By Stan Smith
Unlike the full-time professionals who report on Toronto Maple Leafs’ games for a living, I don’t write my Good, Bad, & Ugly reports immediately after the game. I go to bed and sleep on it. Then I get up the next day, peruse the game stats, and listen to the postgame comments. As well, other responsibilities might prevent me from writing my post first thing the following day.
I believe this gives me a different perspective from those that pound out a report immediately following the game. It allows me to be more reflective. It also gives me time to figure out how each game fits into the bigger picture.
The 3-2 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers is a game I probably would have written something completely different about if I had completed my writing immediately following the game.
The way the game ended was disappointing at the time. And, I probably would have written something a lot more negative.
My thoughts now lean more toward the positive aspects of the game. Yes, as a fan, the way the game ended sucked. Yes, the team made mistakes that cost them the game. But, for the third game in a row, we saw a Maple Leafs’ team that can be dominant for long stretches.
If you believe in the process, this game is a good thing.
After giving up the first four shots in the game, along with the first goal, the Maple Leafs outshot the Panthers 20-3 from the five-minute mark of the first period to the middle part of the second period. They went over ten minutes of the second period without allowing Florida a single shot on goal.
The strength in the Maple Leafs’ game is their puck possession. When they execute the way they are supposed to, not only do they create scoring chances, but they give the opposing team no chance to score because they never give them the puck.
Despite only playing 8:27 in the game Zach Aston-Reese had one of his best games this season. He scored the Maple Leafs’ first goal on a deflection of a chest-high shot of a TJ Brodie shot.
He would not have had the opportunity to deflect that puck, and score that goal, if not for the hard work of Wayne Simmonds deep in the Florida zone. Simmonds outfought a pair of Panthers’ players twice behind the goalline to eventually get the puck back to Brodie at the point. He then made a beeline for the front of the net and came close to getting his stick on the shot from Brodie. At the very least, the Wayne Train created a distraction in front of the Panthers’ net.
Simmonds has only played 16 games this season. When he gets in the lineup it is usually only for one reason and one reason only. His physicality.
Unfortunately for Simmonds, his age (34) and the pounding he’s taken have diminished his play. He needs to play that way to be effective, but it’s showing. I wrote earlier this season that it was time for Simmonds to follow in Jason Spezza’s footsteps, hang up his skates, and maybe take an off-ice role with the organization.
I have to admit that, despite only averaging seven minutes a game in the last two games he has played, Simmonds has been quite effective. He’s shown jump, and the puck hasn’t died on his stick as it did earlier this season.
If everyone is healthy, I don’t expect to see Simmonds on the ice for any playoff games this season. However, if the team has some injuries, based on Simmonds’ play these past two games, I can see coach Sheldon Keefe inserting him into the lineup.
Related: Four Takeaways from Maple Leafs’ 3-2 OT Loss to Panthers
Auston Matthews finally regained his position on top of the Maple Leafs’ goal-scoring with his 37th goal of the season. That’s one more than William Nylander.
The goal followed a great play by Mitch Marner in the deep left corner of the Panther zone. Marner was knocked down by Marc Staal. While he was face down on the ice, Marner still managed to intercept an attempted ring around the boards by Staal. Marner kept control of the puck while gaining his feet. He then fed a perfect pass to Matthews in the high slot. Matthews one-timed the puck through Florida goalie Alex Lyon’s legs to give the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead.
The goal was number 296 for Matthews, tying him for sixth overall in all-time scoring for the Maple Leafs with Frank Mahovlich and George Armstrong. Matthews needs just three more goals to move into the top five in all-time scoring for the Maple Leafs. Rick Vaive’s 299 goals now occupy that spot.
With eight games left this season, it will be interesting to see if Matthews can pass Vaive and reach the 300-career goal mark. Matthews has nine goals in his last eleven games and last season scored 51 in 50 games. The 300-goal mark does seem like a reachable target for Matthews.
Mitch Marner moved one more point closer to the 100-point plateau for the first time in his career with his 67th assist and 95th point of the season. Marner is also only one assist short of the 68 assists he had last season, which is a personal best for him.
Once the Maple Leafs get their legs loosened up and get their timing on their passes going, they can run circles around teams.
Unfortunately, it seems to take them a while at the start of games to get things heading in the right direction. As a result, they start games slowly and give up good scoring opportunities early in games. The last three games have followed that script. They were down 2-0 in Carolina before getting on track, gave up the first nine shots of the Nashville game, and gave up a goal, and the first four shots, in this game before registering a shot of their own.
After already failing in one attempt to clear the puck out of his zone in the first minute of play, Jake McCabe tried a short hard pass to a partially covered John Tavares directly in front of the Maple Leafs’ net. The puck ended up between Tavares’ legs and deflected off of his stick right to Eetu Luostarinen. Luostarinen set up Anton Lundell in the middle of the ice about 10 feet in front of the Toronto net. Ilya Samsonov, who was being bothered by Matthew Tkachuk at the time, failed to stop the shot.
