Ah, yes, the blowout loss right before the mass migration south toward warmer weather. This wasn’t the first time.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will enter their bye week on a sour note after being soundly walloped 6-2 by the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. Frederik Andersen heard bronx cheers from the hometown crowd after making 28 saves on 34 shots and while allowing at least three goals for the 10th time in his last 12 starts.
William Nylander and Alexander Kerfoot scored for Toronto, but the best players on the ice were Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik, who combined for four goals and seven points.
The Maple Leafs expect bodies back once they reconvene after All-Star weekend, and will need them to re-surface in the postseason picture after their recent plunge.
It will be a short road trip through Nashville and Dallas beginning in nine days.
Until then, three points.
What to do with Johnny?
What seems abundantly clear in the four games since Andreas Johnsson’s return to the lineup is that head coach Sheldon Keefe does not quite know what to do with him.
He surely has a deep knowledge of both his strengths and limitations after working together for three seasons with the Marlies, but to this point hasn’t found an avenue to optimize his lineup with Johnsson included.
Last game, Johnsson started on the third line with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen before finishing on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Tonight, Johnsson kicked things off with John Tavares and William Nylander before being reunited with Matthews and Marner, and then finishing the game by carouselling through a whole bunch of new linemates, taking almost every other shift.
Moving Johnsson around so liberally has been all in an effort to stumble upon the correct combinations, of course, or at least ones that can work in spurts. But upping the cadence was about more than just chemistry by the end, as Keefe has acknowledged that Johnsson’s conditioning hasn’t been there since his return from the ankle injury.
So in essence, he used an otherwise meaningless final few shifts in the game to bag-skate a player that needed the work.
“Just trying to get more out of him. Trying to push him past his limits from a conditioning perspective,” Keefe said of skating Johnsson for over eight minutes in the third period. “That was a big part of it.”
It was in no way punishment, obviously, but the fact of the matter is that Johnsson is not living up to the standard expected of him at the moment. He’s without a point and has registered just seven shots in four games since returning to the lineup. You can point to his absence being a contributing factor over the last week, but he was held without a point in five of the seven games played before his injury, his only meaningful offence coming in a blowout of the Detroit Red Wings.
With the amount the Maple Leafs have been scoring recently, a slumping Johnsson isn’t the end of the world. But with so much experience under Keefe, he should be one player capable of seamlessly adapting to his style of hockey, only he’s the one making the mistakes that players previously unfamiliar with the coach’s inner workings could be prone to committing.
Desperate to keep possession of the puck, Johnsson made the wrong decision in a dangerous area with the Maple Leafs already trailing 2-0, and essentially served up a goal to Brandon Saad.
🚨 WELCOME BACK Brandon Saad aka #TheSaadFather as he scores his 12th goal of the year as the #Blackhawks lead Toronto 3-0 in the 1st period! #CHIvsTOR #NHL #HockeyTwitter #RedMachine #OneGoal #HereComeTheHawks #ColdSteelOnIce #HockeyNightInCanada pic.twitter.com/4gzuWYDujM— ͏Sidney Brown (@sidkid80) January 19, 2020
Keefe has eight days to mull over the best spot for the talented left winger, but it’s on Johnsson to perform however he’s deployed.
Keefe offered us up something new to sink our teeth into Saturday with the decision to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen. While the move offered an answer to a future trivia question with Timothy Liljegren becoming the 1000th player in history to wear a Maple Leafs sweater, the experiment did not yield the desired results.
You don’t have to look far beyond the scoreline to make that argument, but there were also obvious instances of miscommunication that can be contributed to the lack of familiarity between combinations. (See: Liljegren and Marincin on Kubalik’s first of two goals).
With the Maple Leafs chasing from the 22-second mark of the game, Keefe’s plans within the new arrangement were surely reconsidered. But there are some learnings to take from the 11F-7D structure, anyway:
There’s a comfort with Liljegren
While his hand was certainly influenced by a highly forgettable performance from Martin Marincin, Liljegren was solid, steady, and proved himself enough to move in lockstep with Rasmus Sandin once the third period rolled around. While he saw time with all three left-shot defenders early in the game, playing mostly sparingly in that rotation, Liljegren wound up logging only one second less than Marincin.
For that reason, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him dress on the other side of the break if Jake Muzzin isn’t yet fit to return.
Keefe likes his Nylander
Taking the ice one forward short, it appeared as though Keefe was eager to empty the reserve tanks before the bye week and for the most part just roll three lines. Instead, he didn’t allow Jason Spezza and Adam Brooks to go cold on the bench at all, picking and choosing those to spot extra ice throughout. It was Matthews early that received the extra work, but from the second period on that luxury belonged almost exclusively to Nylander.
In defense of Fred
It’s been ugly lately, and no All-Star will descend on St. Louis on a worse roll. But the knives and pitchforks didn’t need to be out quite as they were for the Leafs netminder on Saturday night.
Slow to react and failing to scramble to the opposite post in time, the icebreaking goal was certainly the fault of the goaltender — but the other five were scored from premium areas on the ice conceding by the team defence. And while a wraparound situation is low percentage for the forwards, most players aren’t given the opportunity to wind all the way across the front of the net with those opportunities that initiate from behind the net.
It should have been stopped, but this goal was Toews picking on Marincin before it was ever one Andersen would like to have back:
Freddie was asked about the boos and bronx cheering he heard from the fans after another difficult outing. He said it’s easier for players to be at their best when they have support, but acknowledged that it must be earned.
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