NHL Weekend Takeaways: Defence frustrates Maple Leafs, Canucks

Nick-Robertson

Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Nicholas Robertson (89) checks Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Ryan Murray (27) during first period NHL hockey playoff action in Toronto, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. (Nathan Denette / CP)

The first weekend of meaningful hockey in nearly five months did not disappoint.

We had high-scoring games, we had defensive battles, we had physical games, we had controversial hits, a suspension (or two, we’ll see), highlight-reel goals and some incredible saves.

It’s almost like it never left.

And we don’t have any time to come up for air.

With the first Saturday and Sunday of NHL action in the books, we don’t have long to analyze before games continue at noon Eastern on Monday. Here, then, are our weekend takeaways.

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EXPERIENCE VS. YOUTH

One of the storylines coming into these playoffs centred on who would thrive under these unusual circumstances: fresh young legs, or experienced teams with plenty of preparation time. After the first couple of game days, this is still inconclusive — there are good examples of both sides starting strong.

In the eight qualifying series, teams with a higher combined total of career playoff games had a 4-4 record in Game 1; the two round robin games were also split 1-1 through the weekend.

On the youth side, there were a number of strong performances. Chicago’s Dominik Kubalik jumps out here, as he became the first rookie in NHL history to log three points in the opening period of his playoff debut, and also the first player in league history to register five points in his first post-season appearance.

But a veteran on Kubalik’s own line was also a rejuvenated force as Jonathan Toews showed the composure of a captain who’s won multiple Stanley Cups. The 32-year-old led the Hawks in CF% at 5-on-5 (85.71), was second to Kubalik in shots for percentage (90.91) and expected goals for percentage (91.93). Chicago outshot the Oilers 10-1 when Toews was on the ice as that line played a crucial role in limiting Connor McDavid at even strength — though he, too, still managed three points overall.

In Game 1 of Montreal-Pittsburgh, the Canadiens jumped to a shocking 2-0 lead not because of goals from Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin or Max Domi, but rather Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the latter of whom was relegated to the AHL late this season and hadn’t played an NHL game since Jan. 27.

But on the other side, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still managed to control the shot advantage when on the ice and the Penguins recovered from a two-goal deficit to force overtime (which they ultimately lost). The real difference in Game 1 was truly Carey Price, another veteran who played like a younger version of himself. That’s exactly what the Penguins feared about this format when they drew the Habs in a short best-of-five.

In Toronto, 18-year-old Nick Robertson became the first rookie to make his NHL debut in the post-season since Jarome Iginla in 1996, then came so close to converting his first goal.

Though Columbus was the slightly more inexperienced group of the two teams, its veteran-like approach — structure, suffocating defence and a dedication to stick through it — preached by their veteran coach won out as the Blue Jackets shut out the Leafs’ intimidating offence completely.

A rookie may lead the playoffs in scoring right now, but this storyline is still developing and it may take all week to sort out.

GOALIE CONTROVERSIES?

As some NHL teams put a greater emphasis on goalie tandems instead of heavy-usage starters, a number of them came in with questions about who should get the first look in the playoffs. The decisions made by coaches in the first weekend came with…mixed reviews.

Mike Smith over Mikko Koskinen: Dave Tippett’s choice to go with the 38-year-old Smith over 32-year-old Koskinen, even though the latter had better numbers this season, was somewhat surprising. Even midway through last week Smith was the expected starter by most, given his long relationship with Tippett, but when Koskinen got the start in the exhibition game and played well that assumption started to turn. Koskinen was, after all, the better of the two on the season with a .917 save percentage, 2.75 GAA and 18-13-3 record (to Smith’s .902, 2.95 and 9-12-6).

Tippett said it “wasn’t a goaltender problem” in Game 1 and he’s certainly right about that — Smith made a number of nice saves and, outside the first goal against, it’s hard to put the blame on him. Edmonton was outshot 27-17 and outscored 3-0 at 5-on-5 in Game 1 and only members of the bottom-six forward group had a positive shot share at evens. This, against a Chicago team that was one of the worst defensive units all season. That’s where the real problem was for the Oilers. Still, Tippett rode the hot hand in goal all season long and that was not Smith in Game 1. We’d be shocked if Koskinen didn’t get the nod Monday night.

