The Toronto Maple Leafs avoided having to take a long, collective look in the mirror before boarding the team plane to Montreal. Only barely.
Despite a second consecutive blown multi-goal lead in the third period on home ice this week, the Maple Leafs pulled out a 5-4 victory in overtime over the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night. Jack Campbell earned the victory in his debut in the blue and white, while John Tavares converted his second power-play goal of the game with just six seconds left in overtime.
Auston Matthews scored his 40th of the season, but the spoils should have belonged to Jason Spezza, who scored a fantastic goal late in regulation before the Ducks equalized with their net empty.
Toronto will visit the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night, with no determination made yet on who will start in goal.
Until then, four points:
There was no shortage of distractions for Jack Campbell in his first start with the blue and white. He voluntarily owned up to dealing with some serious nerves before the game and into the first period, and even said he caught himself lapsing in and out of concentration mid-game while appreciating the uber skill the Leafs can play with in front of him.
But what bugged him most about the debut, certainly, were the four goals he allowed in the win. He vowed to be better in another candid and, honestly, charming session with the media.
Through it, though, what Campbell did provide is the effort and performance desired from a backup. He made several tough saves early to help the Leafs jump out to one lead, and then another. He held firm when the Ducks tilted the ice early in the second and into the third period. And by the time the structure was outright failing in front of him late, he battled out there.
It’s hard to heap too much praise on a netminder that allowed four goals on 30 shots, but what was apparent throughout, and later affirmed by the captain, was that Campbell demonstrated a certain measure of composure when everything else seemed to be compromised.
That was something the Leafs weren’t getting from their backup before.
Yeah, he can clean up a few things, as he mentioned. But it’s the entire system that needs far more fine-tuning.
Also debuting was Kyle Clifford, the recipient of the game ball which the Leafs award to the player of the game. It’s a worthy and understandable choice, honestly, if part of the criteria is warmup conduct.
Clifford took a sizeable step toward his destined cult status in Toronto by emerging from the tunnel without a helmet for his pre-game spin. He’s the first Leaf in many seasons to go No Buckie, mostly because it’s believed to be a rule in the Leafs organization.
Auston Matthews called Clifford’s no-bucket warmup a “power move.”
Clifford laughed, “I don’t know, do they have a rule here?”
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) February 8, 2020
It is very well possible that he missed the memo, but is there anyone in the organization that’s going to tell him to strap it up for warmups?
We shall see.
It cashed in twice and was, in the end, the difference in the game, but the Maple Leafs’ power play was truly awful versus Anaheim. Keefe briefly touched on the reason why, explaining that the Ducks use effective aggressiveness in order to stifle opponents. But in this one, the Leafs were especially inept, particularly on a length five-on-three opportunity, failing with everything they attempting to engineer.
For Leafs fans, thankfully it wasn’t all deliberate.
After wasting that five-on-three, and continuing to unsuccessfully open up shooting lanes by passing it around the perimeter, it finally broke down completely, and then broke in favour of the Leafs.
— NHL (@NHL) February 8, 2020
There has to be something to learn from this. Obviously welcoming scrambles for possession is not a worthwhile strategy moving forward, but neither is waiting, waiting, and waiting on the perfect seam pass to open up a one-time blast.
Disadvantage at a disadvantage
Owners of one of the worst penalty-killing records in the league, I suppose there’s an entirely different way to view it. But one of the complications with having Cody Ceci join Morgan Rielly on the shelf is that the Leafs aren’t exactly plum with capable penalty killers. Or at least ones that are proven.
Before suffering the high-ankle sprain, Ceci was the Leafs’ time-on-ice leader on the kill, while also logging the most minutes per game at just a shade under three. He was without question the No. 1 option — and across multiple coaching staffs — and now Sheldon Keefe has to find a way to allocate those minutes among what’s left.
Naturally, most of Ceci’s responsibilities fell on the Leafs shutdown pair of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. Together, they killed off the first minor penalty all by themselves when it bookended the first intermission. Then they tackled the first minute-plus of the second minor penalty assessed on Toronto before Keefe revealed his newly-formed second penalty killing option on defence: Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren.
Dermott had just 28 minutes of total penalty-killing usage before tonight, while Liljegren was, of course, appearing in just his second game and had yet to face such a disadvantage at the NHL level.
After logging less than a minute each, it’s too early to make any assertions of whether or not this tandem will or won’t hold up. But the penalty-killing aspect has to be part of the bigger-picture considerations for the Leafs with the trade deadline approaching. It’s no secret that Kyle Dubas and Co. are searching for a right-shot defenseman, and the pursuit has been made a little more interesting since the Ceci injury, with his money potentially now in play.
While perhaps not mandatory, you would think that a box a prospective defenseman would have to check for Dubas would be the ability to provide plus support in a penalty-killing role.
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