The Toronto Maple Leafs failed to sweep away the Buffalo Sabres in their home-and-home exhibition set, suffering a 5-3 split-squad loss on Saturday night. John Tavares, Pierre Engvall and Trevor Moore scored for the Leafs, while Michael Hutchinson took the loss after Michal Neuvirth made 20 saves in his preseason debut.
Here are two key points from the loss:
Point 1: Does skill suit Marner and Tavares better?
A relentless forechecker with top-end puck retrieval skills, Zach Hyman seems to make life easier on each and every one of the skill-first forwards he’s tasked with helping facilitate with his lunch-pail brand. Auston Matthews scored 74 goals in his first two seasons with Hyman digging out pucks for him as his most common linemate, while John Tavares and Mitch Marner leaned on him while each posting career seasons last year.
Still after two preseason games with Kasperi Kapanen filling in for the injured Hyman, it seems worth asking the question: Does Kapanen’s game better suit the Tavares-Marner combination?
Like Hyman, Kapanen is without immense offensive talent. But while his puck skills somewhat lag behind his elite skating ability, he’s secured primary points on that line in each preseason game through means Hyman might not necessarily be able to match.
After scoring with a quick one-timer from the high slot in the Leafs’ preseason opener, Kapanen flashed his offensive instincts again on Saturday night, cleverly re-directing a wayward point shot onto the goaltender, and for Tavares to flip in on the rebound.
— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) September 21, 2019
Kapanen then demonstrated that he could create offensive opportunities from strong defensive play as well, stripping Rasmus Ristolainen in his own zone before leading fourth liner Pierre Engvall in transition and eventually securing his second point of the night.
Kasperi Kapanen does a great job reading the play to steal the puck from Jack Eichel and start the rush. Pierre Engvall tried to pass it in the slot but it goes in off Ben Hutton instead. 2-2. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/VwrXCdDP0g
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) September 22, 2019
Transitioning to the left side to fill in for Hyman while he continues to recover from a torn ACL, Kapanen still has to prove he can play the position before he can make his case to stick with Toronto’s high-priced scoring duo.
But based on the early returns, if and when the three do reach full flight, it might not be a simple decision to split them up.
Point 2: Neuvirth takes important step
Here’s the thing about a PTO: performance in training camp is pretty much non-negotiable.
After apparently turning down guaranteed dollars to chase his apparent dream to one day play for the Maple Leafs, Michal Neuvirth (also an apparent gambler) was dealt a major blow in his quest to earn an NHL job when he was forced to miss a few skates early in training camp with an undisclosed injury.
Encouraged by how his body held up in practice once the team returned home from Newfoundland, however, Neuvirth proved himself as capable to start Saturday in Buffalo and took an important step toward prying the backup position away from Michael Hutchinson.
Neuvirth conceded two goals on 22 shots through two periods of work, beaten only on an unlucky bounce that sat for Sam Reinhart to rip home without warning and a one-timer from Victor Olofsson on a Sabres power play.
He was the better of the two netminders on the night with Hutchinson eventually taking the loss in relief, but the start will presumably have to serve as a launch point into steady progression through the remainder of the tryout for Neuvirth to win the job.
That is unless you’re convinced his oddly premature decision to have a mask decaled is because he knows something we don’t, and not that he’s just eager to take home a memento.
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