Peter Horachek stands behind the Maple Leafs bench for the first time as Head Coach. The Leafs would fail to get the win in Horachek's debut despite showing improvement in a lot of areas.
Toronto - January 7, 2015 - The beginning of the Horachek era in Toronto didn’t go as the Leafs would have prefered, as they fell to Washington 6-2, in what was an ironic game for Toronto. The Leafs outshot Washington 33-26. They had 10 more scoring chances than the Capitals and won the possession battle. In the end they got beat by a team who had better goaltending, made the best of their shots on net and also got some favorable bounces. Did Randy Carlyle become the coach of the Washington Capitals yesterday? It was a bad loss, but the Leafs gave us some glimpses of what could be coming, and its not bad.
Change takes time. Horachek has not had the opportunity to implement his own systems, and just because the coach was fired does not mean the players will completely turn their game around either. This will be a process for Toronto, and not a short one either. Before I get into why the Leafs showed promise in their 6-2 loss, lets recap the game.
In the first period the Leafs looked very tense. They were missing easy passes and looked shaky. The most noticeable change out of the gate for Toronto was the starting three forwards, Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel, and Daniel Winnik. Despite the lineup changes, the Leafs still surrendered the first goal as Johansson beat Bernier at 5:10 of the first period. Also worth noting, Roman Polak took a slap shot just above his mouth in the first period, however he did return in the second period. Mind you, he looked significantly worse for wear. The Caps went into the intermission leading 1-0.
The second period epitomised the game for the Leafs. It started with the Kadri-Kessel-Winnik experiment paying dividends as Winnik tipped a Franson point shot past Holtby to tie the game at 1. Washington countered short handed a few minutes later when Morgan Rielly stranded his defence partner on a bad change. Then just minutes after Washington had made it 2-1, the Leafs were struck by bad luck. After a faceoff to the left of Bernier, a puck was floated on net by Leich of the Capitals. The puck took a blind deflection off of Cody Franson and eluded Bernier to make it 3-1. The Leafs would make a push to start a comeback as Trevor Smith scored his first with 16:08 left in the 2nd, but that was promptly squashed as Washington scored 42 seconds later. It should be noted that Roman Polak got an assist on Smith’s goal, as he had just returned from getting stitches and presumably his whole face frozen after taking that puck to the mouth. The period ended with Washington up 4-2.
The third was not much different. A great shot by Fehr to make it 5-2, followed by an Ovechkin empty net goal and you get your final score of 6-2. It was a game to forget, and frankly it was not a surprise outcome given the circus that has been the Air Canada Centre for the last few days. Allow me however to explain why I feel this was a strong showing for Peter Horachek in his debut as the Leafs’ bench boss. To best explain this I’m going to differentiate between long term trends, and short term trends. Think climate vs weather.
The climate for the Leafs under Carlyle was high totals for shots against, low possession numbers and a stubborn attitude towards his lineups. Yes the weather at times was great, streaks with lots of goals, high scoring games, and phenomenal goaltending performances. However sometimes the weather was awful. 9-2 against Nashville and 6-2 against Buffalo are prime examples of that. Horachek appears to be intent on changing the climate. It doesn’t mean there won’t be bad weather, but I anticipate it being more moderate.
There were only 4 players on the Leafs roster who put up possession numbers under 50%, and for the first time this season the Leafs as a team had a Corsi percentage over 50% at 52%. Every Leafs defenseman had a Corsi For percentage over 50%, and eight players had a Corsi For percentage over 60%. Not to mention it was arguably Tyler Bozak’s best game in terms of his advanced analytics. On top of all the improvements in the numbers the thing I liked the most about the game was Horachek’s willingness to throw the lines in the blender. Kessel played with Kadri, Santorelli and Bozak as his centres throughout the night. Kadri also saw a number of different looks, but saw substantial time with Clarkson and Komarov after being caught out of position on the fourth Washington goal. Horachek does not appear to be biased in who he puts on the ice, he just wants the best possible combinations out there.
One thing he does need to change is the fact that David Clarkson is still on the power play as Clarkson currently ranks 338th in the NHL for power play points. Seriously, fix that immediately.
That being said there is still a lot I liked about the Leafs game against Washington. I really liked how Richard Panik looked. Morgan Rielly continues to demonstrate the potential for elite offensive production as a defenseman, and all of this is happening without Joffrey Lupul and Peter Holland in the lineup. If Horachek is committed to changing the climate in Toronto, and not just the weather the Leafs could find themselves in a playoff spot come seasons end. The Leafs next game comes Friday night against Columbus in Toronto.
Stats courtousy of http://war-on-ice.com/, http://hockeystats.ca/, http://www.nhl.com/, and @statssundin on twitter