All was good and well in Leafs land, until recently.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten 11 out of the possible 14 points in the last 7 games, in which they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, while adding in a 4-game win streak through that stretch. However, that streak came to a bitter end last night at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. That game had to be one of the most frustrating to watch, from a Leafs fan’s perspective. It wasn’t the usual complaints of being outshot, or too many giveaways, or even not taking the shot when they had to. In fact, it was quite a well-played game from the Leafs. A whopping 56 shots on goal, the giveaways were about even, and they shot almost every chance they could. Just ask Nazem Kadri who had a career-high 12 shots on goal. Alexander Georgiev “stole the show” said Kadri, after stopping 55 of 56 shots. The one goal that kept him from being flawless, was a partial breakaway from Kasperi Kapanen who shot the puck in a perfect spot, post and in. That’s what was needed to beat Georgiev last night, a perfect shot, and unfortunately for the Leafs, they only got one of them. Kapanen’s 16thgoal of the season was the only puck the Leafs saw go in the back of the Rangers net, losing 4-1.
But as usual, Leaf fans analyze the game and found something to pick on. It couldn’t have been that they just ran into an unbelievably hot goal goalie in Georgiev? Or that the powerplay, which was given 4 chances, couldn’t convert on a single one? No, neither of those. Instead, most of the blame was put on first (full) year backup goalie, Garret Sparks. Sparks ended the night saving 26 of 29 for a .897 save percentage. There’s no arguing it wasn’t his best game, as fans continued to tear him apart after letting in an untouched Adam McQuaid point shot, with 8 minutes left in the third period. There’s no denying it wasn’t his best night, but let’s look a little more at the 3 goals that got by Sparks.
Goal #1Mika Zibanejad less than 30 seconds into the game. This is the goal I find so frustrating and such a momentum killer. An early goal is always tough, but this is the second time in two nights that the Leafs have allowed an opponent to score in the first minute of the game (Andrew Shaw did it Saturday night in Montreal). Not only is it a momentum killer for your defense and offense, it’s very hard on any goalie, especially a backup. Morgan Rielly completes a very early giveaway to Chris Kreider (Zach Hyman was by his side just seconds before). Kreider eventually feeds the puck out in front of the net for Mats Zuccarello who gets not one, but two chances right in the slot almost untouched, until he feeds the puck to Zibanejad to put it past Sparks. Getting back to an early goal, it’s tough, on a backup goalie, it’s even harder, but letting a first line have three opportunities from the slot less than 30 seconds into the game is unacceptable.
Goal #2A 4 on 2/4 on 3 rush right at the end of a Leafs powerplay. Ron Hainsey pinches towards the end of a powerplay and has to get back to stop it from being a 4 on 1. He gets back into the play, but that doesn’t stop Chris Kreider (freshly out of the box), from feeding it to Jimmy Vesey who goes upstairs on Sparks. The main thing that sticks out to me here, is the pass. The pass from Kreider to Vesey, it went virtually from Sparks’ right faceoff dot, to the left one, untouched. Needless to say, that can’t happen, you need to at least get a stick down or cover that pass.
Goal #3This is the McQuaid shot that had Leaf fans calling for Sparks’ head. It wasn’t a good shot, that’s obvious. But if you go back a few seconds before the shot gets to the point, look at how it got there. An exhausted Jake Muzzin feeds it right up the center of the ice, the puck gets slowed down right to McQuaid’s stick, while Auston Matthews is also providing somewhat of a screen near the hash marks. This goal can’t go in. In the final few minutes, down by a goal, Muzzin needs to fire the puck up the boards, or look for a pass, so that he can get a change.
I believe the Rangers took advantage of every opportunity whether it was the Leafs falling asleep for the first minute or so, using the extra man who jumped onto the ice after serving a penalty, or a clearing attempt up the middle of the ice. Sparks will have brighter days.
In no way am I saying all of these goals are all of the Leafs’ fault or Sparks’ fault. The way I look at it, Sparks has a .909 save percentage (league average is .908), and they ran into a hot goalie. If they had 50+ shots majority of the games this season, they would have a better record and plenty more wins down the line. When it comes to the Leafs, they have such a high-powered offense and a Norris-caliber defenceman in Rielly. Anything that is the slight bit mediocre, is going to be magnified 100x because not many things on this Leafs team is mediocre.
The two games before this one, Sparks had a win against Pittsburgh with a .933 save percentage and loss in Florida with a .929 save percentage. For a 7thround pick with a $675,000 AAV, I have no problem with the job Sparks is doing, yet. Everything will be okay, Leafs fans.
Photo Credit: CP24/Bill Kostroun