Maple Leafs vs. Blackhawks observations: Defensive errors prove costly in loss

Connor Bedard will come away from his first visit to Toronto in the NHL with fond memories: His Chicago Blackhawks outplayed the Maple Leafs in a convincing 4-1 win.

This Leafs team can be accused of playing down to their opponent and with all due respect to the Blackhawks, it felt like that was at least partly the case on Monday night. Defensive errors were again a story and even as the Leafs made a late push, they were unable to finish their chances.

By the final whistle, the list of Leafs who had a noteworthy evening is a short one. This is a Leafs team that has designs on going deep in the playoffs. But in their own zone, the Leafs still looked unable to contain a Blackhawks team that should finish in the Western Conference basement.

“We can say it’s a long season, but we want to get our game going as soon as possible,” John Tavares said postgame.

Here are tonight’s observations:

Three Stars

1. William Nylander

The Leafs’ best player, though there wasn’t a lot of competition for this title. Nylander finished with a highlight-reel primary assist to cap off an evening of entertaining offensive zone play.

2. Auston Matthews

OK, so Matthews didn’t score a hat trick but he did try to make things happen, which is more than you can say for most of his teammates. Not only did he win 55 percent of his faceoffs, he led the Leafs with eight shots. He had a late third-period goal called off, too. But that the called-off goal has to be mentioned is indicative of what kind of night it was for the Leafs.

3. John Tavares

The captain quietly won his even-strength minutes with 67 percent five-on-five Corsi For and scored the Leafs’ lone goal.

Keefe calls out his players

After the Leafs’ first loss of the season, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t hold back in his postgame assessment, noting how the team’s turnovers sunk them early.

“I thought we were really sloppy with the puck in the first period and then got beat in transition in the second period,” Keefe said.

He didn’t stop there.

“All of our best players were really, really careless to start the game. So that didn’t give us a chance to take hold of the game,” Keefe said.

“When you let your opponent hang around, we’ve seen this movie before,” Keefe added, hinting at recurring issues with this team playing down to their opponents.

In his first start of the season, Joseph Woll showed few signs of rust. The Blackhawks put 29 shots on Woll as they outplayed the Leafs, but Woll did his best to swallow pucks and flash his glove hand when he needed to. A second-period save on Connor Bedard’s world-class shot was stopped with that glove hand with a little more gusto than we’re used to seeing from the typically diffident Woll.

The first goal he did allow came after some questionable defensive zone coverage and it’s hard to pin the loss on Woll when that’s the case. Watching his composed play, I see reason for optimism in Woll as the backup this season.

“We’re very lucky to have (Woll),” Morgan Rielly said.

Nylander the only real standout

It’s still so, so early in the season but doesn’t it feel like every time William Nylander is on the ice exciting things happen for the Leafs? Nylander’s ability to dart in and out of traffic and protect the puck makes him look like he’s on another level right now.

If you could bottle the best of Nylander, whether it was for stretches in past Leafs playoff runs or while wearing a Sweden jersey in the 2018 and 2019 world championships, that’s the Nylander Sheldon Keefe is getting to start the season. Like, how many players in the league right now are playing with this kind of moxie? How many can move as swiftly in the offensive zone?

And Tavares is benefitting. He now has six points through his first three games of the season.

After Jake McCabe was out of position and then struggled to contain Mackenzie Entwistle on the first Blackhawks goal, the defenceman slapped his stick on the ice in frustration for the entire Scotiabank Arena to see. He wouldn’t have been blamed for doing just that after the Blackhawks’ third goal. Just like on the first goal, a good case could be made that he could’ve defended the goal far better, even if the Blackhawks were on the power play. A lack of communication between McCabe and Timothy Liljegren stood out as the Blackhawks easily cut through the pair.

While the goals against stood out, it wasn’t just those plays that stung: McCabe didn’t exactly look sure of himself all night. The final numbers matched the eye test, too: His 44 percent five-on-five expected goals was neck and neck with John Klingberg for bottom in that category among Leafs defencemen.

After three games, the Jake McCabe-John Klingberg pairing hasn’t exactly clicked. And Keefe took note, shuffling the defence pairs to start the third period.

Game Score

Final grade: D

The Leafs looked flat for stretches that lasted far too long, and then sloppy with the puck for equally long stretches. I lost count of the number of missed chances that might have changed the course of the game for the Leafs.

Woll shouldn’t be blamed for the loss when the team in front of him was caught a step too slow too often.

Leafs fans will have heard this before, but: It’s early in the season and there’s probably no reason for panic.

This still feels like the kind of game Keefe is going to run lengthy video sessions off of to get his team to clean up their many mistakes.

What’s next for the Leafs?

The Leafs hit the road for the first time this season, travelling to Sunrise to play the Florida Panthers on Thursday, Oct. 19.

(Photo of Connor Bedard and Jake McCabe: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press via AP)

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