Near the end of the 2013-14 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs looked to be cruising to a playoff spot playing a shotgun style of hockey while getting excellent goaltending from Jonathan Bernier.

With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Bernier got hurt in a game against the LA Kings. The rest, as they say, is history.

Toronto went an astonishing 2-12-0 down the stretch after that. They were nine points up on a playoff spot and finished nine points out when it was all said and done.

A little over three years later, the Leafs walked into Buffalo cruising to a playoff spot with an 85.2% chance to qualify. There was a gap building with Boston riding a four-game losing streak while Tampa Bay and the Islanders were multiple points behind the Leafs. Things were looking good.

But Buffalo has always been a house of horrors for the Leafs, and it lived up to its reputation yet again.

The regulation loss is one thing – the Leafs can go .500 the rest of the way and should make the playoffs – but the loss of Frederik Andersen would put everything in jeopardy. Now, this team isn’t that team. They are a middle of the pack possession team with a deep scoring attack (six 50-point scorers) — two things that the previous Leaf team in this position could not boast.

But any sort of extended absence from Andersen is cause for concern. He has been a workhorse for Toronto, starting the second most games of any goalie in the league to date (only Cam Talbot is ahead of him) with 61. There are 29 goalies in the league that have played over 40 games, and Andersen is tied for ninth in save percentage among that group. According to Corsica hockey, he’s faced the second-most shots in the league and plays on a team that has allowed the third most shots against in the league.

If the season ended today, it would be tough to argue that anyone but Andersen has been the team’s MVP.

So there is cause for concern as Toronto gets set for a whirlwind end to the season in which they play eight games in 13 days starting tomorrow (Tuesday, March 28). Four of those games are against playoff teams, one is against a team they are fighting for a playoff spot with in Tampa Bay, and the other three are against division rivals Florida, Detroit and Buffalo.

Down the stretch, it has looked like 93 points would be the cutoff in the East. With eight games remaining, that would mean a 4-4-0 finish should get the Leafs in the playoffs. The teams they are competing with would need the following records to get there:

Boston4-2-1
New York Islanders5-1-2
Tampa Bay6-2-0

Considering how good everyone else would have to play down the stretch, 92 or even 91 might get them in. The goal for Toronto being, of course, to avoid Washington in the first round and play Ottawa (presumably). So it is important to get more points than Boston and Tampa Bay, in particular.

All of this circles us back to Andersen, his health, and Curtis McElhinney. Since coming over from Columbus, McElhinney has generally provided what any fan reasonably could have asked for, sporting a .919 save percentage in ten games. In the last three seasons, he has posted a cumulative .910 save percentage, which is slightly below average league-wide.

Alternative options include Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau from the Marlies. Sparks, who factored in the tank last season with his .893 save percentage, is having a good season in the AHL with a .925 save percentage. Bibeau, who looked good in two games for the Leafs, has really struggled with a .894.

If Andersen is out for any sort of extended period of time, I would guess Toronto gives McElhinney the first crack at the net as he is an experienced veteran who has been solid in his time in Toronto. If he falters at all, one of the AHL goalies could get in there and try to catch lightning in a bottle. The Leafs are due a Wade Dubielewicz moment.

A potential scenario exists where Andersen doesn’t miss any time at all but his quality of play suffers due to playing through an injury. That would make for an interesting decision between playing the better goalie who is hurt or playing the healthy goalie who isn’t as good. This is why the sports science department was assembled.

A lot of things would still have to go wrong to miss, but the Leafs generally don’t do things the easy way.


Notes

– Don’t think it was a coincidence that the Leafs went 2-2-1 without Mitch Marner at the end of February, and 7-4-2 since he has returned to climb into the third spot in the division. He has nine points and 25 shots on goal in those 13 games and leads his line in scoring for the season. Babcock has referenced that Marner drives his line throughout the season; that is because he leads them in clean zone entries and is able to create space out of nothing. The second power play unit runs through him – he leads them in scoring and runs the half-wall – and the team’s overall power play has been clicking at 28.6% since he returned.

– The breakdown of penalty killing ice time for that 6:54 kill against Columbus:

PlayerTime on ice shorthanded
Matt Hunwick4:00
Nikita Zaitsev2:59
Zach Hyman2:44
Morgan Rielly2:37
Connor Brown2:16
Leo Komarov2:04
Eric Fehr1:33
Brian Boyle1:23
Jake Gardiner0:24

Hunwick has received a lot of criticism this season — some of it justified — but he has been a key piece of the penalty kill and that is why he keeps his spot in the lineup on a nightly basis.

– They are not at all similar mistakes, but I couldn’t help think of Pat Quinn’s lineup card mistake against the Islanders in the 2002 playoffs. I am sure the odds of a five-minute penalty not having a single whistle are very low, but the Leafs had seven forwards that did not sniff the ice during that time. Pick one and put him in the box.

–  There has been a lot of talk about the Leafs struggles to hold onto leads this season. There wasn’t much talk about the two they held onto this week against Columbus and New Jersey. They gave up 10 and 14 shots respectively in those periods, so it wasn’t perfect lockdown hockey, but they got the job done and looked a lot more comfortable than they have for long periods of time in those scenarios. For a young team whose keys players are nearly all rookies, it is to be expected.

– Against Columbus in particular, the Kadri line had a 20-second stint in the Columbus offensive zone with under five minutes left which resulted in a 4-2 lead. A few minutes before that, Matthews and Nylander combined to set up Zaitsev for a good scoring chance after a good forecheck and hit by Nylander to create a turnover.

