The Maple Leafs won the second leg of a back-to-back for the first time this season to send themselves into the Christmas break on a winning note.
They may have come against the two worst teams in the league, but the four points go a long way in keeping Toronto in the hunt in the Atlantic Division.
Your game in ten:
1) It was a big night for the Leafs but it was an even bigger night for Auston Matthews. Returning to his hometown on the eve of Christmas with everyone he knows eagerly anticipating their chance to watching the budding superstar in person? That’s something special as a fan of the Maple Leafs and as a fan of the game of hockey. The success of a player like Matthews will have an undeniable effect on the growth of the game in the desert. Much like Matthews once grew to love the game watching players such as Daniel Briere and Shane Doan, there is a new generation of aspiring hockey players that will look to Matthews as their inspiration.
2) Matthews made an impact almost immediately, intercepting an ill-advised Martin Hanzal pass at the blueline and feeding a streaking Connor Brown for the opening tally (how quick are Matthews’ hands in tight quarters? Wow). A great start gave way to some trading of chances and a few long defensive zone shifts as the fatigue of two games in two nights was pretty apparent for Leafs. But the burgeoning chemistry with Brown still led to numerous scoring chances for Matthews, who enters the break with 26 points in 33 games, a pace that would shatter all sorts of Leafs records. Merry Christmas, Leafs fans.
3) Babcock went with Frederik Andersen tonight despite the back-to-back. It’s not a theoretically sound decision — given the irrefutable statistics that show a significant drop in goaltender performance in such a scenario — but when Andersen has been playing like he has, how can you fault Babcock? It proved the right call as this was another near flawless performance from Andersen. The Leafs were pretty handily outpossessed at even strength in the first and third, although they scored two goals on the counter in the third to give Andersen some breathing room. The let off following the opening goal — the Leafs gave up 16 shots in the first 20 — would’ve cost the team the early lead if not for the big Dane.
4) There’s no doubt the Leafs have missed Bozak in the faceoff circle and that he’s a capable middle six center, but it’s been an interesting look with Kadri flanked by JVR and Marner. It’s certainly the most talent Kadri’s had on his wings as a Maple Leaf outside of the odd rare shift between JVR and Kessel. Kadri has certainly shone in his role as Babcock’s matchup center, but life without Bozak has seen Babcock trot out a Gauthier-Komarov combination that hints at a future where Kadri can be freed up of his defensive obligations for a more offensive role. Things will return to the status quo when Bozak returns, but if he’s dealt in the future? The potential for two offensive lines centred by Kadri and Matthews is certainly intriguing. No points from the Kadri line tonight, but they were the team’s best possession trio and Kadri and Marner put four shots on goal apiece.
5) The Leafs struck on the powerplay for their second goal of the night thanks to a perfectly tippable shot by Jake Gardiner that was nicely redirected in front by Leo Komarov. Gardiner’s been an advanced stats darling for years now and there have never been doubts about his transition game or ability to exit the zone. However, the offensive production hasn’t lined up with his fantastic possession numbers at a level that grabs attention, or that puts him in the conversations he probably belongs in.
Gardiner has come on really strong of late with seven points in his last eight games. Under Babcock’s care and given time, he certainly seems like he is hitting his offensive stride, but it remains to be seen if he can sustain this over a full season.
6) The biggest tangible difference? Gardiner’s shooting the puck more, which has always been his most underutilized skill. Jake has been directing rubber at the net to the tune of over three shots a game over the same eight-game stretch whereas he’s hovered under two shots a game for most of his career. One common trend among the top NHL blueline producers is that the vast majority of them average 2.5+ shots a game. If Gardiner can keep this up, there’s no reason he can’t finally become a 40+ point defenseman.
7) On that note (“finally”), it’s sometimes easy to forget that he is 26 and probably only now showing us what an in-his-prime, at-his-peak Jake Gardiner looks like. As a fanbase, we’ve gone from having virtually no elite prospects for years on end to having quite a few of them. With immediate-impact prospects like Matthews, Marner and Rielly (and it seems inarguable to me that Nylander’s been “immediate-impact” too, time spent on the fourth line aside), it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of NHL youngsters take years before they hit their top stride — that includes the Hymans, Browns, Soshnikovs, and even Nylanders of the world. And don’t forget 22-year old Connor Carrick, another strong possession defenceman that hasn’t produced anything of note offensively. Carrick led the Leafs in 5v5 possession last night with a 55.32% (+18.28 Corsi For Rel).
8) On the other hand, Nikita Zaitsev is in a slightly different situation. Technically a rookie to the NHL, the 25-year old is certainly further ahead developmentally than a typical rookie. But there’s still a period of adjustment to be expected as Zaitsev becomes acclimated to the NHL in a tough role. We’re probably talking Christmas break next year until we have a really clear picture of what Toronto has in the Russian blueliner. That said, Zaitsev is playing some very good hockey already, and was on for all three of the Leafs’ even-strength goals last night (Rielly and Zaitsev were both plus three).
9) A couple of slump busters in the third period of last night’s game.
Anthony talked about the trade value of potential assets in JVR, Bozak and Komarov in his Leafs Notebook earlier this week. Specifically, Leo Komarov would certainly make a desirable piece at the deadline for a number of contending teams. Unfortunately, his offensive production hasn’t been where it was last year (ten games without a point prior to tonight), which makes last night’s two-goal performance a big one anyway you look at it. The attention is elsewhere with all the young talent on the roster, but Komarov is still playing the same important role in the toughest matchups and contributing in all situations. He goes into a contract season in 2016-17 and the Leafs would be remiss not to see what the market is like for him, but there is certainly no rush to move Leo. He’s an important if less heralded contributor to this team.
William Nylander busted his own slump with an effortless finish in tight on Mike Smith on a breakaway. Was it really 13 games since his last tally? It hasn’t seemed that long as Nylander has certainly looked dangerous, albeit less consistently than Matthews and Marner. He also didn’t dry up completely, with seven assists over that stretch. Back to point #7 — not everyone is a Matthews or Marner. Nylander is producing at a 56-point pace while getting less opportunity than those two. Don’t forget he’d easily be the best prospect on the majority of the other teams in the NHL.
10) Heading into the break, the Leafs are rolling. Points in six of their last eight have moved them into striking distance of the third Atlantic Division playoff spot with games in hand. They’ve also finally brought their goal differential out of the red. Sportsclubstats puts the Leafs chances of making the postseason at 40% at Christmas, which sounds about right. They’re now top 10 in score-adjusted possession, top-10 in goals for, and they’ve got a goalie in their net who has posted a .937 for the last 23 games. Where does it go from here? Can’t wait to find out.
Game in Six
Even Strength Shot Attempts