Exactly one minute into the game the score was 1-0 Panthers.
Related: Remembering Phil Kessel’s Time With the Maple Leafs
Goal Called Back
Twenty seconds after going up 2-1, Calle Janrkrok appeared to put the Maple Leafs up 3-1 on a feed from Matthews. I thought right away the play was offside as both of Matthews’ skates appeared to be inside the Florida blueline as he was receiving a pass from Marner. That feeling was confirmed after Florida coach Paul Maurice challenged the goal.
Two goals in less than 30 seconds could have been a massive momentum swing in this game. But, it wasn’t to be.
Black On Black Doesn’t Work Well
The one more thing I want to mention under “Bad” has nothing to do with the game itself.
It has to do with the Justin Beiber-designed uniforms. Why would a celebrity who’s known for wearing extremely colourful outfits to hockey games come up with the idea of putting black numbers on black jerseys?
I have read countless comments from other fans about how difficult it is to read the numbers and identify the players because of the white-outlined black numbers in the games in which these uniforms are worn. I agree with them. This game is too fast, and the identity of the players is too obscured by helmets and visors, to be able to tell who is who.
I say keep the uniforms for the occasional game. They look cool. Just please, fill in the numbers.
Then, can we talk about dark blue numbers on grey uniforms while we are at it?
Getting back to the conversation about momentum swings. Having the potential 3-1 goal called back, along with Maurice’s tirade behind the Florida bench while the video review was happening, seemed to result in a huge momentum swing in this game. The Panthers did to the Maple Leafs for the remainder of the period what the Maple Leafs had done to them for the majority of the game.
Until that point, the shots on goal in the game were 38-19 Toronto. The shots on the net in the third period were 9-1 Maple Leafs.
The shots on the net for the remainder of the period were the exact opposite. From the time the goal that would have put the Maple Leafs up 3-1 was called back, the shots to the end of the third period were 9-1 Panthers.
In the play leading to the Florida goal that tied the game, the Panthers were all over the Maple Leafs in the Toronto end. Mark Giordano took a hooking penalty preventing Carter Verhaeghe from a tap in on a wide-open net.
The play was in vain as Sam Reinhart later scored on a deflection of an Aaron Ekblad point shot to tie the game with the Florida goalie on the bench.
According to the official NHL scoring, the Panthers scored their first goal exactly one minute into the game. They scored their second goal with exactly one minute remaining in regulation time.
Game Winning Goal
William Nylander has scored some highlight-winning goals in overtime to win games for the Maple Leafs. In what has been the best season of his career, Nylander has silenced a lot of his critics on the consistency of this game.
That is, until recently.
Players like Matthews, Marner, Kerfoot, and Tavares have stepped up their games a notch late in the season heading into the playoffs. However, Nylander’s game has gone the other way. He’s failed to register a single point in seven of his last eight games now.
What once was a tight seesaw battle for the points-scoring lead on the team between Nylander and Marner is now not even close. Marner is on another consecutive point-scoring streak (11 games). He now has a 14-point lead over Nylander.
As often happens to a player in a slump, Nylander tried to force a play in overtime. His mistake led to the winning goal for Florida. Nylander tried to force his way through two Panthers players. However, he lost the puck and fell. That created a 2-on-1 in the other direction.
Nylander has to be more aware of the situation. There are only three players on the ice for either team. Nylander had Tavares in the corner with an opposing player nearby. That left Morgan Rielly wide open at the point. Instead of making the easy play, Nylander tried to make the more difficult one and fumbled the extra point away.
Things don’t get any easier for the Maple Leafs. They travel to Ottawa Saturday night to take on a desperate Senators team trying to claw its way into the playoffs.
With Samsonov getting the start versus Florida, Matt Murray should get a chance to follow up on his 48-save win in Ottawa two weeks ago.
Hopefully, Noel Acciari, who is listed as day-to-day, will be healthy enough to return to the lineup for that game. There is also no word on how long Erik Gustafsson might be absent from the team for personal reasons.
The Maple Leafs only got one point against Florida. At the same time, the Tampa Bay Lightning shut out the Carolina Hurricanes 4-0 on Tuesday night. As a result, the Maple Leafs’ hold on second place in the Atlantic Division shrunk to six points. The Maple Leafs have eight games remaining while Tampa has seven.
A six-point deficit with seven games remaining might seem an insurmountable lead to overcome for Tampa. However, I can see Lighting coach Jon Cooper using that incentive to push his players. It would be demoralizing for the Maple Leafs to blow a lead that big.
I don’t think the Maple Leafs have got second place and home-ice advantage locked up yet. It could still come down to the second-last game of the season when Toronto visits Tampa. The Maple Leafs do hold the tie-breaker, which means their magic number is eight. Any combination of eight points either won by Toronto or lost by Tampa gives Toronto home ice in the postseason.
It would be nice if that were to happen before that game in Tampa.
Related: FACING THE MAPLE LEAFS FROM THE LIGHTNING’S POINT OF VIEW