The Toronto Maple Leafs won a “four-point game” over the hot-on-their-heels Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.
The New York Islanders’ win over Vancouver means the Leafs are still on the outside looking in on a wildcard spot (and their playoff odds actually dropped slightly), but they put some distance between themselves, the Lightning and the Flyers and now trail the Bruins by two points with a game in hand.
Your game in ten:
1. A few game reviews ago – after the Anaheim game – I pointed out that Mitch Marner seems to take quite a few stick penalties in the offensive zone on the forecheck.
Overall, Marner is tied for second on the team in minor penalties alongside Roman Polak (17), and he’s had a bad run of them in the last four games.
He took one against Los Angeles that led to a goal against (the 2-1 marker at the start of the third, starting the comeback), he took another one against Anaheim, he got away with a blatant trip below the goal line against Detroit, and then his trip on Michael Del Zotto behind the net led to the opening goal last night. Typically, Marner is reaching in without body position or leaving his stick in too long and getting caught (Matthews, by comparison, is an expert at fishing picks out of feet and stripping players from far away/tough angles – he’s able to stick lift and strip in one fell swoop — but he has a reach advantage that Marner doesn’t).
With the Flyers’ power play weapons, avoiding bad penalties was almost definitely a point of emphasis before the game. Babcock reduced Marner’s minutes to 13:52 last night, his lowest TOI of the season outside of the Columbus game in which he left injured. In highly meaningful games down the stretch – many of which will be 2-1 or 3-2 score lines – those type of penalties can’t happen.
It’s not a big deal in the big picture, but it’s something Marner will need to clean up. Of course, he later made up for it in the third period with a goal on the power play.
2. Tyler Bozak’s been battling an awful nagging finger injury/infection and it’s probably been partly responsible for him missing a handful of empty-net scoring chances in the last five or so games. He was a game-time decision last night but, given the importance of the game in the standings, his coach and his teammates were no doubt expecting him to fight through it and be ready come game time.
The “vets” (which is really a shorthand for JVR and Bozak) have come under fire lately – some of it deserved — but Bozak digging in, stripping Couturier and scoring an important goal in an important game was a nice bounce-back moment for him. Let’s see if he can take advantage of a treatment day on Friday and get his game turned around at the most important time of year.
3. Nylander’s 18th of the season was a perfect shot on the power play after he led the preceding zone entry and set up.
“He gets good downforce on it. He definitely uses his strength and, when he shoots, he gets a lot of whip on his stick there. It was an unreal shot, there wasn’t much space there”
– Auston Matthews on William Nyader’s shot
Add this to the fact that Nylander is far and away at the top of the league in power play points-per-60: 19 of William Nylander’s 22 power play points are either goals or primary assists. That is a high number even among the league’s elite power play producers — Claude Giroux and Nicklas Backstrom have both collected 12 secondary assists on the power play this season, Phil Kessel has nine secondary PP assists, and Tyler Seguin has eight. Only Jamie Benn (20) has more primary power play points than William Nylander league-wide.
4. He deserves many plaudits for his contributions on the power play, but I was glad to hear Babcock point out Nylander’s improving play at 5v5 of late in his post-game presser:
Early in the year, he wasn’t as competitive to score 5 on 5, but I actually think Willy has done a fantastic job there lately. I think he’s getting better and better and better. But, I mean, he has an absolute cannon. So that helps you, but he’s got a good skill set for packing the puck in on zone entries and he’s a good player that way. I think Willy – to me – his 5-on-5 play is the biggest improvement. Not his power play; his 5-on-5 play.
In addition to the silky zone entries we’ve seen out of Willy on the PP as well as at evens, he’s shown more urgency on the forecheck of late, digging in on second and third battles to keep plays alive. When he’s doing that, the puck is on Matthews’ stick as well as his own more often and it makes the duo lethal in transition at 5v5.
Since his hat trick against Boston in early February, Nylander has 16 points in his last 17, with 10 coming at even strength.
5. This was an effective game from the Leafs’ fourth line — on the body early and often, generating a number of sustained offensive zone shifts, and getting the better of both the Flyers’ third and fourth lines in shot attempts. All three members of the fourth line finished above 70% CF.
The early results from the Brian Boyle addition are really promising, although not particularly surprising for a tried-and-true “line driver.” While he’s recorded just the one assist so far, the transformation of the fourth line has been stark in terms of its control over the balance of play the last five games:
|Player||With Boyle||Without Boyle|
|Matt Martin||61% CF||46.9% CF|
|Nikita Soshnikov||70.1% CF||46% CF|
(Small sample size has to be kept in mind, obviously).
6. Consider also that Boyle has only won 41.6% of faceoffs since arriving in Toronto – and just 36.6% in the defensive zone — with only one game above 50% so far. Last night was his worst on the dot in his five games with the Leafs (4 for 14, 28.6%). His career track record almost guarantees that number will rebound, but it’s always interesting when the possession numbers are so good despite the draw numbers being so bad…
One factor in why Boyle’s faceoff numbers are lagging so far could be rust. He was primarily playing left wing for his final couple of months in Tampa, which meant he wasn’t taking as many draws (typically just those on his strong side). He lined up for 5.8 draws per game in his last two months in Tampa, compared to 15.4 per game since arriving in Toronto.
(The other factor might be winger support, which is worth an examination on its own given the team’s overall struggles in the faceoff circle this season compared to last).
7. Nikita Soshnikov has enjoyed having a real NHL center to play with, taking nine shots in four games since re-entering the lineup — he was taking just 1.2/game in his first 47 games — and ringing the iron on the penalty kill late in the third (Boyle and Soshnikov gave the Leafs a great PK shift at an important time of the game). There is no player on the Leaf roster with more to give offensively than what he’s shown than Soshnikov — most of it is the result of his circumstances, having played next to Ben Smith and Matt Martin most of the year — but he’s been flying the past couple of games.
8. Frederik Andersen’s now up to a .940 save percentage in his last six starts with a 36-save performance last night; his 12th game of the year with more than 35 saves, which is third in the league behind only Robin Lehner and Mike Smith. The other three goaltenders with 10 or more 35+ save games all backstop bottom-ten/clear non-playoff teams — Buffalo (Lehner), Phoenix (Smith), and Vancouver (Miller). This was a game-changing sequence in the middle of the second period, started by a pair of massive saves by Andersen:
9. Dodgy final minute and a half aside, the Leafs entered the second intermission with the lead… and came out for the third period, controlled play, and added to their lead, taking 12 out of the first 16 shot attempts in the period. Should try that more often.
10. With Nylander and Marner picking up points last night, there remains the distinct possibility that the Leafs will have three 60-plus point rookie scorers. Remarkable:
Only 11 rookies in the cap era have scored 58 or more points. None of them did it in the same season as a teammate. https://t.co/ztCTpqvTPq
— Draglikepull (@draglikepull) March 10, 2017