Juuse Saros over Pekka Rinne: Hindsight is 20/20 here as Saros was easily the better of the two Predators netminders this season and the presumed starter by most. Still, turning away from a goalie who had started 89 consecutive playoff games for your franchise and led them to a Stanley Cup Final will prompt some second-guessing if it doesn’t lead to a win.

Outside of the first period, Nashville actually carried most of the momentum in Game 1, outshooting Arizona 25-10 at 5-on-5 in periods two and three. But the first period was rough enough. The Coyotes scored the first three goals of the game, all within the first 15 and a half minutes, and a late charge wasn’t enough for the Predators to overcome it. Saros had a good game overall, but the first goal he let in especially stung — it was a weird and strange one that he can’t be blamed for, but boy, Rinne probably would have had it just because he’s six-foot-five (to Saros’ five-foot-11).

It’s not clear who will start Game 2, though we should note that analytics writer Andrew Berkshire presented an interesting case as to why, perhaps, Rinne could see a rebound in play if he gets a chance in these playoffs. How long of a leash does the younger goalie have in such a short series?

Matt Murray over Tristan Jarry: Like Edmonton’s situation, this was an example of the coach going with the more experienced netminder over the one who played better on the season. Leading up to Game 1, all signs were pointing to Murray getting the nod as both the GM and head coach hinted at it, but it was still a bit of a head-scratcher when he got the call. Jarry was so good this season, and seemed better positioned to be able to steal a game, if necessary. And it was in Game 1.

Murray didn’t lose the Penguins that game, but Suzuki’s goal to put Montreal up 2-0 was a tough one and an example of where Jarry may have given them an edge. The Penguins are sticking with Murray in Game 2.

Cam Talbot over David Rittich: This time the coach went with the goalie who had the hotter hand at the pause and it worked out, though even Talbot mentioned that his workload wasn’t the most demanding in Game 1.

“You can’t say enough about how well we played in our D-zone,” Talbot said. “I didn’t have to make a ton of Grade-A saves tonight. The guys in front of me backchecked hard, we always had a third guy high, we took away a lot of their speed on the rush and really gave nothing in the middle of the ice except for their goal.”

By the numbers, Winnipeg had six more high-danger chances at 5-on-5 than did the Flames, but Calgary clearly carried the game and outshot Winnipeg 33-18. The Mark Scheifele injury was a real turning point and a major storyline this weekend — but Talbot’s contribution shouldn’t be downplayed here. He was as solid and steady as he had to be and the right call for the nod.

Joonas Korpisalo over Elvis Merzlikins: Less of a “controversy” here, though Merzlikins seems to have the higher ceiling. The fact is that Columbus’ defence did most of the heavy lifting in Game 1 (more on that later), but Korpisalo was faced with a few glorious Leafs scoring chances and shut the door when he needed to. He became the first goalie to get a shutout in these playoffs and the second over the last 81 years to record a shutout in the opener of a best-of-five.

WHO WAS THE BEST, AND THE WORST, OF THE ROUND ROBIN TEAMS?

We only had four of the eight top seeds play over the weekend, so very small sample size here…

The best: Colorado
Though the round-robin games — being played to determine seeding in the first round — didn’t have the same intensity level of the do-or-die qualifiers, the Avs’ effort against the defending champs is to be commended. A 16-4 shot advantage in the first period led only to a 1-0 deficit against a hard-checking team and it wasn’t until the third period that Colorado got on the score sheet. Philipp Grubauer was rock solid, and Nathan MacKinnon was his usual bull-in-a-china shop. Nazem Kadri, however, reminded us that as long as he doesn’t cross a line he can be a real impact playoff player. He led all players with six shots on goal, the last of which came with 0.1 seconds on the clock and led to the latest regulation goal in NHL playoff history,

The worst: Boston Bruins
Look, we’re not at all panicking about this team yet. The Bruins have proven to us time and again that when push comes to shove, they’ll be the ones doing the pushing and shoving. But their first game against Philadelphia was not a playoff effort.

