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Report Cards: Toronto Maple Leafs overcome slow start, bounce back in win over Ottawa – Maple Leafs Hot Stove



Trap game – literally.

After coming out of the gates at a snail’s pace, Toronto started to turn things around in the second period and really kicked things into gear by the third period. That’s obviously not the way they drew things up, especially following their 5-1 collapse on Monday night, but the Leafs were able to come out of this game with two points, defeating the Senators by a final score of 2-1.

Ottawa’s 1-3-1 neutral zone trap, not as much of a factor in Monday’s game that was full of goals and momentum swings, seemed to throw Toronto off guard early in the game as the Senators executed well within their structure. Then again, that’s something they’ll need to learn how to get past. Coaches have been trying to trap up high-skill teams for decades. It’s nothing new.

The Leafs found a way eventually, although it definitely wasn’t their strongest performance of the year. To break things down in a bit more detail, let’s assess each player’s individual performance by diving into the report cards!

5/5 Stars

Game Puck: The Leafsactual 1st Pairing — By this, of course I mean Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. They’ve consistently tilted the ice in their team’s favour better than the Rielly-Brodie pairing despite facing similar competition.

That’s in large part because of both players’ gap control in transition; Muzzin and Holl don’t give opposing forwards any room when they’re trying to slice through the neutral zone. That’s why Muzzin-Holl were on the ice to defend Tim Stuzle & company in the dying minutes – they don’t allow many rush chances against.

Let’s not forget that both defensemen were able to produce offense tonight by consciously looking to set up their team’s best scorer:

It turns out passing the puck to Auston Matthews is still a good idea.

Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — The way he occupies space at the bottom of the offensive zone is really interesting to watch. Thornton reminds me of a low-post player in the NBA with the way he uses his size and long reach to keep opposing players on his back (or butt) while he surveys the defense and looks for the next pass.

By giving his teammates an easy passing option behind the net, Toronto was able to live in the offensive zone when Thornton was on the ice, constantly cycling the puck down low to him behind the goal-line. At one point, that line had Ottawa hemmed in their own end for over two minutes, eventually resulting in a drawn penalty by Thornton.

He was also able to sneak his way out front for what appeared to be a goal.

Back when I used to referee youth hockey, I remember being in meetings where it was explained that the play ends when the official “intends” to blow the whistle. Believe me, it’s not fun explaining that one to coaches.

Preaching to the choir here, Mike. Fun fact: Thornton had another goal waived off because of a high stick. The hockey gods just weren’t with him tonight, and yet he was the one at the front of the net creating the havoc that led to the game-winning goal by Alex Kerfoot.

Auston Matthews (C, #34) — We’re starting to hold Matthews to such a high standard that it’s becoming difficult to look for ways to him improve. He’s winning almost every puck battle this season and dictating play in transition. As you saw in the Muzzin-Holl section, Matthews was able to score another goal with his patented one-timer, putting him on pace to score a staggering 50 goals in 55 games.

If we are going to nit-pick, though, there was one specific backcheck where Matthews was late to recognize he was the 3rd forward (F3) who was supposed to be covering for Holl.

Matthews has now officially scored on every NHL team.

4/5 Stars

Frederik Andersen (G, #31) — After Monday night’s debacle, it was nice to see Andersen bounce back with one of his stronger performances of the season. The team in front of him did a pretty good job at limiting high-quality shots, but you still need to makes the saves. Andersen did that tonight, at least on 27 of the 28 shots he faced. He needed to be sharp early to help the Leafs settle in and came up big there.

Jason Spezza (RW, #19) — His composure with the puck really stood out to me last season, especially right after the coaching chance. In Keefe’s system, puck possession is highly prioritized, which fits in well with Spezza’s patient approach to buildup play.

By taking a calculated risk in his own end, Spezza gets rewarded with a rush opportunity at the other end.

It’s also worth noting that Spezza took a few shifts with Matthews-Marner tonight, which looked pretty good. It was a creative way to maximize the team’s chances of winning the faceoff on the right side of the ice.

