David Rittich and the Calgary Flames are no tonic for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Limited to less than three goals for the first time since their last meeting with the Flames more than one month ago, the Leafs fell 2-1 in a shootout Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena. Rittich out-duelled his All-Star counterpart Frederik Andersen, making 35 saves plus three additional denials in the shootout, while Matthew Tkachuk registered the decisive strike in the skills competition.
William Nylander scored the lone goal for Toronto, while Auston Matthews was particularly snakebitten with nine total shots and a misfire in the shootout, as well.
Still, Toronto can easily extract a fantastic result from this mini three-game segment to be played without both of their top defenseman with a win versus the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday before heading to their bye-week destinations of choice (and hopefully having Muzzin back).
Until then, two points:
Now 1-4, the Leafs have an obvious shootout problem. But the focus shouldn’t be exclusively on how to improve in these isolated, non-hockey contests the NHL uses to decide games. It should be on how to avoid taking part in them.
That means submitting better performances in regulation, of course, as well as improving from an efficiency standpoint in overtime.
Sheldon Keefe will likely be kicking himself when he reviews the tape from the three-on-three portion versus the Flames, because there was an avoidable usage discrepancy with his top players, which limited his best goal-scoring option to just over a minute of ice.
The first point of contention would be starting John Tavares with William Nylander. Yes, they connected on the Leafs’ only goal, but most would consider the duo to be the secondary option in the overtime scenario behind Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Starting these two didn’t become a problem, though, until the Flames dominated possession of the puck from the hop.
Tavares had full shifts with Nylander and Mitch Marner before the Leafs managed to ice the puck one minutes and 36 seconds into the bonus period. Tavares lost the subsequent draw after a momentary breather, but was extremely fortunate to have the Flames retreat far enough out of the offensive zone to allow him to change after another 11 seconds logged, allowing Matthews to hop over the boards for his first shift in overtime.
Calgary controlled the puck for the first half of Matthews’ shift, but he did lead the Leafs’ first attack of the period before his time was up and Kasperi Kapanen came out to replace him.
Point of contention No. 2: Instead of doubling back with Matthews, Keefe sent Tavares back out to replace Kapanen, while Marner joined him after a stoppage in play. The two remained on the ice for the entire final minute, with Matthews hanging over the boards, begging for a second shift in overtime, by the time the buzzer sounded.
All told, and mostly spent throughout, Tavares logged two minutes and 47 seconds (upping his game total to almost 26 and a half minutes), while the Leafs’ leading scorer and maybe the league’s premier sniper right now, was limited to 66 seconds in the sudden death frame.
Keefe said this when asked how much that extended shift in overtime disrupted what he had planned for the overtime period:
“Well, it makes it so some of your best guys early on there are pretty tired and don't get to touch the puck. But that's really it.”
Unless you’re one of those crazy folks hoping that Dion Phaneuf’s tour of Scotiabank Arena would result in the former captain putting pen to paper on a contract to join the Maple Leafs, Travis Dermott coming up lame after an early shot block was cause for definite concern.
Fortunately, Dermott was able to skate off the knock and avoided joining Morgan Rielly and Muzzin on the shelf with another broken bone caused by frozen rubber.
Still, this is a common workplace hazard, and most coaches demand that their players step in front of any and all shots when possible to prevent scoring opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, Keefe had a slightly different take on the subject, suggesting he’d like to prevent the number of projectiles hitting the extremities of his defensemen.
“Generally you want to do all that you can to not put your team in a position where these pucks are coming to the net at all,” he said after the morning session. “I think hockey players, with the character they have and people they are, (you) would have a hard time telling them not to get in the way of pucks. .. But generally, we trust our goaltender to make saves.”
Still, there is an instinctual element that you can’t just remove from a players’ brain, and the shot block from Dermott was certainly in that column.
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