The Good, The Dumb, and The Ovechkin Spot

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The Maple Leafs…started on time last night?! Is that allowed? Apparently it is, and they did. This is NOT a drill, people!.

Well, I suppose that’s progress, right? Auston Matthew showed up to play tonight with two high-quality goals and a brilliant back check(?!) to nullify a breakaway. Another positive is that the Leafs, including Matthews, responded to Washington’s (Tom Wilson, to be specific) antics by pushing back on a few occasions. That’s another positive.

In the end, a solid effort from Matthews and Nylander was not enough, as another lazy penalty gave Ovechkin the chance he needed, and he didn’t miss.

What can you say about William Nylander — other than he’s a stud. Nylander is a transition god, a skill which was evident against the Caps on Tuesday night, and his zone entries are something to behold. Now, he’s creating goals off the forecheck. Nylander didn’t get credit for an assist on either of the first two goals, but make no mistake, NEITHER goal happens without him.

It’s no secret that many in the Toronto media and fan base think he’s soft. I’m here to tell you, of the three young stars, Nylander is the most effective forechecker and the best defensively.

On the first goal, Nylander is F1 on the forecheck, hounds the defender, and forces the play that leads to the goal. He’s tight to the defender, takes away his time and space and forces a poor decision — picture-perfect forechecking. On the second goal, it’s his zone entry and carry around the net that leads to the play at the point where Barrie gets the shot-tip to Matthews.

On the third goal, Nylander gets a primary assist and it was quite the pass. Marner makes a great play to chip the puck down off the face-off and Nylander is patient, threading the puck through 2 defenders to Matthews. It’s a pass that he had almost no room to make, but his patience allowed the lane to open, he drew the attention to himself, and by the time the puck got to Matthews, it was a catch and release to the back of the net.

Quietly, Nylander has been very good for the Leafs this year, especially when others have not. He’s third among team forwards in Game Score/60, 1st in CF%, 3rd in xGF% and GF%, and first in penalty differential. Those are some really good underlying numbers and it’s good to see him playing a key role with Auston Matthews.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Tom Wilson laid some questionable hits tonight. In the first period, he took a healthy run at Muzzin and as you can see in the gif, gets his knee up on him.

Generally, I would give a player the benefit of the doubt here. But considering that Wilson was suspended for *checks* SIXTEEN games last season, he has officially lost that privilege. If Wilson goes right through, the hit is within the acceptable time after the puck is gone and play carries on. Instead, his elbow goes behind Muzzin’s head, which means it was way too high — shocking, again, absolutely no one. Then his knee raises to where his foot comes off the ice and it subsequently drives right into Muzzin’s thigh.

Muzzin left and didn’t return.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in the third period, Wilson takes three full strides after Barrie has moved the puck and hits him. Three. Full. Strides. It was also about 1.5 seconds, too. Wilson received a charging penalty for the hit, and rightfully so. Barrie tries to duck, and because he ducks, Wilson charges into his leg, again at full speed.

Barrie was slow to get up and it wouldn’t surprise if he feels a little worse for wear the next few days.

Here’s the deal with Wilson: are either of those hits suspendable? No, not really. However, two hits in the same game that have elements of ‘dirty’ in them probably warrant some type of idiot tax for this kind of repeat offender.

The NHL doesn’t operate like this, but you’d have to think the Department of Player Safety is paying attention to this kind of thing. To me, I’d like to see a cumulative ‘Idiot Tax’ imposed to repeat offenders like Wilson. Maybe it doesn’t result in a suspension, but make it fine.

On the power play where they needed to send a message, the Leafs did. The team was downright awful on the power play in the first two periods and it resulted in the Leafs getting boo’d by their home crowd. And rightfully so, to be fair, as the top PP unit couldn’t seem to get zone control.

However, the way you send a message when Wilson takes a dumb charging penalty against Barrie is that you score on the power play — immediately and without hesitation. Marner makes the play to get the puck to Nylander, Nylander threads the puck through to Matthews, and Matthews wires it by Holtby’s ear.

The other 7 power-play opportunities were…not impressive. The Leafs struggled to recover pucks after shots, and of note, their zone entries were really poor, which is a growing trend this season. Teams have started to hang a penalty killer behind Rielly to re-attack Matthews or Marner when the drop pass is made. This results in a trap neutral zone situation, which impedes the Leafs’ ability to attack the offensive zone with speed or any organization. It becomes disconnected and that allows the penalty killers to step up on the entry and take advantage of the lack of speed.