You don’t want Thornton playing as many minutes as Toronto’s big guns, so why not spell in a Spezza or Hyman every now on then?

Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — He was flying tonight. Kerfoot’s always been a fast skater, but he’s struggled this season to create dangerous opportunities off the rush.

That wasn’t the case on Wednesday night. Kerfoot was transitioning the puck from defense to offense with his legs, but more importantly, connecting on that next pass through the middle of the ice.  It’s too bad Pierre Engvall insisted on whiffing on those chances.

As luck would have it, a Muzzin point-shot landed right in front of Kerfoot later in the game, where he was able to bury the eventual game winner.

Sometimes you need a bit of luck to get you going offensively. Here’s hoping that’s the case with Kerfoot, although his linemate quality doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence.

3/5 Stars

The Tavares-Nylander Line — Better is the way I would describe them tonight. I still think there’s another level Toronto’s second line can hit offensively. Then again, once Tavares’ shooting percentage regresses back up to where it should be, I’m sure we’ll stop hearing so many complaints about the Tavares-Nylander combo.

Something tells me Tavares isn’t going to keep shooting three percent all season.

When it comes to Nylander, part of me doesn’t even want to address some of the criticism that comes his way – I prefer sharing high-quality work in this field. Then again, it has made me realize that there’s always going to be a large portion of this fanbase who doesn’t value Nylander.

Just remember that when we’re assessing his value defensively, he defends the rush better than Rielly.

The Leafs got the puck back on this play, which tends to happen when #88 is on the ice.

Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — I saw quite a bit of disagreement online with respect to Marner’s play tonight. Early on, I thought he was fantastic at picking off passes and creating some kind of dangerous chance off of the turnover. Marner was also great on the backcheck, turning a couple odd-man rushes into even-man rushes, which really helps stack the deck in your goaltender’s favour.

As the game went on, he seemed to be a bit off in his passes. There were times he had Matthews open in a good spot and he’d miss him by a few inches, sometimes even a few feet. For someone who makes a living off of those passes, you’d like to see Marner look a bit sharper in that regard.

Travis Boyd (C, #72) — Despite his 46 percent shot share (CF%) at even strength this season, I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Boyd as a passer.

That said, I’m not sure if playing bumper on the power play is the right role for him. He turned the puck over the one time he touched the puck on an entry attempt. When the 5v4 unit got set up in the offensive zone, Ottawa’s penalty killers essentially ignored Boyd (and Thornton), sending their forwards to pressure Matthews & Marner on the half-wall. It really disrupted them, making me think that unit needs more of a shot threat in the middle of the ice.

I wonder what Nick Robertson would look like in that spot.

2/5 Stars

The Dermott-Bogosian Pairing — I don’t want to spill too much ink evaluating Zach Bogosian tonight, since we all pretty much know what type of defenseman he is at this point. With Travis Dermott, he seems to be playing with a lot more confidence lately.

It’s probably what made him think this was a good idea.

It wasn’t.

I love it when Dermott uses his skating to make dynamic plays in transition, but it’s worth noting his zone entry numbers have never been as strong as his zone exit numbers. This means he’s had a much easier time getting out of his defensive zone with possession than he does getting into the offensive zone with possession.

After crossing center ice, I’d be looking to defer more to my talented forwards if I were Dermott.

TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — We’ll discuss his defense partner in detail at the end. For now, I’d like to quickly bring up Brodie’s play on the power play. I don’t love it. We’ve seen Mikko Lehtonen or even Rasmus Sandin last season quarterback the second unit with much more confidence walking the line.

The Leafs don’t have many other great options to put there (Dermott? Muzzin?), especially when they’re only playing six defensemen, but it’s reaching the point where there’s a noticeable drop-off in quality between the Rielly unit and Brodie unit, at least to my eye test.

The Long Lanky Wingers — We’re going to group Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev together here, since they both played a similar role on the third line tonight. That role was to apply pressure defensively and provide next to nothing offensively. Engvall had a couple Kerfoot passes hit him on the tape in the slot, but he couldn’t connect on the one-timer right away, which allowed Ottawa’s goaltender to get across in time to make the save.

