This was an otherwise uninteresting game between two sub .500 teams saved by an amazing subplot, with goaltender Garret Sparks chasing Maple Leafs history and ultimately becoming the first debuting netminder to post a shutout in the organization’s near-century long existence.

What a moment:

Three posts helped, while the Leafs battened down the hatches reasonably well defensively in this game in front of their rookie goalie, allowing just 24 shots on the night — distributed evenly at eight per period — including just one on the lone Oilers powerplay of the game, a crucial kill in the third period.

War on Ice had the Oilers outchancing the Leafs 26-17 — Sparks was credited with six high-danger saves to Anders Nilsson’s three — but the McDavid-less Oilers looked punchless, their efforts of late best summed up by this Oilers Nation commenter:

This has got to be the worst professional sports team in North America in the last decade.

No offense, defense, goaltending, heart, grit, emotion etc. etc. The list goes on and on. 10 freakin years of torture. What have us fans done to deserve this.

I am not watching this sad sack team anymore until Connor returns. He is worth watching.

Man does this team piss me off.


The quick rundown of goals: Two more from Leo Komarov, one from his office out front on the powerplay and one into an empty net, along with the third of the season from Nazem Kadri, who finally got a bounce on a third-period tip-in off a Jake Gardiner point shot.


– This was one of JvR’s most impressive games of the season – engaged from start to finish, effective on the cycle, and in on all three goals, capped by his unselfish play at the game’s end to hand Komarov his tenth of the season on the empty net. That line had a banner night to state the obvious, producing all three Leaf goals while handily winning the territorial battle. They came out even in shot attempts in eight-to-nine minutes of even strength competition against the Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot line, while feasting on Edmonton’s lower units.

– Dion Phaneuf is killing it of late: Over the last last three games, Phaneuf is a 66.3 CF% at 5v5 to go along with four points (1g,3a). Alongside Gardiner, he’s been handily eating up primarily second-line competition. He has 15 points in 24 games this season — 11 coming at even strength, with a couple of points on the powerplay in his last two games — which is as hot of a (extended) stretch he’s had in a long, long time. That means he’s about half way to his full-season point totals of the last two years with only 29% of the season in the books, and he currently sits just outside the top 10 in the NHL for points by a defenceman.

He’s obviously relishing his new role; as has been talked about often, less has been more in terms of his minutes, as Phaneuf, Hunwick and Rielly are all within the 22-22:30 range, and Phaneuf is third on the team in even strength ice time behind Rielly and Hunwick.

Phaneuf’s physical game is arguably as active and effective as it’s ever been in a Leafs jersey. He’s regularly stepping up to lay the body at the bluelines or in neutral ice – there were several examples tonight alone, headlined by his demolition on Benoit Pouliot. To the eye he’s been helped in no small part by the improved backpressure from the forwards under Babcock this season. Phaneuf is picking his spots well, but he’s also been allowed more opportunities to pressure up ice and seek out contact because he knows he has the support.

– Here’s a question: What about the temptation to start rolling out Gardiner and Phaneuf against top lines? It’s messing with a good thing in one respect, but the Hunwick and Rielly pairing has been falling off at the same time that Phaneuf’s has been surging.

Rielly, on the de facto top pair with Hunwick, is averaging a 42.2% CF at 5v5 over those three games while taking on the top matchup every night. He’s a -5 over his last nine.

Here were tonight’s 5v5 matchup results featuring Rielly and Hunwick vs. Purcell, Hall and Draisaitl:

Hunwick vs. Taylor Hall122730.8
Hunwick vs. Leon Draisaitl102727
Hunwick vs. Teddy Purcell112332.4
Rielly vs. Taylor Hall122235.3
Rielly vs. Leon Draisaitl102231.3
Rielly vs. Teddy Purcell111837.9

Hunwick seems to be showing his limitations – not that he’s not a fine player with some nice attributes, but he’s playing a heck of a lot of tough minutes for, historically speaking, a depth defenceman. Leading the team in even strength ice time, he’s got just one point in 24 games. His CFRELTM of -4.0, compared to Rielly’s -1.2, suggests he’s struggling under the weight of the role/competition more than Rielly is. The other part of this is that the go-to matchup center has been Nick Spaling, who’s in the same situation as Hunwick – they’ve been force-fitted into really tough roles they don’t have the chops for.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of this for the time being. We know these results are in large part usage driven. Babcock wants Morgan Rielly to hone the defensive side of his game and develop it to the point where he can play against the world’s best consistently and win his matchup more often than not. He’s barely playing the powerplay just to hammer home that point. There’s going to be bumps in the road, and in many respects it’s been a very positive evolution taking place with Rielly this season. Babcock is stewarding him through a step he must take in his development, although ideally the Leafs would have a better D partner — and center — to pair him with as he goes about it.

With Phaneuf, the Leafs want playing back to his capabilities as a physical, offensive defenceman – leaning on him less as a shutdown D in terms of his 5v5 matchup assignments as well as his penalty killing time, which has been slashed to just a minute and a half per game. The generally-accepted modus operandi with Phaneuf is to get him playing well enough to repair his severely eroded trade value so early on in his long-term contract. Whether it’s to move him as soon as possible or further down the road, the first 24 games of the season have been a pretty good advertisement for the long-held theory – at least among Phaneuf’s fans or defenders — that he can be very effective in a situation where he’s not relied upon to be “the” guy.

What say you?

Even Strength Shot Attempts Chart

Chart courtesy of War On Ice
Chart courtesy of War On Ice

Shot Location Chart

Screenshot 2015-12-01 05.13.33

Mike Babcock Post Game


Leafs Player Stats

M. Hunwick00002034-0:002:2320:14
D. Phaneuf01120141-2:452:0421:33
P. Parenteau00000310-2:400:0016:27
N. Spaling0000003360%0:002:1415:57
J. van Riemsdyk03320200-2:320:0017:33
S. Matthias00000201-0:001:0413:14
P. Holland00000100-2:400:0011:18
D. Winnik00000220-0:210:0011:41
B. Boyes00000010-2:370:0011:53
M. Grabner00000101-0:003:2814:21
T. Bozak0000000042%2:400:1015:59
N. Kadri1012052054%2:320:0017:57
M. Rielly00012110-0:302:1720:22
R. Polak00000071-0:004:1921:42
L. Komarov202203410%2:111:1216:56
J. Gardiner01112312-2:270:0019:22
M. Marincin00000132-0:000:5712:42
B. Froese0000011169%2:053:5215:12
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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He's published five magazines on the team entitled "The Maple Leafs Annual" with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosted "The Battle of the Atlantic," a weekly show on TSN1200 that covered the Leafs and the NHL in-depth. Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada's Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian. You can contact him at