Photo Credit: @mapleleafs / Twitter.com
“Did we actually watch that last night, or did I fall asleep early and dream it?”
I feel like it can already be said with confidence that last night’s game, despite being an overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators, is going to be one that Leafs fans are going to be talking about for not days, not weeks, but decades. If all goes to plan, it will be simultaneously be remembered as the last gasp of the laughing stock era, and the beginning of one that’s much greater.
Your new franchise player has a historic night and you still lose. It’s so Leafy, but that’s just fine. Now that we’ve had some time to process it, here are my takeaways from last night’s game.
1. Auston Matthews is already out of this world
Anybody paying attention to the magic that this young man was already pulling off with USA Hockey, Zurich Lions, or Team North America could’ve told you that this was coming. Some of us already have. But my goodness, that was something special.
The first goal felt like destiny. The second one is going to be in the conversation for goal of the year come April, it was that good. By the time he buried his hat trick, you were just laughing, and when he buried his fourth, you probably assumed that the person sitting next to you injected heroin into your spine when you weren’t looking.
But it was more than those four goals. After all, Fabian Brunnstrom scored a hat trick in his NHL debut as well, and that ended up being the only thing any of us can remember about his NHL career.
When all was said and done, the supposed “third line centre” finished the night with 17:37, highest among Leafs forwards (though minutes were pretty evenly spread at even strength). He finished tied for fourth in team possession, appearing on the ice for 24 of Toronto’s 68 shot attempts at even strength while giving just eight in return. He put six pucks on net, which is impressive even when they don’t go in and had two takeaways.
In fact, a routine takeaway that happened moments after the second goal was perhaps his most unheralded moment of the game. Matthews began a rush into the offensive zone by setting up Jake Gardiner, Gardiner coughed up the puck, but Matthews was almost immediately on Derek Brassard to strip him and give Jake another chance. These little plays aren’t what directly win you games, but they put you in a position to create the plays that do. In his first NHL game, he was making the little plays and the big ones, and that was just incredible to see.
2. This could have easily been Willie or Mitch’s night
You almost have to feel bad for Mitch Marner. It was his NHL debut last night as well, and really, nobody noticed. Some would say that’s just the “way she goes”, but really, this could have been his game too. Marner’s offensive zone rushes looked far easier than they should have, and they amounted to his own six shots on goal. To add to that, he blocked a low-point shot and had two takeaways, and put up a 57.14% even strength Corsi-for.
In any other night, we would’ve taken that as an immense debut for a young man who has waited his entire life to put on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey for real. Instead, he’s a shadow behind Auston Matthews.
William Nylander, who wasn’t making his debut but was still playing in his first opening night, was also spectacular. The above is the part of Matthews’ first goal that you’ve probably forgotten about, where Nylander embarrasses Mark Borowiecki and creates a scoring opportunity, and almost ends up burying it himself.
He also set up Auston’s fourth goal, was a +3, took three shots, blocked one, and put up an obscene 77.42% Corsi-for. Needless to say, while this was a huge night for all the big three, not just the one.
3. Frederik Andersen might still be hurt
I’m not ready to panic just yet, but I wonder if Frederik Andersen is being a little too ambitious in coming back into the lineup in time for opening night. Sure, he wants to impress his new bosses and fans, but if you’re not ready to go, underwhelming ability will lose you more hearts than overwhelming resiliency will. Andersen, who separated his shoulder while playing for Denmark in an Olympic Qualifier, looked robotic at times and the top half of his body seemed to be lagging behind the play, which led to him spending a lot of time in the butterfly to make up for it.
This isn’t the Andersen that played for the Ducks. I’m not ready to say that the Leafs picked up a dud. But they might want to consider giving Enroth the time, calling up one of the kids to back up, and giving Andersen another week or two. That’s an opinion without knowing the extent of the situation, of course, but it’s still something to think about.
4. I’m concerned for Matt Hunwick
Look, everybody should know at this point that I’m not a huge hockey fan of Matt Hunwick. I don’t think he’s as bad as his critics believe them to be. But my idea of him being out of the lineup involves the Leafs playing their six best defencemen, not him suffering a catastrophic injury.
Unfortunately, we may have seen the latter last night. Chris Neil avoided a penalty on this play, which involved him driving Hunwick into the boards to the point where he was woozy and skated off with blood coming out of his forehead. It was immensely scary stuff, and the Leafs are referring to it as merely an “upper body injury” for now and dressing him in practice this afternoon. For the sake of his health first and foremost, I hope he takes his time to come back. Once he’s back, we can go back to hockey discussions about whether he should be there or not.
5. The defensive pairs might need another look
The big reason why Hunwick was in the lineup, to begin with, was because the Leafs opted to go with a lineup that involved Morgan Rielly playing on the right side. Coincidentally, his pairing with Martin Marincin had the worst team-relative possession numbers, and from an eyeball perspective, Marincin find himself getting skated around a ton while hanging back to make up for Rielly’s rushes. It wasn’t a pretty scene; and when you mix in the fact that the Leafs played 55 minutes while rotating five defencemen, things got worse.
If it’s my call, Frank Corrado comes in on Saturday, and the Leafs employ three Left/Right pairs of:
- Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev
- Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick
- Martin Marincin and Frank Corrado
6. That was a sign of things to come
The most shared quote of the night was Matthews taking responsibility for the overtime goal despite being asked about his four goals, mostly because of the whole “aw shucks, I’m a team player” crap that we all care too much about. But I think Mike Babcock put what we saw into perspective quite well:
“From my perspective, as the Leafs coach, that’s the best night I’ve had since I’ve been here, by ten miles”, said Babcock. “Not even close. Because now we have an opportunity.”
“I thought Marner in the first half of the game may have been our best player. I thought Nylander was great. I thought Hyman was great, I thought Brown was great, I thought Carrick was great, I thought Zaitsev was great.”
The Leafs came into the night with their next generation of talent looking to make an impression. They out-attempted their opponents by thirty, and the future core players all came up huge. If you play 82 games like that, you’re going to win a lot of them, especially if the goaltending concerns we all likely had end up being an anomaly. Can they maintain that level of control for a full season? That remains to be seen, but if nothing else, last night was a statement that this project has some high, high hopes, and a cast willing to achieve them.