We’re also going to throw Jimmy Vesey in this section because he had the same kind of night. I’ve actually liked him a lot more defensively than I expected to; he has a knack for getting his stick in the passing lanes. The issue is that he’s still isn’t generating much of anything offensively.

1/5 Stars

Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — I think a few of us need to take a good look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we’re evaluating defensemen in the year 2021.

Rielly’s speed allows him to jump up into the play and create offensive opportunities for his team, but when you consider how much he gives up the other way, you start to wonder if the risk is worth the reward at times.

This is one isolated play, but it’s representative of a larger problem. Rielly has always allowed more shots and scoring chances against than his peers defensively. The Senators’ best chance to tie it in the final five minutes also came on a play where Rielly took himself out of position inside the defensive zone and a pass went through him.

Maybe we all need to accept Morgan Rielly for what he is: a fourth forward. That can have a lot of value when you desperately need to score a goal. If we’re talking about his 200-foot impact on winning, though, I think it’s fair to say that Leafs fans have overrated Rielly’s impact at 5-on-5 for a while now.

Heat Map

Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

Toronto got pretty badly outshot at even strength, with Ottawa controlling 58 percent of the shots. It is worth noting the expected goals had them at 50-50.

Game Score

Game score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to measure single game performance. You can read more about it here.

Final Grade: B

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Maple Leafs raise the standard with defensive dismantling of Oilers –



When an injury forced Auston Matthews to miss the first two games of this statement-sending series in Edmonton, Sheldon Keefe reminded his players that they were essentially losing a goal per night from the lineup.

Rather than focusing on where else they might look for it, he wanted the Toronto Maple Leafs to play like they had one less to allow a high-octane opponent and they responded by pitching back-to-back shutouts against the Oilers.

It was natural to wonder, then, if some of the gains might be lost when Matthews returned Wednesday. That subconsciously or not, his presence might see the team loosen the noose they’d strung around their closest pursuant in the North Division standings by cheating for offence or having players down the lineup start deferring to the league’s most lethal scorer.

That’s why the 6-1 dismantling was even more impressive than the victories that came before it at Rogers Place

The Leafs didn’t even need their customary goal from Matthews, who was stymied despite producing a game-high seven shots and 10 attempts. They regained a superstar and just kept on working to keep the puck from getting anywhere near their own net.

“I think the three games here is a good example that we [can] score a lot and still [not want] to give up anything. We’re not just satisfied with leads and winning a couple games,” said goaltender Frederik Andersen, who made 26 saves in his own return from injury.

“We want to keep suffocating them and not really give them anything really. Yeah, show how good we can be for 60 minutes every night.”

You might need a VHS player to find the last time a Leafs team played three better games in a row. Granted, the bar hasn’t been set too high for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004 or played for a Stanley Cup since the last time it won one in 1967.

They are now off to the best start in franchise history with 18 wins and 38 points through 24 games, but something changed during five days in Edmonton. This group raised the standard. Not only did they outscore the Oilers 13-1 while playing two games without Matthews, they did it by giving Jack Campbell, Michael Hutchinson and Andersen each a start in net.

“Three different goalies,” said Matthews. “Three phenomenal games.”

“To win three games like that so decisively, I think it’s a real step of growth for our team,” said fourth-liner Jimmy Vesey, who broke a personal 17-game drought by scoring twice on Wednesday night.

The Leafs boarded a flight to Vancouver for Thursday’s quick turnaround game sitting atop the NHL in points percentage (.792), wins (18), regulation wins (16) and goals per game (3.63). More impressively, they were fourth overall in goals against per game (2.33) and sixth in shots allowed per game (28.6).

All of that talk on Day 1 of training camp about defending the net-front area more fiercely and cutting back on the rush chances against has turned out to be much more than just talk.