The Bruins held the shot advantage but were not their usual physical selves. There was an edge and intensity that was missing in their 4-1 loss. Tuukka Rask, named unfit to play, was missing from the lineup and so backup Jaroslav Halak filled in — it wasn’t his fault they lost but Boston could have used another save or two.

We expect Boston to get better as we go along, and to be an entirely different team next week when their first best-of-seven begins. Still, with so many unknown factors in this unusual tournament, watch them closely in their second game, against Tampa Bay on Wednesday.

VANCOUVER, TORONTO OFFENCES STYMIED BY SUFFOCATING DEFENCES

“Defence wins championships” is one of those cliches that doesn’t always come to fruition these days. Sure, better-structured teams generally perform more consistently in the playoffs, but it’s not as though offensive teams can’t win a series.

But Sunday night Minnesota and Columbus showed their more flashy opponents why playoff hockey is different.

Starting with the Blue Jackets, they made it impossibly hard for the Maple Leafs to get any chance in the middle of the ice. Keeping opponents to the outside was a key in their path to upsetting Tampa Bay in last year’s playoffs, and was also how the Islanders swept aside Pittsburgh in 2019. Now, in a shorter series, it’s going to be that much more difficult for the Leafs to figure a way through and win three of four games.

Columbus outshot Toronto 30-25 at 5-on-5 and the high-danger opportunities were split, so you may be asking why this was such a decisive factor for the Blue Jackets. Well, if Toronto is going to win this series it’s going to be because they overwhelm with offence. The Leafs were the fifth-best team in the league at creating high-danger opportunities this season, where Columbus ranked 29th. It’s not good for Toronto to simply be even with them here. John Tavares and Mitch Marner combined had two 5-on-5 shots in Game 1 and, when the time crunch was on, the whole Leafs team failed to earn even one shot attempt in the final six minutes of regulation.

Vancouver was likewise slowed by Minnesota’s rope-a-dope. As the game went on, the scales tipped more and more in the Wild’s favour, including a third period where Minnesota held a 9-3 shot advantage at 5-on-5 and also completely shut down the Canucks at the most crucial point in the game.

If there was a silver lining for the Canucks, it was that Elias Pettersson was easily their best player. One of the “things to watch” in this series was how the superstar would handle the more physical brand of playoff hockey, and if his small frame could be pushed around. But he was their most impactful player by a long shot, as the Canucks controlled over 61 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots when he was on the ice. Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat all had a negative impact here and need to find a way to generate more in Game 2 before it’s too late.

SCHEIFELE’S INJURY POTENTIALLY DISASTROUS…BUT MAYBE NOT?

It didn’t take long for Matthew Tkachuk to become the centre of everyone’s attention in these playoffs. In the first period, Tkachuk tried to finish a check on Scheifele and the awkward collision with the board left the Jets’ top centre on the ice writhing in pain. He was helped off with what looked like a devastating injury and didn’t return.

Scheifele is doubtful for Game 2, but when head coach Paul Maurice and forward Adam Lowry addressed the media again Sunday, it sounded a little more optimistic that — maybe, just maybe — Scheifele could return at some point.

The official results from Sunday’s visit with a specialist are not public yet, though Lowry mentioned that Scheifele joined his teammates for dinner after the game and was generally upbeat, trying to keep their focus on Game 2. Maurice talked about a previous injury Scheifele had to battle back from.

“He’s frustrated, he’s angry,” Maurice said. “But the smile I got out of him … anyway he rolled his ankle in the last year and a half and I didn’t think he was going to play, and he had I believe 20 points in the next 11 games, so I told him to keep that in mind.”

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