William Nylander the most encouraging sign in Leafs' competitive loss to Blues

We’ll share points after every game throughout the Toronto Maple Leafs season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs broke down and largely dominated a championship-level defensive structure on home ice Monday night in Toronto, but wound up taking their first regulation loss of the season, 3-2 to the St. Louis Blues.

They will look to return to their winning ways with the Tampa Bay Lightning in town Thursday.

But first, three points:

First Point: Nylander shines in loss

Oct 7, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) celebrates after scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues during the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
(Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

Though the Maple Leafs are suddenly stagnating in the area that matters most, their performance against the defending champions may have offered more encouraging signs than in each of their three previous games.

Against a team that just rode lockdown defense to its first Stanley Cup, Toronto racked up 34 total scoring chances at five-on-five (which is more than four teams have accrued through their first two games of the season), while owning 85 percent of the high-danger looks under the same condition in a game they were only chasing for the final 10 minutes. The struggling second line of John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen submitted their best performance while matched up primary against the Ryan O’Reilly unit, together taking two attempts at goal for every one that they conceded, while the fourth line finished with the best possession metrics in the game.

However, the most promising sign from the loss was the play of William Nylander.

He was a force in the offensive zone, best highlighted by initiating and putting an expert finish on his second of the season, and arguably the nicest goal we have seen from the Leafs so far this year.

Nylander finished with a team-best 74 percent possession mark and four shots on two scoring chances. He was also relentless on the forecheck in the offensive zone, forcing two turnovers that led to sustained pressure from the Maple Leafs.

Mike Babcock singled out his performance after the loss.

“He had the puck, he got the puck, he got it back, he made things happen. I thought it was his most competitive game this year. It'd be one we'd like to see, obviously, on a regular basis. He has all the ability. He had turn-backs, he won pucks, he was on the puck, he was strong. I thought he was very effective tonight.”

Second Point: Spezza shows his value

Every indication is that the Maple Leafs will continue to rotate two forwards in and two forwards out until hitting the 10-game mark and making firm decisions on their roster spots moving forward. It seems they might be doing themselves a disservice by keeping Jason Spezza stuck in that cycle.

The immense skillset that Spezza has preserved through all these years and routinely displays in practice was on full display in his first home game as a member of the Maple Leafs. Tapping a rebound up in the air to himself and then once again back in front of the goal for Frederik Gauthier to bang in for Toronto’s first goal, one of the key advantages the team has this season shone through for the first time as Spezza’s offensive instincts kicked in to create the scoring chance.

In addition to registering his first point with the Leafs, Spezza finished with three shots on two high-danger looks, won some important faceoffs, and helped control shot attempts at 73 percent in just over five even-strength minutes.

Third Point: Well picked

Tyson Barrie appealed, and Mike Babcock protested in his own way as well.

True to form, a sliver of veteran know-how from the Blues turned out to be the difference in the game. Breaking up waves of pressure with a sustained cycle in the offensive zone approaching the midway mark in the third period, Sammy Blais left the puck behind the net for David Perron and ran some effective interference on Barrie.

With the extra time and space to circle toward the slot as Barrie tried to extricate himself from the collision, Perron fed a pass across to the Alex Pietrangelo off the point, who fit a shot past Frederik Andersen on a tight angle.

Barrie showed his displeasure immediately after the goal, and Babcock shared his postgame.

Often the message the Leafs coach wants to share is found within his first few sentences at the podium, and sure enough when asked about his general thoughts on the performance he was quick to point out the “nice little pick” St. Louis used to score the eventual game winner.

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