“There’s still room for improvement, but I think we’ve definitely made some pretty huge strides from last year into this year,” said Matthews. “That’s obviously positive and I think we’re realizing what it really takes to win and that’s going to be playing well on the defensive side of the puck for us to really break through and play a long time in playoff time.”

The Oilers entered the series with wins in 11 of 13 games and left it looking crushed. They simply had no answers.

Connor McDavid, the sport’s most gifted offensive weapon, failed to register a point in any of the three games. That’s only the third time in his entire NHL career he’s been held without one for three consecutive games.

He saw a steady diet of the Jake Muzzin-Justin Holl defensive pairing and was completely nullified in Wednesday’s finale with just one shot on goal. It didn’t help that Edmonton failed to get a power-play opportunity in the game and had only four in the entire series.

“We knew coming in we were playing against a very good team that was as hot or hotter than any team in the NHL and coming in with lots of confidence, so for us to get results like this is a really good and healthy sign,” said Keefe.

Toronto breaks an opponent’s spirit in a way not captured by shot metrics like Corsi. They have the puck all the time but are content to reload on zone entries and offensive zone shifts rather than just firing low-percentage attempts all night long.

The stat that might best encapsulate what happened during this series in Edmonton is an old-school one which probably would have been held against the Leafs once upon a time: They were outhit 105-58 because the Oilers were in pursuit for most of 180 minutes.

This was an entire team effort.

As I highlighted earlier this week, Kyle Dubas has done an excellent job of balancing his top-heavy salary cap chart with depth players vastly outperforming their pay cheques.

Vesey has been the only off-season signing yet to really bear fruit and even he’s up to four even-strength goals after the two he potted Wednesday. Jason Spezza picked up three assists and now has 15 points on the season — a total that would currently lead a handful of NHL teams.

But this 18-4-2 squad isn’t now earning buzz as a bonafide Stanley Cup contender because of the dazzling offence it produces. That’s not new. What they did in Edmonton is make it look like only one team on the ice was a constant threat to score.

“I think we’re starting to understand what it feels like when we play good defence and we’re able to replicate it a few games in a row here,” said Spezza. “That’s a good sign for our team. We’ll just keep building and moving forward.”

If they can build on this, the sky’s the limit.

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10 things: COVID-wrecked Raptors completely fall apart against Pistons – Yahoo Canada Sports



Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 129-105 loss to the Detroit Pistons.

One — Yikes: The Raptors were not prepared to play this game, which is understandable with at least a dozen members of the organization in COVID-19 protocol. But to be outplayed to this extent by the Detroit Pistons, who were also without several starters, is unacceptable. The Pistons don’t even have the likes of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby to miss in the first place, so there really isn’t an excuse to not at least compete. This is the worst defensive effort by the Raptors stretching back a decade, and that’s not even hyperbole.

Two — Flat: The Pistons scored 43 points in the first quarter, making 16 field goals and every single basket was assisted. The Raptors actually took a 10-3 lead to start which prompted a quick timeout from Dwane Casey, and the Pistons were nowhere to be seen from that point onward. It was the 73-win Golden State Warriors the rest of the way, with Wayne Ellington playing the role of Stephen Curry, and Svi Mykhailiuk as Klay Thompson, and Mason Plumlee as a more bruising version of Draymond Green. The Raptors, meanwhile, looked like the Pistons.

Three — Mistakes: The Raptors should submit tape of this game to the Basketball Hall of Fame because every coach at every level should show this game as an example of what not to do on defense. Name any mistake, and the Raptors made it. Leaving shooters wide open? Yes. Two players rotating to the same man without communicating? Yes. Giving up open driving lanes for no reason whatsoever? Yes. Doubling the post against a pass-first, score-never center? Yes. Failing to box out and giving up four offensive rebounds on the same play?

Yes. Not giving any effort to defend in transition? Yes. Reaching in at half court when your team is in the bonus? Yes, again. Even high school players would be scolded for the mistakes that the Raptors made, and at no point did they even come close to stringing together three competent possessions.

