Special teams and Frederik Andersen powered the Maple Leafs to their ninth win in their last 12 games on Thursday night in Nashville.
With the Senators recent struggles, home-ice advantage in round one is suddenly well within the Leafs‘ reach.
Your game in ten:
1. First star: Connor Brown.
It’s hard to have a better “all situations” performance than Brown did in this game: he clocked 4:06 on the 5-for-5 penalty kill, he made a skilled play to slide the puck to Matthews on the power play for the 2-0 goal, and his empty-netter clinched the win. Empty netters – Brown’s got two in his last three games, and three overall – are easy to dismiss, but there is a lot of work that goes into earning the right to be out there in those situations.
Indeed, Brown showed exactly why he was out there immediately prior to this empty-netter, angling off an in-flight PK Subban in the neutral zone and forcing a bad dump-in.
Brown is a fantastic forechecker in general (particularly visible on the PK); his stick is always active and glued to the ice, he almost always correctly anticipates where the puck is going, and his feet never stop moving.
2. After the game, Brown was asked if he felt 20 goals as a rookie — he’s one away — is something he would’ve believed was possible before the season. He confidently replied, “Yeah, I’d have believed it.”
A hard worker more than a natural talent, Brown’s a former sixth-round pick who had to overcome his size and greatly improve his skating to get to where he is now. He was riding the confidence of winning an OHL scoring title coming into his first professional season, but he also had McDavid’s shadow cast over his every accomplishment that season.
Brown’s answer made me think about the extra time the Leafs afforded him to develop in the AHL. After a really good rookie year, the Leafs gave him an additional two-thirds of a season, kept him away from a horrible team, and left him to prove he was truly done with the AHL level. He put up 29 points in 34 games, despite battling an injury. When you’ve produced like that at every level along the way, what’s not to be confident about when the time comes to take the next step?
3. This was a tough building to go into against a hot team that is great at home. The Leafs got all of the ingredients needed to win a tough game on the road – scored the first goal, won the special teams battle, got great goaltending.
The Leafs were handily outpossessed in the first and third but played a good second period, were fantastic on special teams and kept this game relatively low event at even-strength all the way through. Getting outshot 13-2 in the third period is no work of art, but Natural Stat Trick credited the Predators with one high-danger scoring chance at 5v5 in the third (the dodgiest moments came during that scramble at the net on the PK) and four over the course of the entire game.
4. Frederik Andersen in the five starts since the Panthers blowout: 4-0-1, .952 save percentage, and one shutout. He looked totally unaffected by whatever it was that was bugging him earlier this week. If it works out to be nothing more than some well-earned rest, the Leafs are laughing.
5. A lot to like about the game-winning goal on the power play.
The power play was sputtering pretty badly with a couple of botched entries by the Marner unit and then one by Matthews before Nylander took charge and tore through neutral ice.
That was followed by Gardiner sucking in his check, delaying, and laying the puck off to Brown just inside the blue line.
Brown then spotted Matthews and slipped him a perfect pass across the slot.
Pekka Rinne crapped his pants on Matthews’ shot, guessed glove side, and Matthews put it through him on the blocker side.
5. Matthews is now tied for fourth in NHL scoring, and if you subtract empty netters – hypocritical of me given the earlier point – he moves into second in overall goal scoring ahead of Kucherov and Marchand. He remains tied for first in even-strength goals with 29.
Last night’s game winner gives Matthews seven game winners to go along with 16 first-period goals, 14 of which opened the scoring.
20 of Matthews’ goals have come with the game tied — first in the NHL – and 30 of his points have come with the game tied (fifth in the NHL).
6. That was an impeccable run of back-to-back-to-back penalty kills by the Leafs in the second period. The PK units did a good job of pressuring the puck up ice (the Brown and Kapanen unit in particular) to prevent full wind-ups by Subban and Josi, and good sticks at the blue line halted a couple of Nashville entries.
The units also didn’t give Subban, Josi or Ellis space or lanes to work with once they established the zone. Subban, Josi and Ellis were forced to send shots intentionally wide or into the corner, while Subban had a couple of his blocked. Good efforts across the board by Hyman, Brown, Kapanen and Boyle kept the points under wraps — an obvious point of emphasis against the Predators – and it meant Andersen didn’t have a whole lot to do on three successive kills.
At some point, you’ll need good goaltending and a little bit of luck to kill that many penalties successfully, and the Leafs certainly got some of both on the third-period kill after they failed to clear the zone a couple of times.
7. It was easy to scream at Gardiner on the 2-1 goal after the sea parted and Forsberg walked right down main street, but that was the result of all kinds of confusion/ poor communication by the three Leaf skaters back (Martin, Gardiner, Zaitsev) with Boyle and Kapanen caught up ice.
I thought Gardiner’s third period was great overall. In addition to his poised play at the offensive blue line leading to the Matthews PP goal, Gardiner defended three zone entries excellently in the final few minutes, and he knocked down that dump-in play by Subban in the final minute before lobbing the puck up to Kadri for the empty-net goal.
8. The Leafs have allowed two goals or less in seven of their last eight. Eight games ago the Leafs broke up Rielly and Zaitsev, while Frederik Andersen responded to the Florida blowout with a lights-out run of starts (.952). Curtis McElhinney stepped in for two starts — both wins — where he stopped 55 of 59 shots.
Babcock has been pointing to the neutral zone often in his pressers, and without the data to prove it, it does seem like the Leafs are giving up fewer of the easy entries and odd-man rushes from what we saw earlier in the season. It feels like we’re seeing a few more of the conventional Babcock breakouts of late as well — shorter passes to generate speed behind the puck versus constantly flipping, chipping and standing at the far blue line receiving stretch passes for tip-ins. Overall, it produces a tidier neutral zone and tighter hockey.
9. If we go back to when this 9-2-1 run that started post-California road trip, the Leafs are allowing 2.4 goals per game, which is ninth in the league since March 4. Their shots against actually increased to 33.3 per game over that time, but their scoring chances against per 60 went from 8.89 (27th in the NHL) to 8.24 (9th in the NHL since March 4) according to Corsica.hockey.
10. Now sitting above a 90% probability of making the post-season, even a 2-4-0 finish to the season at this point would give the Leafs a 72.2% chance of qualifying. A 3-2-1 record in the final six would give them 96 points and virtually guarantee their spot (99.7%).
Following that 7-2 loss to Florida, the Leafs were sitting at 36.7% odds. That was 16 days ago. Remarkable.