Yessir, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a terrific hockey team this season. Lots of flash and dash, lots of big-name talent.
That, however, doesn’t make them good enough to overcome spotty goaltending, an uncharacteristically bad power play, costly turnovers and dumb offensive zone penalties coming right after momentum building shifts, all on the same night.
Come to think of it, no NHL team these days is that good. The league is just too closely bunched.
Conversely, the Detroit Red Wings are a bottom third team in the NHL these days, a team that doesn’t score much, gives up too many and struggles on both special teams.
But give them easy goals, an ability to take penalties without paying any consequences and some opportunistic sniping, and they can be much more competitive than is normally the case.
So that was the story on Thursday night between the Leafs and Wings on William Nylander Night, with the 22-year-old back for his first game this season after signing a $41-million contract on Saturday. The Wings left town with the upset 5-4 win, stealing one on the road on Dylan Larkin’s breakaway winner halfway through overtime off a John Tavares turnover.
“That team came in and played hard,” said Leaf head coach Mike Babcock afterwards. “They were better than us. We didn’t deserve two points, but it was good we got one.”
Larkin, who ended the game with a pretty backhand deke on Garrett Sparks after Gustav Nyqvist sent him on his way with a spectacular lead pass, concurred with his former coach.
“For 40 minutes we were the better team. We had all four lines going, and we were doing a good job on their big players,” said Larkin. “Then for 20 minutes we took our foot off the gas, and they came in waves.
“But in the end, I thought we deserved the win.”
The result of the Leafs being sloppy and Detroit finding the net more than usual was a wildly entertaining hockey game, more what you usually see in October before teams start battening down the hatches. Both teams started their backup goalies. The Wings led 4-1, then saw the Leafs come back with three quick goals in 8:58 of the third to tie the game.
The final 45 seconds of the third period nicely encapsulated the craziness of this one. First Connor Brown, elevated in the lineup when Nylander was nailed to the bench in the third, had a clean breakaway on former Leaf goalie Jonathan Bernier but couldn’t pot the winner.
The puck went the other way, and Larkin tipped a point shot that hit both posts and stayed out with 10 seconds left. The puck then came right back to him as he was falling, and he lifted the puck over the yawning net.
In OT, Tavares and Mitch Marner were trying madly to create the winner, but Tavares ended up giving it away deep in the offensive zone, always trouble during 3-on-3. Morgan Rielly was helpless to catch the speedy Larkin when Nyqvist sent him in the clear and the Wings had their 13th victory of the season.
“I thought in OT we had the advantage,” said Bernier, signed to a three-year, $9-million deal this summer to join his fourth team in four seasons.
A key element to the Detroit victory was superb penalty killing. The Leafs power play, awesome for the most part this season, struggled to gain the zone in going 0-for-2 on Tuesday in Buffalo, and in going goalless on four chances versus the Wings, rarely had concentrated zone time and again were frequently turned away off the rush.
That’s the NHL. Teams are going to watch video and change their tactics, and the Leafs coaching staff will have to react to that and find ways to get the extra-strength unit going again. Nylander, who played on the second power play unit Thursday night, should help. His passing was very good, but you could see he lacked the conditioning to battle for the puck and was sat for the third as the Leafs mounted their comeback.
Toronto’s comeback might have started earlier, but the Leafs took offensive zone penalties in the second trailing 3-1 just when it looked like they were starting to find their legs. First, Marner went off for tripping after Toronto had managed its first solid sequence of offensive zone possession in the second period. Later, Par Lindholm hauled down Jonathan Ericsson deep in the Detroit zone after intense Toronto pressure had forced Bernier to make a series of saves in in the Wings net.
Those two penalties were sandwiched around a Mike Green wrist shot from sixty feet that completely fooled Sparks, and that fourth Detroit goal seemed to end any chance of a Toronto comeback. Instead, the Leafs roared back in the third on goals by Tavares, Andreas Johnsson and Zach Hyman to force overtime.
Still, it was not the performance the Leafs were looking for in their last home start before a five-game road trip, starting Saturday night in Boston.
Nylander started the night with Auston Matthews, but by the third Matthews was back with Kasperi Kapanen. The big centre took a hard tumble headfirst into the boards in the second, not exactly what the Leafs wanted to see with him having just returned from a 14-game injury absence.
Matthews looked dazed after the collision with Nicklas Kronwall, but dusted himself off and continued to play after briefly sitting on the Leafs bench. He set up Johnsson for his goal in the third, and now has eight points in four games since returning from a shoulder injury.
It will be interesting to see how Babcock organizes his forward lines against the Bruins, and if he can get things settled defensively. That’s 14 goals allowed now by the Leafs in their last four games. As Thursday night showed, their offence might bail them out much of the time.
But not all of the time. Not in this league.