Game Preview: Leafs visit the stingy Minnesota Wild

Game Preview: Leafs visit the stingy Minnesota Wild

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Tonight, the Leafs, scorers of two goals in their last three games, look to rediscover their scoring touch against a Minnesota team that’s allowed only 18 goals over 10 home games (7-1-2).

Once known for a 2011-12 collapse often bragged about in the advanced stats community (started at 20-7-3, missed the playoffs), Mike Yeo’s team this season has achieved a 10-4-4 record with a shooting percentage below league average and top-notch Corsi. While Josh Harding’s .947 save percentage over 14 games is remarkable, he’s done it while facing only 286 shots (20.4 shots a game is crazy low, especially coming from a Leafs fan).

In terms of the enemy threat, Zach Parise leads the team with 15 points (playing on a line with Koivu and youngster Charlie Coyle). Pominville is shooting the lights out with 11 goals in 18 games, playing on a line with Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. The Wild have recently put together a shutdown line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine that has been experimented against top competition at even strength the past couple of games. For anyone wondering about Dany Heatley, he’s got 4 points in 18 games and is currently on the Wild’s 4th line. He scored 50 in ’07, though.

The Wild have been riding their top pairing on defence very heavily, even more so than usual, in recent outings. Suter played over 35 minutes the other night in a shootout win over Carolina (over half the game). Brodin clocked over 29 minutes. With Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard out hurt, perhaps the bottom two pairs are there to be exploited, but the Wild play effective shot-suppressing team defense.

The Leafs last meeting with the Wild was an amusing 4-goal, 13-shot win in mid October. The Leafs allowed 37 shots, but scored on their first shot of the game against rookie Darcy Kuemper, and then put 2 more by him on their next 6 shots in what is likely to be Kuemper’s only NHL start this season. Obviously, the odds of replicating their 31% shooting percentage against the Wild with Harding or Backstrom in net, who is top 5 in save percentage, are what one might label as “not high.”

The Leafs have been playing .500 since their 6-1 start, but have been winning games they should against weaker teams for the most part. The Wild are not a weak team, but the Leafs will have to keep that habit up over an easy next 10 games before embarking on their hellish December schedule, as we discussed.

Building on a good final 40 minutes of even strength play against Boston will be the priority for the Leafs tonight. The Leafs mustered 18 shots at even strength in the 2nd period and kept the Bruins scoreless at 5 on 5, but were ultimately let down by an 0-7 power play and a 1 for 3 penalty kill. It was the opposite to how the Leafs have been playing while winning this season, and sure enough they lost. That will have to change tonight; the Wild penalty kill is the weakest part of their game, and the Leafs took advantage of that for two of their three (non empty net) goals in the first meeting. The Leafs PK, meanwhile, missing Bozak and Bolland, has dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in a long time after conceding twice against Boston; it will need to get back on track against the second best power play in the league.

The sight of the Leafs cycling the puck in the Bruins end was a redeeming sight amid the Leaf loss. Provided they can successfully break out of their end, they have the speed to out skate teams on the cycle if they’re committed to outworking them. The 60-minute-long focus and effort continues to elude the team, however.

Said Carlyle after yesterday’s practice: “the best teams in the league can get the pucks in deep and go to work. We haven’t done enough of that.” Carlyle was pleased with the Leafs ability to retrieve the puck on the forecheck in the 2nd period against Boston and was happy to see the Leafs moving well off the puck to sustain the cycle, but he wants to see those things executed consistency before he gets too excited.

The lines from practice have been Raymond – JvR- Kessel, Lupul – Kadri – Kulemin, Ashton – McClement – Clarkson, and McLaren – Smithson – Orr. Defence pairings are likely to remain Phaneuf-Gunnarsson, Gardiner-Franson and Fraser-Ranger, with Rielly as a 7D option.

James Reimer stopped 36 of 37 shots in the Leafs’ 4-1 win over Minnesota on October 15 and seems like the logical choice in net. Update: Bernier gets the start as Carlyle chooses to rotate after a loss. Backstrom is in for the Wild (1-1-2, 3.42 GAA, .871sv%).

 
Leafs
Wild
Record11-6-010-4-4
GF/G2.88 (11th)2.61 (17th)
GA/G2.35 (10th)2.06 (3rd)
SF/G26.7 (28th)28.9 (22nd)
SA/G36.5 (28th)24.2 (1st)
PP21.7% (6th)23.9% (2nd)
PK83.8% (12th)78.3% (26th)
5 on 5 F/A1.16 (8th)1.75 (2nd)
Sh%10.8% (1st)9.0% (15th)
Sv%93.6% (3rd)91.5% (12th)
FO%45.6% (25th)55.1% (3rd)
Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]