Maple Leafs conjure up bigger underdog story than David Ayers in “replacements” win

Move over EBUG controversy, the Toronto Maple Leafs just put together a huge effort to protect their playoff spot and star goalie with a bunch of defensemen who shouldn’t even still be on the team.

For a team that couldn’t beat a Zamboni driver in goal on Saturday, the Leafs looked potent offensively, sound defensively, and motivated to take two points from an equally lopsided Panthers squad.

The only problem for the Buds was their defensive pairings. Reminiscent of a split-squad team that was clearly the B team, the crew’s depth was on display here:

Dermott – Holl
Sandin – Barrie
Marincin – Liljegren
Rosen

The seven-man core consists of the injury-prone next big thing (Dermott), our should-be seventh defenseman (Holl), our best Marlies D (Sandin), should-have-been-traded guy (Barrie), Shouldn’t-have-a-contract-guy (Marincin), our second-best Marlie (Liljegren), and a member of the Colorado Avalanche (Rosen). What a team.

To compound issues, Frederick Andersen had one of the worst periods of hockey in his life. With awful rebound control, less-than-usual edge work, and uncharacteristic swimming in his crease, Andersen channelled prime James Reimer with similar results.

A vote of confidence from the head coach to start him in the second (not a popular opinion) saw Andersen settle eventually, but not without near-constant bailing out by his rag-tag group of defensemen. Yes, the replacements showed up and actually looked like a solid group of players.

The biggest improvements in the D-core were their patience on the puck, willingness to turn back and retain possession, and ability to work with their backchecking forwards to section off any Panthers pressure. Timely pinching was also on display regularly, with extra motivated teammates coving back and offensive zone possession limiting defensive zone time.

Capped off with an empty-net goal by newly crowned shutdown defender Justin Holl, the wobbling puck that somehow tracked into the vacant goal showed that the Hockey Gods don’t fulfill lofty wishes, but rather guide justified results from ice level for hardworking efforts.

Honestly, the Leafs getting any sort of performance from these players tonight was unlikely, but keeping Florida to under 30 shots on a night where Freddy didn’t have it? It’s a narrative so unlikely the David Ayres story will drift into oblivion. Move over, Zamboni EBUG, the replacements are here, and they’re aiming for the playoffs.

The Leafs loss to the Panthers has me acting like Kombucha Girl

If you’re unfamiliar, Kombucha Girl is shown in the GIF below drinking the vinegary, sweet drink and going back and forth on if it’s good or not. After watching the game last night… same, girl.

Image result for kombucha girl gif"

Ugh, Gross: Nothing like dominating the game and giving up the first goal anyways on the second shot of the night, eh? The Leafs looked settled, motivated, hungry, and yet, a goal down 11:30 into the game. It had been all Leafs up to that point but as fate usually has it, a Mark Pysyk shot fools Anderson and the Leafs are down. Bitter, even vinegary, way to start the game.

Wait a minute…: Open those eyes, lady! A strong second period has me feeling all sorts of sweet! John Tavares finally scored and got the monkey off his back. He still looked pretty awful and sluggish in the game but a goal is good for his mentality, and if you’re scoring while you’re sucking, imagine how many you’ll pot when you’re actually playing good?!

Goals by Nylander and Matthews made it three unanswered for the Buds and with a little less than the full 20 minutes of the third left to play, it looked like cruise control for the Leafs. Yes, Anderson was booted from the game, but Hutchinson has looked alright recently so why not just have some faith?

No, no, no: I swear the Leafs players should get cuts out of every mediocre nobody player who shows up against the “high-flying, offense juggernaut Leafs team” and has a career night. Mark Pysyk was the guy who decided to go Gretzky on this occasion and completely blew the Leafs out of the water.

Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman chipped in goals, but Pysyk’s empty-netter hattrick saw the Panthers cap a four-goal third period and completed the comeback in a game where they were dead in the water.