Four — Worst: The worst offender on the night was Terence Davis, who turned a rare opportunity to start into a showcase as to why he’s normally benched. Davis was a trainwreck on both ends. Offensively, he forced contested shots that were either bricked jumpers, or wild drives that left him on the floor and unable to get back. Defensively, he kept losing Ellington in rotation and was just straight-up guessing on his rotations, which left his teammates completely out to dry. Davis was even committing lane violations, which just speaks to a lack of concentration. He’s making it up as he goes and almost never has a game plan for what he’s about to do.

Five — Empty: The Raptors also turned to Yuta Watanabe for his first career start, and although he wasn’t actively destructive like Davis, it was still glaringly obvious that Watanabe just wasn’t doing anything. Watanabe is an energy player who is the fifth option regardless of who else is on the floor, and energy players can’t be invisible, because all that’s left to notice is him missing open jumpers or botching a transition layup. Watanabe can be an effective glue player, but there was nothing to be held together tonight.

Six — Silent: The reserves weren’t any better, and were utterly demolished by the Pistons’ reserves. Even the most hardcore NBA fans couldn’t identify Pistons reserve Saben Lee, but now the Raptors will know him as a Chris Paul impersonator, because that’s how badly he torched them. The entire second unit for the Raptors was a drag, as Chris Boucher couldn’t defend a lick at the basket, while the rest of them couldn’t score if their careers depended on it. Matt Thomas broke free at the end for a few jumpers, but he missed every look that actually mattered, and was so porous on defense that career journeyman Rodney McGruder zoomed past him like a Ferrari on Highway 407.

Seven — Wasted: Norman Powell did his best to keep the Raptors alive. He scored at will to start and finished with 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting with five threes. Powell reached deep into his bag to keep pace with the Pistons, including hitting a rare turnaround jumper out of the post, but he couldn’t do it on his own. The Pistons were more physical with Powell in the second half, and oriented most of their help defenders toward cutting off his drives, and yet he was still able to break free. He just ran out of gas in the end, and really, there was no more point in chasing the game. The game cannot be won by one man.

Eight — Valiant: Kyle Lowry tried to support Powell every step of the way. He nailed a handful of pull-up jumpers, baited his way into free throws, set up Aron Baynes for rolling dunks, took a charge in transition, and he even passed up open shots in an effort to get his teammates going. But there is only so much Lowry can do, especially when he was tiring by the third quarter, and at some point his teammates need to match his effort. Lowry can do a lot with very little, but even very little was beyond most of the Raptors tonight.

Nine — Tricks: Acting coach Sergio Scariolo left no page unturned in Nick Nurse’s playbook. He shifted into zone defenses, deploying a triangle-and-two on the Pistons (really, it was that bad) and calling upon every player on the roster who wasn’t a G-League call-up, but nobody answered outside of Lowry and Powell. It’s hard to fault Scariolo for this, as everyone is just trying to do their best. The Raptors were off for several days, then had to call a rare evening practice on Tuesday with Jalen Harris and Donta Hall crashing in last minute, and this was the result.

Ten — Schadenfreude: It’s been three years since the Raptors dismissed Dwane Casey and replaced him with his assistant, and while time heals all wounds, there might always be some bitterness. Casey issued a coach’s challenge on Boucher’s drive with four minutes left and his team comfortably leading by 22, which dragged out a game that was decidedly finished regardless of the review. The Pistons have really relished playing against the Raptors over the past few years, and honestly, it’s good that the players respond so strongly to their coach. Casey is a good man and an energetic coach, and it’s really too bad that he’s stuck in a rebuild.

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Jays’ young arms give glimpse of future, Kluber shows what might have been –



TORONTO – As Corey Kluber gave the Toronto Blue Jays a glimpse of what might have been in the present, top pitching prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Alek Manoah offered them an intriguing look at what might lie ahead in the future.

The juxtaposition between the two was front and centre in Wednesday night’s 4-1 Grapefruit League victory by the New York Yankees.

Kluber, the two-time Cy Young Award winner working his way back after consecutive seasons lost to injury, was an off-season target for the Blue Jays before he signed with the Yankees on a one-year, $11-million deal — a high-risk, high-reward add with the potential to impact the AL East landscape.

