafs were able to out chance San Jose at 5-on-5 as well. It not only paid off for a hungry Toronto team, but a line that has been looking to show that it belongs together.
Leafs put up 21 shot attempts to just 10 for the Sharks at even strength. 68% possession for Toronto in first versus one of top CF% teams.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 14, 2016
Nylander was able to get in deep on the Sharks. Drawing to defenders over along the boards he was able to move the puck to the slot where Matthews was waiting. A quick shot on net and a Hyman tip and the Leafs were quickly up 1-0 after one period of play.
The Leafs opened the second frame much the way they ended the first. They were skating well and creating opportunities for themselves.
By doing so, they almost gave themselves a two-goal lead just four minutes into the period when a laser shot by Morgan Rielly beat Martin Jones. However, Nazem Kadri clipped Jones on the play and the referees not only called off the goal, but handed Kadri two minutes for goaltender interference.
Babcock would challenge the call, but it stood proving why the goaltender interference call tends to be a grey area for most coaches and referees. But you make the call.
— Place Holder (@APlace_Holder) December 14, 2016
Following the penalty kill by the Leafs, San Jose was handed two very quick and very questionable penalties for an extended 5-0n-3 power play. With Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto in the penalty box, the Leafs power play unit cycled the puck well in the offensive end.
The puck finally came around to Matthews standing at the side of the net and he was able to squeak the puck through a small hole in Jones’ armour to give the Leafs a 2-0 lead midway through the second.
The Leafs didn’t stop there. They continued to get chances on Jones throughout the period and it was the young guys yet again. Hyman was sprung on a breakaway while the Leafs were killing a penalty, but Jones was able to come up with a big save to keep it a 2-0 game.
As the chippy play picked up, including some jawing from Nikita Soshnikov and Logan Couture late in the period, it was Jones that stepped up his play for the Sharks to keep the game close. But he wasn’t alone. The Leafs net minder who might’ve gone unnoticed a bit in the second frame made a couple of big saves as well late in the period to keep his team up by a couple.
The third period wasn’t as offensive for the Leafs. Instead, they hung back a little more than they did in the first two periods to protect their third period lead – something they’ve had trouble with this season. Midway through the period, the Leafs were being out shot 6-2 by the Sharks. However, even though the Leafs weren’t managing too many opportunities, they were holding San Jose to the outside and not allowing them many quality opportunities either.
But, as it can do at times, letting the game come to you can hurt you and with seven minutes left it did. The Sharks were able to centre the puck into the slot in front of Andersen and with a wicked backhanded shot, Justin Braun cut the Leafs lead to 2-1.
With just over five minutes left in the third, the Sharks took another bite out of the Leafs lead and tied the game. Matt Hunwick took a penalty at the side of his net and only four seconds into the penalty, Pavelski tipped a Burns point shot to make it a 2-2 game. Just like that, their third period lead vanished again.
The Sharks were fortunate enough to have Jones in net in the extra frame. He had a number of big saves stoning Rielly in close and made it extremely hard for Marner on his incredible opportunity on a one-timer at the side of the net.
With a number of opportunities at both ends, Andersen and Jones were able to stand tall and keep the game tied at two headed to the shootout.
TOR – Zach Hyman (5) assisted by Auston Matthews and William Nylander
TOR – Auston Matthews (13) PPG assisted by William Nylander and Jake Gardiner
SJS – Justin Braun (1) assisted by Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson
SJS – Joe Pavelski (9) PPG assisted by Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau
TOR – Mitch Marner – Stopped
SJS – Joe Pavelski – Stopped
TOR – Auston Matthews – Stopped
SJS – Logan Couture – Scores
TOR – Nikita Soshnikov – Stopped
THW Three Stars
First: Martin Jones (29 saves and 14th win of the season)
Second: William Nylander (2 assists)
Third: Frederik Andersen (40 saves)
Arizona Coyotes at Toronto Maple Leafs
Air Canada Centre – 7:30 p.m. EST on Thursday, December 15
Broadcast channels – SNO and FS-A PLUS
2016-17 Season Series: First meeting of the season
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.