Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday at Air Canada Centre:
Slew of debuts showed cause for optimism.
After the NHL trade deadline passed at 3 p.m. Monday – and thanks to the numerous trades and American League transactions that led up to the deadline – Toronto’s lineup looked markedly different against Tampa Bay than the one that took on the Montreal Canadiens Saturday. But with seven players making their debuts as Leafs – and four of them making their NHL debuts – there were no shortage of positives the Buds could point to despite ultimately losing the game.
For starters, forwards William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman – who’d formed a dangerous line with the AHL’s Marlies earlier this month – stayed together in their first game in the world’s best league, and all three had genuine scoring opportunities thanks to their strong play. Kapanen (who logged 16:48 of ice time) dropped jaws with one special series of moves with the puck, but Hyman also looked more than comfortable adjusting to the NHL level in the 15:58 he played. And the often-dazzling Nylander played more minutes (18:41) than any other Leafs forward, an indication of the opportunity head coach Mike Babcock was affording him.
Similarly, winger Nikita Soshnikov (in 14:12 of ice time) and defenseman Connor Carrick didn’t look at all out of place in their Leafs debuts (and Soshnikov’s first NHL game). Carrick, who was acquired from Washington Sunday in the trade that sent Daniel Winnik to the Capitals, engaged in a late-game scrap with J.T. Brown, while Soshnikov showed speed and tenacity on a line with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.
None of the new Leafs (who also included veteran forwards Brooks Laich and Ben Smith) got on the scoresheet, but the infusion of skilled youth into Toronto’s lineup had an immediate impact. And although the Buds couldn’t fully rebound from a 2-0 deficit the Lightning built (on a pair of second-period Tyler Johnson goals) to send the game to overtime, the Leafs outshot the Bolts 23-13 in the final 40 minutes, completely dominated the third period, and had incredible and sustained pressure in the game’s final moments.
Oh, and in that final 90 seconds of the third – when Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had to continue the outstanding effort he put forth all night – three of the four forwards Toronto had on the ice (goalie Garret Sparks had been pulled by then) were Nylander, Kapanen and Hyman.
It was only one game and one stretch, but that’s got to make Leafs fans very encouraged for the seasons to come.
In start of Sparks’ second NHL go-round, rookie goalie gave Buds a chance to win.
While it’s true the game-winning goal he surrendered to Johnson was a miscue on his behalf, Sparks turned aside 26 of 28 Bolts shots – including all 15 he saw in the first period – and allowed his teammates to find their footing and push back against Tampa Bay in the final two frames. The 22-year-old showed the elite athleticism and play anticipation we saw from him in the first five games of his NHL career – which he played for the Leafs in late November and early December before returning to the Marlies until his recall Saturday – and made a solid case to get another assignment from Babcock soon.
Kadri’s scoring drought ends.
Kadri’s goal with 2:15 left in the third period broke Vasilevskiy’s shutout bid and was his first goal in 10 games. Don’t take that to mean he’s been struggling on offence – he had five assists in the four games leading up to Monday’s tilt – but the 25-year-old Kadri will be looked to as a leader in goal production in the Leafs’ remaining games this season, and he looked energized by the presence of new teammates.
Rielly continues leading the way for Buds blueliners.
Toronto’s defence corps has had somewhat of a revolving door in recent days – veteran Matt Hunwick was playing only his third game since returning from a two-week injury-related absence, while youngsters Stuart Percy and Viktor Loov were back with the Marlies, and Carrick was a nice addition who played 1:44 on the power play Monday as part of his 19:13 ice time total – but the one constant is Morgan Rielly who remains the blueliner Babcock leans on the hardest.
The 22-year-old Rielly posted a team-best 24:40 Monday, and while he had a few shifts in which he struggled, there’s a reason Babcock consistently shows faith in him: he’s smart and determined, his panic threshold is as high as anyone’s on the team, and he’s quickly become one of the leaders in, as the organization preaches, “doing it right” in games, practices and off the ice. Rielly and Jake Gardiner were the two defensemen on the ice as the game ended and Toronto pressured the Bolts in a major way, and for Rielly to do so after being the most utilized skater on the team says a lot about his status in the pecking order.
It was a loss, but a loss that felt different.
The final score wasn’t in Toronto’s favour, but the way the game concluded – with the home team, and a drastically different one at that, all over the defending Eastern Conference champions – was unlike anything we’ve seen from Toronto this season. Again, it’s just one game, but Leafs fans got a glimpse of what Marlies fans have known all year: this franchise’s future appears blindingly bright.
You couldn’t call it a moral victory. But if there’s such thing as a morale-building loss, this was it.