If you commit a penalty against the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, prepare for the worst.
Wednesday’s 5-3 pre-season victory over the Canadiens in Montreal — the first true NHL-level preview for Toronto — proved how far skill goes in this sport, as the club that worked the hardest and dominated the play lost.
Here are five things we learned from the first exhibition to feature both of the Leafs’ No. 1 lines.
The dress rehearsal of the Maple Leafs’ brand-new top power-play unit received rave reviews. The unveiled super squad of Morgan Rielly (point), Mitchell Marner (right half wall), Auston Matthews (left wall), John Tavares (net front) and Nazem Kadri (high slot) scored in each of its first two opportunities.
Kadri, who led all Leafs with 12 power-play goals last season, sniped first. And Matthews, who must be giddy to (finally) be on the receiving end of Marner’s perfect passes, sniped a ridiculous short-side shot to give Toronto a 2-1 lead early in the second frame.
“So far, it’s pretty smooth,” Kadri said on the broadcast. “We’re moving the puck well. Everyone’s getting chances.”
Toronto had the NHL’s second-most-effective power play last season, converting on 25 per cent of its opportunities. The bounty of weaponry on this new look, which went 2-for-5 Wednesday, will give penalty-killers night terrors.
By moving Matthews, who only had five power-play goals last season, up to PP1 and sliding Tavares into James van Riemsdyk’s vacated office, Babcock has shifted from a more balanced two-unit attack to a clear focus on his best offensive players, much like Pittsburgh does.
Some might call the first power-play group stacked.
“I didn’t know I stacked one,” Babcock said this week. “The way it’s going to work, just like I always do: Whoever scores goes out there more. Last year we started with two equal power-play groups. Which group got out there the most? The one that scored. Not a bad idea.”
The risk of loading up the PP
It’s nitpicking, but by having his three top centres out on the ice at the same time, Babcock may be pushed to roll out his fourth line immediately after the man advantage. It will be interesting to see how opposing coaches try to take advantage of what could be a mismatched follow-up shift.
Another item worth tracking is Jake Gardiner’s power-play ice time. The defenceman is in a contract season and will want his cookies. He had 15 power-play points last season, but now Matthews has been removed from that second group.
“We had two pretty even units last year. I’m not surprised they put Matts and Mitchy together, especially with Willy [Nylander] not here,” Gardiner said. “You want your power play to score goals, and if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”
Oh, so that’s why Marner is killing penalties
In effort to find ice time for all his talented forwards, Babcock will deploy Marner and Tavares as penalty killers this season.
Starting the second period down a man, Marner pounced when Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry bungled a dumped puck and took advantage of a stunned Carey Price. The shorthanded strike gave Marner his third of four points on the night, and it was followed up 40 seconds later when another Petry turnover led to a 2-on-1 shorthanded opportunity made good by Par Lindholm and Kasperi Kapanen.
“Mitch on the penalty kill was dynamic,” Babcock said.
(David Schlemko did get one back for the Canadiens on the same power-play, making for an eventful 76 seconds.)
Defence? Still a bit of an issue
Critics who believe Toronto’s own-zone play will prevent it from a deep run were handed more ammo Wednesday, when the Canadiens outshot the Leafs 36-26.
At even strength, the Habs controlled the run of play as the Leafs’ breakouts and defensive-zone coverage were shaky. Montreal had twice as many high-danger chances (10-5) at even strength.
“We seemed a little flat to start,” Tavares told reporters. “We need to keep our feet moving.”
That said, when you can score four times on special teams and your goaltender can make more saves than the other guy, the talent upfront can make up for the mistakes on the back end.
Third-pair bubble guys Calle Rosen and Igor Ozhighanov struggled. Each committed a pair of giveaways and were the only Leafs who finished as minuses.
“Their team worked harder than our team, and we turned the puck over way too many times,” said Babcock, noting a lack of detail in the winners’ effort. “You can’t poke and hope you’re going to make things happen.
“We got skill. Now we gotta learn how to play right.”
First peek at an (almost) Opening Night roster
Although missing three key pieces — Nylander (contract stalemate), Zach Hyman (bone bruise) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) — this was the first pre-season game that Toronto iced a true NHL roster. It looked like this:
“These last two games are really important for myself and everybody else to step it up a notch,” Matthews said. “You’re itching to get going.
“Opening night’s about a week away. There’s a lot of excitement there.”