The Toronto Maple Leafs started their Western Canada road trip off on a high with one of their most complete efforts of the season in Calgary.
Your game in ten:
1. There was nothing too fancy about this win — just a workmanlike, 60-minute, four-line performance in which the Leafs started strongly, played well all the way through, and closed out the game well. There were a couple of generous bounces on the 1-0 and 2-0 goals, but the Leafs were full value for them in the run of play. To give up just five shots and nine unblocked shot attempts while in possession of a multi-goal lead in the third period is a nice step in the right direction after the way the team closed out the game against Carolina. The Flames were riding into the game hot – 8-3-1 in last 12, with 42 goals scored in those games — but looked flat for much of the night.
2. With just 20 shots against, this was the second time this season Frederik Andersen has won a game with fewer than 25 saves – the other was the game against Chicago, which was arguably the Leafs’ most complete 60-minute effort of the season. Andersen didn’t have to be great (that’s not something we’ve said a whole lot this year), but he came up with a few timely saves, the best of which was on Matthew Tkachuk on the doorstep in the second period after one of the few instances where the Leafs were careless with the puck (it was Auston Matthews, of all people, with an uncharacteristic pass behind everyone that kick-started the rush the other way).
This wasn’t as exciting of a win from an entertainment perspective as the Chicago game (Natural Stat Trick tallied it at just 12 high-danger scoring chances between the two teams), but this was right up there in terms of one of the Leafs’ best performances of the season, and probably their best road game of the year to date.
3. After finishing October at .896, Frederik Andersen has gone 8-2-1 with a .941 save percentage, which is .01 off of Andrei Vasilevsky’s mark for the best in the league in the month of November (among starters) while facing more shots than any other goaltender (353). It’s uncanny how similar the trajectory has been to last season, although his rebound has been even better this year: He was a .897 after 11 games in 2016-17 (.896 in 2017-18), and then a .931 in his next 11 (.941 in 2017-18). The great news for the Leafs is that Andersen never really looked back after the early blip last year.
4. Nikita Zaitsev has now tied last season’s 82-game goals output just 26 games into 2017-18 with four. It’s been an up-and-down year for Zaitsev so far, but this was one of his better games of the season. He was disruptive on the PK, breaking up plays, batting down pucks, and making sure with his clearances. He competed hard all night and got into some good battles with noted pain-in-the-ass Matthew Tkachuk. He capped it off with a goal for the second game in a row; while both of his last two had some good fortune about them, he’s pinching in more often and getting involved offensively. It’s going to be a struggle to match last season’s production with no power play time to speak of – he generated 11 assists there last season – but right now he’s on only a slightly lower points pace despite doing it all at even strength, and he’s at +11 after finishing last season at -22. Second-pairing competition, handling big responsibilities on the PK, and chipping in around 30 points appears to be the sweet spot with Zaitsev.
5. After four points in his first three games, Tyler Bozak has just seven points in his last 23 and has shot the puck only 32 times over that span. It’s not the full story given his even-strength production is down as well, but the thing to keep in mind here: It’s Kadri and Marleau as the slot guys now on the power play instead of Kadri and Bozak, and Bozak has been much less effective on the PP half-wall, where he’s not a natural fit. Bozak scored seven of his 18 goals on the PP last season and is effective at sneaking in at the backdoor/finding the quiet ice and getting the puck on and off his stick quickly. Also worth pointing out is that Marleau has just one power play point in his last 22 (the goal he scored on the Matthews slap pass).
Both players are best in the middle, but I’ll be interested to see if there is any change made there if those numbers keep up. The Leafs PP has taken a small step back overall — from 2nd to 9th in the league — and it feels like its punching slightly below its weight given the embarrassment of riches they have up front. If you remove the first five games of the season when the Leafs PP was absolutely lights-out, it has been clicking at just 17.3% over the last 21 games — 22nd in the league since Oct. 15.
6. Glen Gulutzan seemed to play into Mike Babcock’s hands by going back to the same matchups in this game, not giving Mikael Backlund much time against the Matthews line and never really moving away from what wasn’t working. With the defensive conscience and work rate of Zach Hyman and Connor Brown on Matthews’ wings especially, Babcock would’ve been perfectly content to match those three up with Sean Monahan’s line all night.
Johnny Gaudreau had his dangerous moments and drew a penalty in the first period after Brown turned it over in the neutral zone late in a shift, but it was a quiet game for that trio by and large – Gaudreau, Monahan and Ferland generated just one shot on goal apiece. It’s always a sign of a good night when the coach of the other team sits his top line for a few shifts in the third while chasing the lead.
7. Lots can change as results dictate, but we know that Babcock likes these lines as far as how the matchups shake out — on the road especially. With 11 of the next 14 coming away from the ACC, we could see a lot more of these combinations going forward. Away from home, the opposing coach can choose whether he wants his best line out against the Matthews line or the Kadri line with Marleau and Komarov, and it doesn’t much matter to Babcock which route he goes.
8. It’s a blessing in terms of the quality of the depth available to him, but Babcock is in the enviable yet tough spot of having 10 forwards who on merit shouldn’t spend time on the fourth line. So far, he’s done a good job of not stranding the 10th top-nine forward on an island. Be it Marner or Nylander or Brown, they are still getting substantial power play time and Babcock makes sure to mix them in with skilled players after penalty kills, which is how William Nylander got his assist on the Nazem Kadri goal in the third period of this game. You obviously want Nylander playing more than 10:16 (partially that was due to there being just one Leafs power play), but he was pretty impactful nonetheless. Quietly, Nylander now has a three-game points streak going after picking up an assist on the Zaitsev goal in the third period vs. Washington on a shift with Moore and Martin.
While the narratives began to stir about Marner being in the doghouse, his move down to the fourth line seemed to give him a lift, if anything. Right now, it appears to be William Nylander’s turn. He had lots of jump in this game from the start and gave Martin and Moore a boost as far as carrying the puck through the neutral zone and getting them playing on offense. The line finished with over 70% possession on the night and generated some good looks. It’ll be interesting to see what Babcock does here moving forward on the road trip.
Mike Babcock told the Leafs they could have optional morning skates if they got off to good starts in games. After four slow starts last week, it’s back to mandatory morning skates. “We’re going from sport science to Babcock Saskatchewan science,” he told me yesterday.
— Gord Miller (@GMillerTSN) November 29, 2017
This was just the second time the Leafs generated 10+ shots on goal in the first period in the last seven games.
10. Mitch Marner is goalless in his last seven and has just two in 26 this year, but it’s not for a lack of trying lately – he’s put 15 shots on goal in his last four games, including five last night. Babcock was sure to praise him (“probably his best game”) afterwards for the jump he showed throughout the night while mentioning he’s looking for effort/process rather than worrying about results – Marner looked more like himself at his best in this game than he has on many of the nights he’s produced. It reminded me a little bit of Nazem Kadri from his time on the half-wall on the PP as far as him hammering away and his shots never really troubling the goaltender, but it’s good to see him working on breaking out of his shot-shy mentality as it’s the only way he’s going to bust through while also being a little less predictable there.