Breaking down what went wrong for the Maple Leafs, and how to change it

To borrow an alliterative idea from college basketball’s March Madness, the NHL now has August Anarchy.

It certainly feels that way after each team has finally gotten one game on the books with the pandemic restart into an expanded Stanley Cup tournament.

There are low seeds beating higher seeds: Chicago over Edmonton, featuring a Jonathan Toews revival; Montreal leading Pittsburgh, featuring a Carey Price revival, and Arizona leading Nashville, featuring a Phil Kessel revival.

There’s an all out war, apparently, between the Winnipeg Jets and Matthew Tkachuk. Game 2 should be fun.

Colorado’s Nazem Kadri (remember him?) scoring the winner in a round robin game over St. Louis – with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. No, he hasn’t been suspended yet. The Bruins looked in complete disarray in a loss to Philadelphia.

Which takes us to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, the Leafs lost to the lower seed in the opener, 2-0 to Columbus on Sunday night. But a ninth seed beating an eighth seed isn’t exactly an upset, considering the two teams were tied on points in the regular season.

But there’s a sense of – maybe not anarchy – but something close.

Auston Matthews made it known that he was upset with the reporter – the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons – who broke the news Matthews had COVID. Matthews certainly has the right to be upset, and voice the opinion. But choosing to do so after a playoff loss? Seems odd.

And shooters, they shot blanks. The game left the Leafs with more questions than answers.

Here’s a rundown of how I see things.

Alexis Lafreniere: The Maple Leafs are two losses away from a 12.5 per cent chance at landing the first overall pick in the draft. That would be Alexis Lafreniere. Wouldn’t that be interesting. We have the best-of-five format to thank us for thinking about the consolation prize of the qualifying round. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, teams that win Game 1 in a best-of-five series own an all-time series record of 68-15 (.819). So teams that don’t win have their work cut out for them.

Best player: Matthews, by the way, was perhaps the best forward on the ice for the Maple Leafs. He certainly had the best scoring chances, robbed at one point by Joonas Korpisalo’s quick glove hand. William Nylander fed Matthews in the slot, a rare sighting of a Leaf in that location.

Matthews led all players from both teams with 24:32 of ice time, and led all players with six shots.

So Matthews was not the reason the Leafs lost.

What to change: Keep your head in the game

The big lines? There wasn’t much to their game of the other five. Barely noticed John Tavares, Mitch Marner or Nylander. Throw in Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, too. Mikheyev couldn’t convert on a chance that looked golden, too. He was second among Leaf forwards with three shots.

So that means that Columbus did a simply fantastic job of shutting down Toronto’s top two lines. They were kept to the perimeter. When then did venture to the slot they had no space to make a play.

What to change: Use your skating and passing skills more to create space.

Coaching: Sheldon Keefe has home ice advantage, and the ability to line match. He chose not to, letting Matthews face the big pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Jones and Werenski are terrific, with Werenski getting under Matthews’ skin.

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What to change: Look for line-matching, creating opportunity for Matthews. His best chance came with Jones on the bench.

The defence: The Leaf blueliners couldn’t be blamed. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie performed at the top of their games. Justin Holl joined the rush. Rielly kind of made a weak swipe at Cam Atkinson on Atkinson’s goal, but he probably didn’t figure Atkinson would score from so far out. Frederik Andersen probably thought so too. Atkinson probably figured it too. Cody Ceci took two penalties – the Leafs killed them – and didn’t play much after the second one.

What to change: Leafs need Ceci not to take shortcuts. The others keep up their work.

The goaltending: Korpisalo was obviously one save better than Andersen. But aside from Atkinson goal, Andersen was fine. If his team is not going to score, Andersen’s performance won’t matter.

What to change: Nothing, keep going.

Third line: There was a lot to like about Nick Robertson’s game on a speedy third line. He almost scored in the first minute. (Hey, you’ve got to talk about ‘almosts’ in a 2-0, low-event game.) If anything, it almost hammers home how important capitalizing on chances is going to be against Columbus’s stifling defence. The line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen has to step up to create chances.

What to change: The third line needs to be more of a difference maker.

Fourth line: It was almost laughable how little the fourth-line played. Frederik Gauthier – 4:14; Jason Spezza – 3:53; Kyle Clifford 3:21. The coach laid the issue at their feet, saying they didn’t have much going early on, and he wasn’t going to play them late since he needed offence. Makes me wonder if Pierre Engvall gets in to Game 2. Spezza and Clifford are veteran players. With the game built for speed it might be taking them too long to get their legs going.

What to change: Is Andreas Johnsson ready?

GOT A QUESTION? Email me at askkevinmcgran@gmail.com and I’ll answer it in Friday’s Mailbag.

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