The Toronto Maple Leafs will head into the All-Star break with consecutive victories after picking up one of their better wins of the season against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Playing a rested Dallas team on the tail end of a back-to-back, everyone anticipated that the streaking Stars would take it to the Leafs in this one. It was a pleasant surprise to see the Leafs come out with considerable jump in the first period. Rolling four lines with good pace and short shifts, Toronto was dead even with Dallas in shots and Corsi. They managed to come out ahead in goals on Nazem Kadri’s first of the night. Just like that, Kadri has now notched three goals in the last two games (hockey’s a funny game).
2. The Leafs have sorely missed the secondary offense from Kadri’s line. With a harsh dry spell of one goal in his previous 20 games for Nazem, it’s easy to see how some of the various one-goal losses recently could have turned out differently if that line was going.
It’s been suggested that it’s a victory if the “shutdown line” just breaks even and limits the top offensive players from the opposing team. But the reality is that Kadri’s line has been getting overwhelmed more often this year at home where Babcock gets his matchups. Last season, when the Komarov-Kadri duo was on the ice together on home ice (469 minutes), the Leafs posted a 53.6% Corsi For and a 55% share of the scoring chances. This year (262 minutes)? 45.6% Corsi For and a 48.6% share of the scoring chances.
They’ve been struggling offensively and, arguably, they haven’t been anything special defensively. This change was long overdue.
3. Speaking of the now-displaced Komarov, one of the biggest contributions to Toronto’s success in the first period was their new fourth line of Komarov-Moore-Kapanen. The trio had a near perfect showing with regards to the possession numbers in the period against the bottom lines of the Stars — a welcomed departure for the Leafs as Matt Martin and friends were one of the worst fourth lines in the league with respect to controlling play. The contrast is instantly obvious and very stark.
4. The speed and skill of Kasperi Kapanen was especially evident on the fourth line. Kapanen deserves an extended stay in the NHL and we’re all hoping he forces Babcock’s hand in the matter. Babcock has repeatedly acknowledged Kasperi’s contributions on the penalty kill and went out of his way tonight — unprompted — to acknowledge his overall effort. As far as “taking a spot and refusing to give it up” goes, Kapanen’s effort in these two games has been everything you could’ve asked for in his role.
In one penalty killing sequence in the second period, Kapanen was the first to a mishandled puck by Ben Bishop. The simple play was to try to force it to the net, probably resulting in a Dallas possession quickly heading the other way. Instead, Kapanen circled behind the net before playing it back to his teammate at his own blue line, effectively killing the rest of the penalty. Kapanen was excellent on the PK throughout the game, constantly disrupting and causing the Stars PP units fits with his speed. He nearly connected with Dominic Moore for a shorthanded goal at one point, as well.
5. Defensively proficient, gritty but limited offensively, Leo Komarov is a perfect depth role player who can start games on the fourth line and plug into different lines in different situations as need be and as the score dictates (d-zone draws in key situations, etc). We know Mike Babcock has seen it differently all year, but it’s hard to ignore the results of these last two games.
It’s clear that Komarov is more comfortable and effective on his natural left wing. That’s exactly where he featured last year on Kadri’s flank, joined typically by Brown and at times Nylander on the opposite side. With the left wing slot on Kadri’s line occupied by Marleau this season, Komarov has noticeably struggled — it’s a lot to ask of a player of Komarov’s ilk to produce respectable offense in that kind of brutally tough role on his off-wing. The shifting of Komarov and the addition of Kapanen was a simple move that has already reaped dividends up and down the lineup.
6. As the Leafs #1 defenseman in Rielly’s absence, Jake Gardiner has racked up nine assists in his last five games in what marks the most productive offensive stretch of his career. The frustrating moments are always going to be there — and the Tyler Seguin goal was Gardiner-hater fodder, to say the least — but he’s settled into his game again for the most part and has benefitted from a stable partnership next to Hainsey.
Worth noting here is that Gardiner’s typically a stronger second half performer. The Leafs will be hoping a better second half for from Gardiner, getting Zaitsev back (and paired next to him), as well as continued progress from Dermott + Borgman will have things trending in the right direction at the right time of year on the blue line — while also hoping Rielly can pick up right where he left off post-injury.
7. Mitch Marner adds a sorely needed dynamic of speed and playmaking ability to the duo of Kadri and Marleau; he plays the game at a similar speed to Kadri and he can provide for the finishers on that line. On the first goal of the night, Marner actually came off the bench as Babcock had Komarov on for the defensive faceoff, but he caught up to the play and showed his vision and creativity with a perfect little pass to a wide-open Kadri for an easy tap-in. This line made a clear case for an extended run together.
NAZEM KADRI! 1-0 Leafs.
What a gorgeous fake by Marner. pic.twitter.com/vKcHQdZt2S
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) January 26, 2018
8. Babcock has already publicly stated that he wants to keep Komarov and Kadri together at home, but his answer after the game did suggest he was maybe backing off of that a little. Reverting to the old lines would have been a foregone conclusion if the Leafs had lost these last two games. It probably would have still been a foregone conclusion if the Leafs had lost even one of these last two games. But with back-to-back wins, and one of their better wins of the season thanks to a balanced four-line effort in Dallas? One of the most common mantras of NHL coaches is not to mess with a winning lineup. Will common sense trump ego here?
9. Great 36-save effort by Curtis McElhinney after 35 days off the job. An even first period yielded way to a 36% CF for the Leafs as they played from in front in the final two frames. McElhinney stood tall and battled hard with a number of fantastic saves. It raised some eyebrows when the Leafs brought him back in the summer instead of upgrading at the position, but McElhinney has played the role to a tee this year. Since the acquisition last season, he stepped in and solved the problem on a team that previously couldn’t buy a backup win.
10. Just as the Leafs are finding their groove again, their momentum will be stopped full force by the All-Star Break. Toronto will need to generate their own motivation in the stretch run of this season as their playoff seeding seems firmly entrenched in the third seed in the Atlantic division. As unlikely as it may be, the focus has to be on stealing home-ice advantage — and in doing so hitting their stride heading down the stretch into the playoffs. It’s been easy to take it for granted lately, but reaching the All-Star break with a 15-point (15!) playoff cushion is a really nice place to be in a league as tightly contested as the NHL.