The Leafs did make an in-zone adjustment last night, though, moving Matthews and Marner back to their strong sides. This allows the puck play along the boards to be stronger, which led to the Leafs PP goal. Matthews is going to be dangerous from wherever he shoots. Marner is more dangerous on his strong side where he can make plays to the net or cross-ice.

I’m sure Paul McFarland is looking at many options, but I think having Nylander on PP1 for his ability to enter the zone is something that needs evaluation. Load up PP1 with Nylander (net front), Matthews and Marner on the flanks, Tavares in the middle and Rielly or Barrie at the point. Let that unit play for 90 seconds and see what happens.

Mitch Marner has been a bit better the past few games. He created tons last night, set up his teammates consistently and was good in transition. Marner also took a lazy, unnecessary penalty that led to the Caps scoring a PP goal in OT and winning the game.

Call me crazy, but if a team is going to significantly alter their cap structure to overpay you, you probably shouldn’t be costing them multiple games with lazy, nonchalant play.

Let’s talk about the good things, though. Marner was all over the ice tonight. He looked much better in transition, using his speed through the neutral zone to attack the Caps defence. This created space for his linemates and scoring chances for the Leafs. On the power play, I would’ve liked him to shoot it more — it would make him a dual-threat. However, Marner did make the neat play to get the puck to Nylander for the PP goal.

This is a step in the right direction for Marner, and more along the lines of what one would expect for 10.893 million dollars a year.

The fact that I can remember and vividly recall two games in the past two weeks where Marner has specifically cost the Leafs points with his play is really concerning.

Against Columbus, he had a level of nonchalance that would be appropriate for beer league and nothing more. Against Washington, he made a solid play on the PK to create an offensive rush. Coming back, he didn’t take a stride after he crossed his own blue line to try and catch John Carlson. Instead, he was gliding and tried to lift the stick. Considering how Carlson was skating and Marner was gliding, Marner was too slow and caught Carlson with a high stick. Honestly, the stick lift attempt was so weak that it probably wouldn’t have had much of an impact even if it did make contact.

For all of Marner’s special skills, not taking 2-3 strides to avoid taking a lazy penalty in overtime is unacceptable. Nevermind his contract, I expect more from a player who wears a letter on his chest. If your leaders are doing that, it’s a license for others too, and that will drive coaches and fans nuts.

On Tuesday morning, quotes surfaced out of the Caps locker room in which Ovechkin, rightfully, said that the Leafs need to learn to play for something bigger than themselves if they want to win. For a good chunk of his career, this was a very accurate criticism of Ovechkin. It wasn’t until he played for something greater than himself that he hoisted the Cup.

While the Leafs would be annoyed with the comments, they are entirely accurate.

Let’s start with a fun stat: Alex Ovechkin has played Toronto 50 times throughout his NHL career. In those 50 games, Alex Ovechkin has 41(!) goals. That is a whopping 0.82 goals per game pace for those of you scoring at home. This player has haunted the Leafs throughout his entire career and I can vividly recall being in the building for a hat trick.

On the day he called out the Leafs, you just knew he was going to back it up. His stat line at the end of the night? 2 goals, including the game-winner, and 2 assists. That, my friends, is what we call putting your money where your mouth is.

Because the Leafs have to lose in the most Leafs fashion ever, the game-winner was a power-play goal from the Ovechkin spot. As if it could’ve been anything else. No one is going to remember that John Carlson had two goals on the night. Nope. What everyone will recall instead is that Ovechkin came in, called the Leafs out publicly, and proceeded to back it up with four points.

The Leafs have not figured out a way to stop Ovechkin. Most of the league hasn’t, to be fair, but for whatever reason, it is always the Ovechkin show when the Leafs and Caps play, and it was much the same this time.

There are a ton of positives to take from the game.

Nylander – terrific. Matthews scored twice, had a really solid defensive play, and showed he was not going to be pushed around in the third period. The Leafs started on time for a change. Credit where it’s due, Cody Ceci did a terrific job on the penalty kill in overtime.

Considering the Leafs played most of the game without Muzzin, who is a big loss if its any length of time, the D core did a respectable job. To no one’s surprise, Tom Wilson is still a dirty hockey player. There was a lot of positive signs tonight, but there were still a lot of mistakes that need cleaning up. Nonetheless, the Leafs took some positive steps and that’s something to appreciate.