When Maple Leafs captain John Tavares was injured in Game 1 against the Canadiens, coach Sheldon Keefe knew he had a new conundrum to solve: Find a new No.2 cross and an offense without sacrificing. defense or disturb the balance of each of its lines.
As Keefe said, the Leafs don’t have a lot of options to replace a player who does just about everything at the elite level.
Most of the speculation has fallen on Alex Kerfoot. He played center for most of his career, but was left wing on the third row to start the playoffs. He’s not that tall at five-tenths, although he’s sound defensively. But the second line is just as much about offense, creating a threat the other team can’t contain – since most of their efforts would be directed to the Leafs’ first unit.
William Nylander was another possibility. He was drafted as a center and played there for Keefe in the minors, and a bit under Mike Babcock with the Leafs.
But the job was ultimately given to Nick Foligno – who, it turns out, immediately lobbied for it.
“He told me it was more than comfortable to play center and that he would replace John if I needed him,” Keefe said.
When Foligno burst into the NHL, after the Ottawa Senators drafted him 28th overall in 2006, he found a way to the greats on the left wing. The Senators were loaded in the middle with Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly. But after a trade in 2012 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Foligno spent some time here and there. Under John Tortorella, the old-school coach appreciated Foligno’s defensive ability enough to play him center about 25 percent of the time.
“With Nick, it’s okay. He can play any position, ”Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch in 2019.
Keefe was drawn to the idea.
“Nick, even when he’s playing on the left wing, he ends up spending a lot of time playing low in the defensive zone,” Keefe said. “He’s usually high in the attacking zone and usually the first player to come back, and he’s very comfortable playing low in our own end, so it’s a pretty natural fit there.”
Turns out, Foligno can take face-offs too. He won 13 of 16 (81 percent) in the Leafs’ 5-1 win on Saturday night, their best series of seven in a game apiece. The Leafs won 66 percent of total faceoffs on Saturday, following the Habs’ victory (56 percent) in Thursday’s opener.
While Foligno isn’t necessarily as good offensively as Tavares – absent indefinitely with a concussion and knee injury – the move to center opened up a place for Alex Galchenyuk, who in some ways is ideally suited as a left winger. n ° 2.
The new second row, with Nylander remaining on the right wing, didn’t start too well and was on the ice for Montreal’s only goal. But they settled in as the game progressed. They had never played as a unit before.
“I thought we had created a few chances,” said Galchenyuk. “There were a few times when we misunderstood each other because we didn’t play together. But as the games go on, I think we’ll be comfortable playing together and we’ll adjust and help each other.
Nylander scored on the power play and assisted on Kerfoot’s empty net.
“It’s hard not to have (Tavares) there, with his size in our line, but I’m just trying to play the same way, create chances to score and keep going.
If the results continue, the acquisition of Foligno on a commercial basis should bear fruit.
The Leafs did not practice Sunday, as the series moves to the Montreal Bell Center for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday. Unless there’s a throbbing injury or two, it’s hard to see Keefe making any changes to the roster.
Their top players, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, had some terrific games and supportive players – even Pierre Engvall, who replaced Riley Nash for Game 2 – provided speed that Montreal could not match.
“I thought (Galchenyuk and Engvall) gave us what we thought we were going to get: a little extra speed, a little extra skill, competitiveness on the puck … speed is a big part of that, to be able to get to those places, ”Keefe said. “I just thought we had a very committed hockey team throughout our roster.
The power play finally started with a 2-for-6 night that could make Montreal think twice before risking physical play penalties. Canadiens captain Shea Weber was fined $ 5,000 on Sunday for a late-game crosscheck of Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds.
If there’s pressure for a roster change or two, it’s in the Montreal locker room that coach Dominique Ducharme remembers he didn’t play against rookie Cole Caufield, a gifted scorer. , while his team managed three goals in two games.
“Sometimes it’s not a one-guy question. This is how guys can fit together, ”said Ducharme. “We have many options. We have depth. We will see (Monday) the path we are going to take. “
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