The Toronto Maple Leafs built on a strong showing in St. Louis with a 3-2 shootout win over the visiting Devils on Tuesday night.

Toronto fell behind early in this one, as a Roman Polak cross checking penalty gave New Jersey a powerplay less than a minute into the game.  The Devils cashed in off a deflected point shot shortly thereafter.  To rub salt into the wound, the goal came courtesy of ex-Leaf Lee Stempniak as he flashed the skills that enticed Cliff Fletcher to deal Alex Steen for him six years ago.  Not really – that’s still a horrendous, tear-inducing trade.  Sarcasm aside, Stempniak has established himself as a fairly reliable producer across many clubs in various roles over the years.  His season thus far in New Jersey has been especially effective, but that is largely a testament to the effect of John Hynes on this Devils club.

In fact, the Devils are running somewhat parallel to the Leafs with respect to new bench bosses taking teams that aren’t stocked with elite talent to surprising heights based on systemic changes.  It remains doubtful that either team will make the playoffs this season.  Yet, with the core players on both squads largely intact from last year’s joint debacles, the undeniable systemic improvement serves as a reassuring building block going forward.

Another undeniable improvement in this year’s iteration of the Leafs has been their resiliency and consistency in effort.  Toronto came back at the Devils hard with a dominant remainder of the first frame, outshooting New Jersey 16-7 in the process.  As the probabilities go, it was a bouncing 74 foot shot from P.A. Parenteau that found its way past Cory Schneider to tie it at 1-1 with a little under six minutes to go in the period.

Hilariously, James van Riemsdyk (with a straight face) implied that Parenteau planned this massive fluke of a goal, saying:

“He made a smart play.  Pucks seemed to be bouncing around there, even in the warmup, so I’m sure he took notice of that.  It looks lucky, but it’s a lot less lucky than it is, because he has to put the puck in that position.”

Come on, James. Let’s draw the line for teammate tire-pumping quotes somewhere before crowing about calculated 70+ foot trick shots.

On the other hand, it’s hard to blame JVR for his post-game exuberance as he was probably feeling the effects of his own powerplay goal early in the second.  The go-ahead marker came off some smart puck movement with the man advantage.  Phaneuf received the puck from Bozak on the point and saw the open man in front of the net in van Riemsdyk.  JVR tipped the low shot home as he continues to prove that he is one of the most skilled net-front presences in the NHL.

Unfortunately, the lead did not last as a Palmieri powerplay blast tied it back up later that period.  This resulted in a third frame where neither team played a risky game.  The Leafs came on strong near the end of the period with a number of chances, but nevertheless the game headed to overtime.

Three-on-three overtime was the usual gongshow of odd-man rushes and frantic play.  Michael Grabner continues to be particularly ineffective, as he whiffed on a couple of glorious chances in extra time. The game would require Toronto’s league-high seventh shootout to settle the score.  To put that in perspective, there are four teams in the NHL that have been in zero shootouts this season.  It would take five shooters and some fantastically nifty mittens by Nazem Kadri, but the Leafs ended up with the win.

https://vine.co/v/i7V2lPKdM20

By the numbers, coming off a competitive possession performance versus one of the League’s possession giants in the (admittedly tired) Blues (it was dead even with the score close), this was a really solid performance by the Leafs. They outchanced the Devils 19-9 at even strength and carried a significant 73-47 lead in shot attempts. This type of 5v5 performance has been unheard of in Toronto as far back as recent memory serves. The Leafs currently sit at a competitive 49.6 CF% at even strength — good for 15th in the league. They’re 19th in 5v5 CF% in score-close situations, which is less than ideal, but their 49.1 CF% is a big leap forward from their paltry 45.2% mark in score-close situations last season. It’s safe to say — given what he has to work with — Mike Babcock has come exactly as advertised.

In what seems to be a never-ending stream of bizarre scheduling choices, Toronto now has a full week off before their next game.  This type of break is inconceivable in the NHL season and it is hard to predict exactly what the Maple Leafs will do with it.  With some strong games strung together, one would hope that their rhythm is not disrupted and that the time off serves to rejuvenate and allow some of the wounded (Reimer, Lupul) and exiled (Bernier) to return as positive additions to the team.