He struck out three batters over two perfect innings that he described as “pretty solid” afterward, pleased primarily to be getting game-reps in a competitive setting, while adding “obviously it was a bonus that it went well.”

That the outing came against an opponent that represented a path not taken over the winter didn’t seem to matter to the 34-year-old, who didn’t offer much about the level of consideration he gave to the Blue Jays.

“Any of the teams that were interested in me, I (don’t think) I closed the book on them by any means,” he said. “I listened to everybody and tried to gather all the information we could and came to the decision we did in the end. I don’t think that changes the way I would have approached tonight, whether they would or would not have been interested this off-season. Either way, you only play for one team and the other 29 of them are the opponents, so trying to go out there and do the best I can for my team and my teammates.”

The same went for Woods Richardson and Manoah on that latter part.

Even though neither has pitched above A-ball, both promising right-handers have fast-track repertoires, displayed over a combined four innings of one-hit, one-walk work against a regular-season-quality lineup.

Woods Richardson, a 20-year-old who served as part of the return for Marcus Stroman, got the start and as he listened to the Yankees lineup being announced – D.J. LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez, Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich – it struck him that, “they’re actually in the box, you’re not watching guys on TV no more, you’re actually facing them.”

Quickly he reset, throwing mostly a four-seamer that averaged 92.7 m.p.h. and topped out at 94.6, and a curveball that generated two whiffs, including a third strike on Stanton in the second. Not bad for his Grapefruit League debut.

“It was just don’t try to do too much and be myself on the mound, you know?” Woods Richardson said of his self-talk as he took the field. “You might have seen me head-bobbing and shaking my head. It was just trying to be myself as much as possible and be as comfortable as possible. And yet, even though the adrenaline is coming in, anticipation of the game is coming, I still had to take a deep breath, get on the mound, attack the strike zone and just be myself.”

Manoah, the 23-year-old first-rounder in 2019, picked up right from there.

After Bruce’s single to lead off the third, Manoah struck out Dietrich on a 97.8 m.p.h. fastball that was his hardest of the outing (he averaged 96.8) and then induced a LeMahieu double play. Manoah opened the fourth by hitting Judge, but then struck out the side by catching Hicks looking at a slider, freezing Stanton with a sinker and getting Torres on a slider in the dirt.

It was big boy stuff, something Manoah said he was prepared for after the Blue Jays “threw me into the sharks” during live batting practice by pitting him against George Springer, Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette and Rowdy Tellez.

“For me, that was a really exciting moment to be able to throw against a Silver Slugger, MVP finalist and guys who played in some big games,” he said. “When I went into that outing I was extremely amped up. The location of my pitches wasn’t as great. So tonight going in, I was able to use some of that adversity and some of that experience and, ‘Hey, we’re going to face a good lineup tonight, but stay within yourself, your stuff is good, your stuff plays, go out there and just compete, man. Just have a good time and whatever happens, happens. … That was the headspace.”

Similarly impressive is how both young pitchers weren’t content to simply soak in the atmosphere, instead trying to leverage every bit of the opportunity before them.

Even before taking the mound, Manoah closely watched the Yankees hitters, “looking for tendencies.”

“Are guys watching the ball all the way into the mitt? Are they swinging at first pitches? Are they biting on sliders? What what kind of approach are they having?” he continued. “That kind of will tell me how the day is going to go for me. If I got guys that are going to swing at first pitches, hey, we’re going to throw that sinker in there and let’s get some ground balls. If we’ve got guys [who] are going to spit a little bit, hey let’s get more of the plate, let’s get them in a count where we’ve got them handcuffed a little bit, 1-2, 0-2.”

Woods Richardson also made a point of watching Kluber dice up the Blue Jays, focusing on the way “he attacked the zone and the way he could (use) his pitch selection to control the strike zone, and get guys to miss, and just to see how a former Cy Young winner operates. It was cool to match up against him for my first outing.”

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