Leafs begin journey at World Cup of Hockey with exhibition debuts

Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY SPORTS

The World Cup of Hockey might be a week or so away from bringing the greatest players on the planet to the Centre of the Universe, but pre-tournament games officially kicked off on Thursday to give their team’s coaches a chance to evaluate the players and fans in other cities a chance to get a look at the event as well. A whole bevvy of Leafs hit the ice as a result, though their mileage obviously varied.

Russia (4) vs. Czech Republic (3)

Today was the first live look at Nikita Zaitsev for many Leafs fans, and many were left concerned as he found himself on the ice for a quick first goal against by Michal Kempny just four minutes into the game. What isn’t seen on the GIFS and shrunk-highlight packs, however, was a lost board battle by Vladimir Namestnikov and Dmitri Orlov seemingly forgetting what side of the ice he was supposed to play on. 

Zaitsev wasn’t completely flawless on the play, choosing to skate around the net to avoid further screening of Bobrovsky rather than trying to pressure Kempny but any sour first impressions from the play were perhaps misplaced. 

Outside of that play, though, Zaitsev looked composed with the puck, making a few nice carry-outs and stretch passes and racking up two shots on goal. He also blocked two shots and played both on the powerplay and penalty kill units for a combined 18:57 of ice time. His lone hit was on Vladimir Sobotka, and early reports say that he may have injured Sobotka’s clavicle in doing so.

On the other side of the ice, the Leafs were represented by Roman Polak and Milan Michalek. Michalek was placed on the left wing of Sobotka and Dmitrij Jaskin and picked up the secondary assist on the Kempny goal. He also had a shot and two hits in 18:40 of ice time. Polak played with Kempny and had a primary assist on Tomas Plekanec’s goal, along with a team-leading six hits, three blocked shots, and 18:12 of ice time.

Sweden (2) vs. Finland (3) OT

This game was pointless for the Leafs and their fans. I mean that only literally, of course, as both Leo Komarov and Jhonas Enroth both got to get some ice time in the great pre-tourney battle of Scandinavia. 

Everybody’s favourite Estonian-born Finn was on the ice for Aleksander Barkov’s icebreaking goal in the second period but had no points on the scoresheet. He did, however, contribute five hits, 5:55 of powerplay time, and 16:54 of total ice time. 

Enroth, on the other hand, had a less than stellar showing. He replaced Jacob Markstrom at the midway point of the game, and game up all three of Sweden’s goals against in 33:12 of ice time. His 10 saves on 13 shots against gives him a 0.769 save percentage for the effort, which is far from what anybody wants to see on the meaningful ice this year.

North America vs. Europe

It’s everybody’s dream come true; destined-to-be-a-Leaf Connor McDavid and is-actually-a-Leaf Auston Matthews joining forces to take on the world. Or, in this case, the European countries that aren’t as well known for their hockey prowess.

Reviews were very positive for Matthews’ presence, in which he put up a +1 rating, took two shots, and played 13:13 on a line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nathan MacKinnon. Speaking of players who are actually on the Leafs, Morgan Rielly played 20:55 on a pair with Aaron Ekblad, and had a shot on goal and a hit, while getting some penalty kill time. 

Overall, it was an exciting showing for Toronto’s international ambassadors; later today, we’ll see Mike Babcock try to outcoach whatever orders John Tortorella barks at James Van Riemsdyk. That’ll go down at 7:00.