Player Notes

Garret Sparks – Sparks had another excellent showing in his fourth NHL game.  He now sits with a 3-1 record and a sparkling 0.921 SV%.  He could not be faulted on either of the goals scored and made a number of athletic stops throughout the night.  Furthermore, he made an incredible save in the shootout that had Mike Babcock doing his best to hide a smile of pleasure on the bench.  Babcock has already made it clear that Sparks will return to the Marlies after Bernier finishes up next weekend in the AHL.  It’s easy to jump to rash conclusions when it comes to goalies in this market, but the hope should be that Bernier rebounds in his return to the big club while Sparks continues to dominate in the minors.  An open goalie spot with the Leafs is almost a certainty for next season, and Sparks is making a very strong case for that position.

https://vine.co/v/i7V2mO3KFLH

Roman Polak – Babcock has started to lean on Roman Polak more in the past week — 21:08 tonight, with a massive 5:21 on the PK — likely realizing he simply has no better options.  Polak always brings his honest, hard-working game and has overcome a somewhat sluggish start to the season in this recent stretch.  However, as an upcoming UFA he is almost certainly not part of the Leafs future and management will be looking to move him at the deadline.  Polak is the type of defensemen that teams generally overpay for in preparation for the playoffs — some added depth and PK ability — and Babcock has been certainly been showcasing him lately as Toronto hopes to snag a mid-round pick for the Czech native come February.

Peter Holland – I find myself writing about Peter Holland fairly often.  This is in part due to what has been an interesting progression that reflects well on both Holland and how Mike Babcock develops his players.

  1. After Game 6, I wrote, “Right now he is firmly behind Kadri, Bozak and Spaling on Mike Babcock’s depth chart and has done nothing to warrant an extended look in a more significant role.  This is an important season for Holland to prove his worth and cement a long-term role with this club.  It has not been a good start for the twenty-four year old, but there’s a lot of hockey left to play.” Holland’s lackluster start culminated in some healthy scratches and some pointed comments by Mike Babcock to the media.
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  2. Holland would later return to the lineup. While his overall ice time was still somewhat limited, Babcock gave him a fair look in an offensive role with powerplay time that provided immediate dividends. This prompted the following commentary after Game 22: “On the topic of looking to the future of the Maple Leafs franchise, one has to wonder: where will Peter Holland fit in? Management needs to take advantage of this interim period to thoroughly assess a still-young player like Peter Holland.  His pedigree certainly suggests top six potential, but his career trajectory thus far leaves him as an uncertainty… Regardless, this will be a very important season for Holland’s future with the franchise.  It would be great to see him force himself into a larger role under Mike Babcock but it’s not going to be easy.”
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  3. That takes us to Tuesday night, where Holland saw a season high of 19:40 of ice time. He has produced 12 shots in the last four games and had a number of instances in this game where he confidently used his frame to shield the puck in transition. Mike Babcock rewarded Holland’s aforementioned powerplay success with an increased role at even strength, promoting him to the wing in the top six where he has flanked Nazem Kadri in recent games.  This type of player management by Babcock and co. is incredibly refreshing, as in recent years success was not always rewarded with more opportunity.  Good on Holland and Babcock, and let’s hope the progression continues.

Frankie Corrado – Who is this guy? Does he even exist?  I dream of one day writing about him actually playing in a Leafs uniform.  Stay strong Frankie, we’re rooting for you.


Even Strength Shot Attempt Chart

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Shot Location Chart

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Player Stats — Leafs 3 vs. Devils 2

PLAYERGAP+/-PIMSHITSBKSFO%PP TOISH TOITOI
M. Hunwick00000111-0:116:0625:19:00
D. Phaneuf01102221-4:541:4423:40
P. Parenteau10110502-4:150:0017:33
N. Spaling0000004155%0:075:1514:49
J. van Riemsdyk10110610-4:150:0017:23
S. Matthias00000000-0:001:408:18
P. Holland00000430-3:550:0319:40
D. Winnik00000110-0:480:1410:09
B. Boyes00000310-3:420:0010:53
M. Grabner00000200-0:075:5615:12
T. Bozak0111021052%4:230:0018:19
N. Kadri0000221075%3:550:1821:15
M. Rielly00002220-0:522:0319:22
R. Polak01112393-0:005:2121:08
L. Komarov00000230-3:470:5421:15
J. Gardiner00000020-3:120:0017:18
M. Marincin00010110-0:001:3410:52
B. Froese0000211057%3:022:2814:11

Mike Babcock Post Game