The Toronto Maple Leafs picked up a valuable point in a good showing against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.
With the Islanders losing in overtime and Tampa Bay in regulation, the Leafs playoff odds improved to 62.9% at game #70.
Your game in ten:
1. The Leafs’ overtime and shootout record remains a sore thumb, especially for a club that has enough offensive talent to own the top-ranked power play in the league. The Leafs are 6-7 overall in games decided during the 3v3 overtime period and 2-5 in their last seven OT decisions. They also have collected just 7 of 22 extra-time points due to their 1-8 shootout record. At some point, these are lost points that the coaching staff has to take some responsibility for.
Between his skill level, speed and cannon of a shot, William Nylander is probably the second best 3v3 option on the roster outside of Auston Matthews. Any overtime strategy that features Hyman, Komarov and Brown playing 0:40-1:00 shifts while Nylander sees 20 seconds of ice total is highly questionable; it’s especially the case when Nylander had been flying all game. While Toews and Kane play half the overtime period, the Leafs repeatedly choose not to live and die by their best talent.
If Babcock was giving Matthews, Marner and Nylander heavy minutes in OT and they were repeatedly losing games at 3v3 due to lost faceoffs or defensive mistakes, it’d be one thing to mix in a few different faces. Instead, we’re in a situation where Babcock is playing it safe, even while knowing his team can’t win a shootout if it gets there.
2. To further hammer home the point because it’s an important one as far as the standings are concerned: The Leafs have been to overtime 22 times and have won six, lost seven and sent nine to the shootout, where they’re 1-8.
To put that in perspective, the Leafs would be jostling for divisional playoff positioning and currently fighting for home-ice advantage in round one right now if they just managed to collect 12 of a possible 22 extra-time points.
3. All that said, Morgan Rielly should’ve nipped this conversation in the bud.
This is an exercise in how not to one-time a puck into an open net. We can see that the pass is already off of Nazem Kadri’s stick blade with Corey Crawford fully committed to the puck carrier at the same time that Rielly’s skates are pointed toward the end boards and his hands are about a foot apart at the top of the shaft. If he had opened his body up, choked down on the stick and given Kadri a clearer target, this would’ve been game over.
Rielly needs to put in some work on his one-timers; he regularly makes less-than-stellar contact due to awkward footwork, timing, and hand placement.
4. With the negative stuff out of the way, this was a fantastic low-scoring hockey game. The whistles were away, there was a lot of skill and speed on the ice, both teams were wearing great uniforms, both sides played a disciplined and structured game, and there were two pretty goals scored off the rush… all capped off by a heart-racing 3v3 OT period with a game-winning goal right at the death.
5. This was also one of the Leafs’ better defensive performances of the season in terms of staying on the inside and being organized in their defensive zone coverage. The Hawks eclipsed the Leafs in possession time and overall shots, but Chicago didn’t have much room to operate for the most part and didn’t create many openings in the house. Home-plate chances favoured the Leafs 33-28 by Natural Stat Trick’s count, while the shot attempts were dead even after regulation.
Kane sliced through them for a partial breakaway early in the first, but overall the Leafs were pretty organized through the neutral zone amid all of Chicago’s attempts to generate speed from behind the puck via regroups and east-west passes. Babcock’s coached with and against Joel Quenneville for a long time and — OT frustrations aside — the Leafs looked like a team well-prepared for the challenge.
6. Babcock described it as a game where he “rolled four out the door” more than a hard matchup situation, but he did pretty consistently line up Nazem Kadri against Patrick Kane (15:55 head to head) and Brian Boyle against the Jonathan Toews line (9:30 head to head). On defence, the patchwork continues; we saw either Roman Polak or Matt Hunwick out with Rielly (usually Polak) in Marchenko’s place whenever Toews and Kane were on the ice. DJ Smith managed to limit Marchenko — who played 11 minutes and change overall — to just 34 seconds and 51 seconds, respectively, when Kane and Toews were on the ice.
It makes for an interesting question about the makeup of the defence pairs when Connor Carrick returns and Marchenko sits again. The team is finding better luck with Rielly and Zaitsev split up of late (granted, it’s early days), Hunwick-Polak remains a staple, and Carrick-Gardiner was a successful play-driving pair before Carrick’s injury. FWIW, the Sunday practice pairs had Carrick sliding in next to Morgan Rielly.
7. The touchdown Florida dropped on the Leafs shouldn’t be dismissed, but it does somewhat skew the perception of the Leafs recent defensive form. They’ve now allowed two goals or fewer in five of their last six. Granted, five of those six games were against teams outside the playoff picture in the East, but last night’s defensive display against an elite team was encouraging. Now, how does that hold up with the red-hot Bruins and Blue Jackets up next?
8. This was a much better game from Zach Hyman — more jump in his step, a number of successful puck retrievals, he put two on a tee for Auston Matthews from below goal line, and he won the half-wall battle in the defensive zone to start the rush on the Nylander and Matthews give-and-go goal. This looked more like the Hyman we saw during his most productive stretch of the season back in November. The secondary assist on Matthews’ goal broke a five-game pointless slump.
9. Speaking of slump-busting, Auston Matthews put his seven-gamer to bed with his first-period goal, the 13th time he’s opened the scoring this season. That’s three better than next-best Patrick Kane, who has opened the scoring 10 times. Teams that score first win have won 65% of the time this season overall. On top of that, Matthews has scored six game-winners.
Matthews wasn’t able to nab a point in the 5-0 blowout of Tampa Bay, but I thought that was one of his better defensive games of the season. It’s nice to see a young player rewarded for focusing on the right things when he’s struggling to find the score sheet.
10. I thought Frederik Andersen could’ve played the OT winner better, but this was another rock solid performance in what was his 20th game of the season with 35 or more shots against (that ranks second in the NHL behind Robin Lehner). Consider that five of the six goalies at the top of that statistical category play for teams that are going to miss the playoffs, and it provides a pretty good sense of Andersen’s value to the organization this season.