There have not been many times this season when the Toronto Maple Leafs were clearly not at the same level as their competition, but that was definitely the case in the 4-0 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday.
“I thought we got a lesson from a veteran team here today.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after the game. (Nashville) just stayed patient and were right. They were heavy on the puck, heavy on their sticks, detailed, blocked shots (and) competed.”
Toronto had difficulty all night converting offensive chances, as the Predators implemented the same game plan that has been effective against the Leafs recently. Nashville were successful (especially in the second half of the game) in not allowing them to break out of their own end with some solid forechecking.
The Preds defensemen made zone entries difficult for Leafs forwards by standing up at the blueline and not giving them time to set up plays if they did, and they also contributed at the other end of the ice, getting goals from Mattias Ekholm and PK Subban.
The Leafs did not have much luck breaking through against Pekka Rinne after Auston Matthews tying goal was overturned by an offsides call (as they managed only 18 shots on the night) and the more aggressive Preds also had the advantage in physical play, as Austin Watson and Subban through their weight around without much pushback.
Goaltending was not the issue for Toronto, as Michael Hutchinson made 28 saves and kept the Leafs in the game until late in the third, but there has to be concern that opponents have found a way to keep their powerful offense in check.
Toronto has been shutout twice and lost three of their last four games, while their power play has scored just one goal in their last seven games.
Babcock continues to look for his players to step up and focused a bit of criticism on winger William Nylander, who was offside on the Matthews goal and inadvertently deflected the puck on Subban’s tally.
“He's got to get better. All the details, all the compete, all that stuff has just got to keep getting better. He will the more he plays, but the urgency level has to be there.”
The Maple Leafs have to consider the first half of the season as successful, with the league’s second-best record (27-13-2) and stars Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly having career years, but after weathering the absence of William Nylander and the loss of Matthews to a shoulder injury, the goaltending depth and the health of starter Frederik Andersen have to be a concern as the club enters the second half.
In the final installment, here is a report card on the progress of the Leafs forwards after the first half of the season:
Auston Matthews: A
Matthews seems on pace to eclipsing his career-best of 40 goals in spite of missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, with 20 goals in 28 games.
Patrick Marleau: B+
A model of consistency, Marleau has been moved to different lines, but continues to contribute offensively (10 goals and 10 assists in 42 games) and be an important veteran leader.
Nazem Kadri: B
A tale of two seasons, Kadri picked up the offense in the absence of Matthews and scored most of his nine goals during that time frame, but as a third liner he has had difficulty providing secondary offense.
John Tavares: A+
The Leafs could not have hoped for more from Tavares, leading the club in goals and on pace for 50, as well as partnering with Mitch Marner to make up one of the most lethal combos in the league.
Connor Brown: B-
Brown continues to prove his versatility, shifting to the left side and moving into the top nine after Zack Hyman’s injury, but the former 20-goal scorer has just three goals in 42 games.
Zach Hyman: B+
The energy and sandpaper that Hyman provides has been made more valuable in his absence, as the feisty winger has been out for three weeks with an ankle injury.
Andreas Johnsson: B
The speedy winger shook off a slow start and began scoring with regularity once promoted into the top six. Johnsson has 16 of his 19 points in the last 19 games, including a hat trick on November 24 vs. Philadelphia.
Par Lindholm: C
Lindholm has been forced to play mostly on the wing to enable Frederik Gauthier to play center on the fourth line. The veteran Swede has 11 points (1 goal, 10 assists) in 42 games
Kasperi Kapanen: A-
Kapanen is only behind Tavares, Matthews and Marner in goals (14), but his production has slowed with the return of Nylander and playing mostly third line duty, with only three goals in the last 14 games.
Mitch Marner: A+
The 22-year-old leads the Leafs in points (55) and assists (40) and began to shake off his “pass first” reputation with nine goals in his last 10 games.
Frederik Gauthier: D+
Gauthier contributed more offensively in the second quarter (now with seven points in 33 games), but does not use his size advantage enough to make him more of a difference maker.
Tyler Ennis: B+
The veteran winger has provided energy, experience and valuable secondary offense on the fourth line, with seven goals in 33 games, but has been out since December 22 with a broken ankle.
William Nylander: F
A sluggish start was expected from the 22-year-old winger, since he missed all of training camp and the first two months of the regular season due to a contract impasse, but he still cannot seem to get on track and has been invisible on most nights, just three points in 14 games.
Eventually he will kick it into gear, but his contribution has been negligible to this point.
Trevor Moore: B+
The 23-year-old was called up to replace Hyman in the lineup and his speed has been valuable on the fourth line. Moore scored his first NHL goal against Vancouver on January 5th.
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