Well, maybe it’s not THAT bad…: So, is Hutch bad again? Is the D-Core strong enough to contend down the stretch? Can the Leafs overcome losing to divisional opponents? Is this a playoff team? All good questions. The honest answer? I have no idea, but I do have opinions… all of which mimic kombucha girl even more!

Is Hutchinson a good enough back up? Nope, the Leafs should be looking to upgrade and should be prioritizing a move for a goalie over a defenseman. Georgiev anyone?

Is the D-Core good enough? Yes! Rasmus Sandin was awesome last night, Jake Muzzin was great, Barrie was okay, Ceci was fine, Dermott wasn’t great but has been solid this year, and Rielly is still out. Lot’s more positives in this group than negatives.

Can the Leafs overcome dropping points to divisional opponents? There are thirty games left in the schedule. Have the Leafs put themselves behind the 8-ball by playing terribly against the Panthers? Of course, but there is a LOT of hockey left. Just win games.

Is this a playoff team? 1000% it is. Look at the Blue Jays for years throughout the 2000s. They played in the AL East, a notoriously tough division, and lost out because of it, left to scrap for a wildcard spot. Those teams were better than their record suggested and the same goes for the Leafs.

Fill your woeful Leaf-less schedule with Marlies appreciation

Forget the team that seemingly always lets you down and breaks your heart with the playoffs on the line. It’s time to focus on Toronto’s real team – the Toronto Marlies. But seriously, these kids are good…

The next generation of Maple Leafs talent is excelling in the Calder Cup playoffs. And, while there may not be an Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner in that group, there are a few gems who will make an impact on the Leafs in the future.

On Defense

There is nowhere else to logically begin other than with Rasmus Sandin. The AHL rookie out of the Soo Greyhounds has had a lights-out season with the Marlies. 28 points in 44 games played is remarkable for a defenseman, let alone a 19-year-old in his first season.

With the playoffs well underway, Sandin has kept the pace with his 7 points in 5 games. At 5’11”, 183lbs. Sandin isn’t going to bowl anyone over with physical play. Instead, his vision and ability to pick a pass opens up the game for his teammates. This kid is serious.

The Leafs added wisely with the signing of NCAA defenseman Joseph Duszak. Like Sandin, Duszak brings skill and speed over size on the back end and elite level production at the college level. In three seasons with Mercyhurst College, he had 79 points in 103 games played, including this season where he scored 47 points in 37 games played.

Lastly we’ll focus on Timothy Liljegren, the Leafs first round pick in 2017. While he hasn’t taken off offensively like many would have hoped (15 points in 43 games this season), Liljegren has been the perfect defensive partner for Sandin. More of a stay-at-home defender, there is a lot to like about Liljegren and his potential impact on the Leafs in the near future.

Forwards

It’s Jeremy Bracco’s world, and we’re all just living in it right now. The dynamic playmaking winger has a Calder Cup playoff leading 10 points through just five playoff games so far. This matches his regular season production where he put up 79 points in 75 games this year.

While technically “undersized”, Bracco is as close to elite as you can get for an AHL prospect. The right winger is as adept at scoring goals as he is creating them. He will be a Maple Leaf sooner rather than later, but as for now, enjoy the Calder Cup run with what may be the best player in the league.

Don’t tell him his age, but Chris Mueller is 33 years old and is producing like he’s chasing an ELC in the NHL. The journeyman center has been imperative in the Marlies sustained AHL success and this year has been no different. He centers the first line with the likes of Bracco on the wing and benefits from his line-mates’ skill but also makes the most of his chances with his experience.

Lastly, we need to talk about Dmytro Timashov. The 22-year-old has seemingly always been on the precipice of taking the next step. He was eventually passed by Nylander, Johnsson, and Kapanen to the big club. I have complete faith that he’ll eventually be an effective depth winger for the Leafs, but when? Anyways, Timashov looked great this season with 49 points, and he’s added 4 points in 5 playoff games, too.