– Nylander had the physicality knock on him coming up through his draft year and during his time in the minors, but he has been engaged and physical during his 11-game point streak. He got into it with Torey Krug behind the play, threw some hits against Columbus, and he’s been generating some offense off the cycle, not just the rush. His shot and flashy goals are receiving a lot of attention, but his overall game has come a long way. It said a lot that Babcock had him on with Boston’s goalie pulled to protect a one-goal lead.

– Expensive week for the Leafs as a few bonuses were activated: Nylander unlocked two $212,500 bonuses by notching his 20th goal and 35th assist, while Marner and Matthews guaranteed themselves a .73 ppg.

What’s left: Marner is three goals and points away from 20 goals and 60 points. Nylander is also three points away from the 60-point bonus. Matthews and Marner will get additional bonuses for being in the top six in ice time, as will Zaitsev for being top four in ice time among defensemen. In addition, Zaitsev leads the defense in blocks and should hit the bonus of finishing top two. Matthews is first among forwards in +/- and needs to finish top three for another bonus, while Nylander is one back of the top three. Matthews should make the all-rookie team, as should one of Nylander/Marner for another bonus. If Brown plays every game, he’ll also get an $82,500 bonus.

– In Kadri’s full five seasons he shot 16.8%, 13.5%, 10.2%, 6.5%, and 13.8%. Lucky for the Leafs, his contract was up after the 6.5% season and they signed him long-term with a $4.5M annual cap hit. This year he has a career high 30 goals and 55 points. Wonder how much he would be able to get if his contract ended now?


Quotes

“It’s not about him. We don’t have enough penalty killers and he’s getting hosed.”

– Mike Babcock on Josh Leivo not playing.

I get the logic in a vacuum, but I am not sure why the staff believes that Marner and Kadri (or even Bozak) can’t play on the PK? If it’s about preserving their legs/ice time, there are two weeks left now. What are you saving them for?

”They surprised us with the physicality of their game – I have never seen them play like that before. They managed to disturb us a little in the beginning, but later on we were able to increase our physicality, too, and maybe catch up a little.’Leksa’ [Leo Komarov] played a good game today. He just kept playing his own little games and managed to unsettle our game a bit. He is what he is. He tried to shout something to me, but I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. I think he said something about the goals. Funny stuff, it’s a part of the game.”

– Jonis Korpisalo on the Leafs

The games get tighter and more physical as the season goes on, and the Leafs have done a good job of answering the bell and changing their game a bit. Nikita Soshnikov purposely dumped a puck in Brandon Carlo’s corner so Matt Martin could line him up, which he did with a heavy hit. The next game, Connor Carrick caught Josh Anderson with a huge hit of his own.

“I wish it was that easy when I was in my first or second year in Edmonton. That goes to show you how incredible it is what [the Leafs] have done. A lot of credit goes to their coaching staff, just how quickly these young players have not only produced offensively but tuned in on the other side of the puck, which is probably the hardest thing to get a hold of.”

– Taylor Hall on the Leafs ascension up the standings

It has seemed so easy this season, and that’s a testament to the character of players the Leafs have as well as their coaching staff. They still blow the zone a bit too much and are without question a high-octane offensive team with a good goalie, but they have ground out some wins recently, which I wasn’t sure they were capable of doing.


Video Tidbit of the Week

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I outlined earlier in the year what the Leafs do off of defensive zone faceoff wins. Generally, the defenseman brings it around the net and rips it up to the blue line, where the far winger has released for a chip play or to get possession out of the zone.

In the above video is a new play. After the win, all three forwards blow the zone for a flip play. You have to trust the defenseman is going to get it out, and if he does, you see how close the Leafs came to scoring. Using this play also depends on how the opponent is going to attack their offensive zone faceoff loss.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1. If Babcock is searching for a line to start periods and games – which he is based on alternating the first and fourth lines every time they struggle – then I think I would unite the Matthews-Kadri-Nylander line at the start of each period/game for a bit of a “power unit.” They would be free to follow that up with either the Bozak or Boyle line, depending on where the faceoff ended up, and from there they could put the lines back in order and proceed with the game.

2. If Soshnikov is going to continue to miss games, I think I would use Marner and Kadri in place of his PK time. Marner played on the PK against New Jersey and looked good, preventing the Devils from gaining the zone cleanly and causing some chaos in the neutral zone. He was great there in the OHL and has showed well on the PK the few opportunities he has played there. Kadri has had a good year defensively and is a good option to start in his own zone and potentially take faceoffs if necessary.

3. If Soshnikov and Leivo continue to be out, I think I would call up a Marlie to fill the hole on the fourth line. On Saturday, they were terrible against a bad Buffalo team – it’s too much to ask Boyle to carry a fourth line all by himself. I think Kasperi Kapanen would be a good fit for that line as a natural right winger who has played well in the AHL season and he can insert some speed to that line. He doesn’t have the edge that Soshnikov does, but they are somewhat similar players. With all the talk that he can make the team next season, this would be a good opportunity to take a look at him, too.

4. If Andersen is out, I think I would start McElhinney for the two games this week against Florida and Nashville pretty well no matter what before deciding what to do Saturday against Detroit. He has been solid as a backup and it’s a move to swap him out if he struggles Tuesday. I would use Sparks as the backup given the Marlies don’t play again until next Friday.

5. With Roman Polak returning, I think it’s pretty obvious the defense is going to be Rielly-Zaitsev, Gardiner-Carrick and Hunwick-Polak, with the Leafs alternating Zaitsev and Carrick between the top two pairings. At this point, it’s their best option.