Carey Price shuts the door on Nazem Kadri as he battles with Alexi Emelin in front of the net. Despite Kadri and the Maple Leafs' best efforts they couldn't find a way to beat Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL regular season home opener at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Toronto - October 8, 2015 - I said in my Season Preview article and on twitter leading up to the start of the season that the Leafs would try hard, and play technically sound hockey. In the end though, they would often be the worse team on the ice. Wednesday night as the NHL season kicked off, that is exactly what we got. The Leafs fell to the Canadiens 3-1, in what was one of the better losses in recent memory.
The Leafs dominated puck possession having 55% of the shot attempts throughout the game. Their zone exits and transition game was the best I’ve seen it in years. In the end though, all of these improvements could not replace the goal scoring of Phil Kessel, as the Leafs could not generate any points off of there strong possession play.
The start of the game saw the Leafs’ playing dominant hockey, and it would stay that way for most of the game. However they were the worse team on the ice, and the first shot for the Canadiens saw Bernier stop the Max Pacioretty shot, but have the rebound bounce over his shoulder and crawl across the goalline. A weak goal, on a play that should never have happened. Good technical play, squandered by a bad play. Get used to that that concept.
After Bernier allowed that weak goal the Leafs went right back to dominating puck possession and scoring opportunities. The only glaring issue in the first period, and the game for that matter, was Tyler Bozak. Bozak was invisible, and I mean that in a complete and total sense throughout the game. Bozak finished with this stat line: 0 points, 0 shot attempts, 0 hits, 0 giveaways, 0 takeaways, 0 blocked shots. He also lead the Leafs forwards with 19:03 in ice time. That’s atrocious, and inexcusable. I maintain that he held Phil Kessel back while he was in Toronto and that he needs to be a priority to trade. He’s got to go.
The second period saw the Leafs get even with a power play goal. Kadri won the offensive zone faceoff and the Leafs went right into a set play. Kadri took the puck back from a defenseman at the top of the circle and let the shot go. It hit Brad Boyes and then the right skate of James van Riemsdyk before finding the back of the net. It was the only 1 of the 37 shots the Leafs had on net that went in, and it took a double deflection for it to happen. Let me reiterate really quick, the Leafs will have troubles scoring this year. The quicker we accept that the better.
The second period also saw the first ever use of the coach’s challenge, and the first ever overturned goal because of a coach’s challenge. Petry scored for the Habs to put them up 2-1, but it appeared that the refs missed a goaltender interference call on the play. The Leafs’ challenged and it’s revealed that the stick of Tomas Plekanec had hit Bernier square in the neck before the shot was released, and the goal was overturned. The whole exchange took maybe 45 seconds to review and get the right call, so you can let go of the idea that the challenge will slow down play.
The Leafs continued to push the pace of play until the middle of the 3rd period, when off of a not so great Bernier rebound, Alex Galchenyuk put the Habs up 2-1. The Leafs would hang around but eventually Max Pacioretty would put one in the empty net to give us the final score of 3-1.
A couple thoughts to end on. Making sure Dion is only playing 20 minutes a night makes Dion a much better, much more effective defenseman. Him not being exhausted by the middle of the 3rd period allows him to be much more of a factor in late game scenarios. It should be noted that this was only really possible last night because of the strong play of Matt Hunwick, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner who all looked fantastic in the loss. Hunwick played 20:28 in his first game as a Leaf, Dion played 20:56, Rielly played 20:38, and Gardiner played 21:28. The ability to evenly distribute those minutes across 4 defensive players will keep them fresh and effective in Mike Babcock’s system.
Kadri also looked fantastic Wednesday night, he was physical, confidant, hungry. He looks like a man ready to take the next step and be a top line centre. They key to Kadri’s success this year will be how he responds to one of his main critiques, his consistency. If he can keep this level of play throughout the season then he will sign a nice big contract come seasons end. The key is to avoid what has plagued him in years past which is the mid season slump. I have hopes for Kadri this year. He looked like a different man on the ice.
If the Leafs can play like they did Wednesday night against the Habs all season long, I won’t mind if they don’t win a single game. They left it all out on the ice and simply got beat by the best goalie in the world. They out possessed the Canadiens, they out shot, they drove play for the entirety of the game and that has been what they’ve been missing. Winning will come in a few years when the skilled players like Nylander, Brown, Kapanen and Marner join the Leafs. For now the focus needs to be on how they play, how they train, how they prepare. And if that is the basis for grading this team’s performance, then on opening night they get an A+.
The Leafs play next on Friday night as Mike Babcock returns to the arena he called home for a decade, as the Leafs’ and Red Wings go head to head in Detroit.
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