The Toronto Maple Leafs cruised to a convincing 4-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Thursday night, marking their second consecutive shutout and their second back-to-back sweep in the span of a week.
Your game in ten:
1. Since the personnel changes were made, the fourth line has been a boon as far as helping the Leafs set the tempo and dictate the pace in games. Seven minutes into the first period, line four hemmed the Mika Zibanejad line in their own end for an extended period with a really good shift. A night after Dominic Moore + Kasperi Kapanen finished over 70% possession in their five minutes of shared ice with John Tavares, Dominic Moore + Kasperi Kapanen carried around 75% of the possession in their four minutes on the ice against Zibanejad (removing Leo Komarov from those numbers here because he’s been used in a few different situations).
2. A fourth line that can generate offensive zone time against just about any line and defense pair is an ace up the sleeve that changes the dynamic of the team. From a momentum standpoint, they’re more often setting up the next shift with an o-zone draw vs. a d-zone draw, or a change on the fly with the opposition dumping and changing (instead of vice versa). A fourth line that can hold its own against anybody can also do wonders for the coach matchup-wise, adding another card to the deck for Mike Babcock as he looks to get his stars freed up away from coverage.
Fast and aggressive with little drop off from lines 1-4 – that’s become the identity for success in the modern NHL. When they chose to, the Leafs can do this as well as almost anybody in the league with their depth in speed and skill up front. In the last three games, they’ve outscored the opposition 13-1 and outshot them 111-93 despite carrying multi-goal leads for substantial portions of each game. Like the win against the Islanders, this game was over 25-30 minutes into the night.
3. Four games in (all wins), the dynamic of the Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Mitch Marner unit is playing out as nicely as it appeared on paper. Kadri and Marner makes for a creative combination – it’s lefty-righty and they think the game on similar wavelengths – while Marleau is a quick strike threat with a big shot who doesn’t need the puck all that much to be effective (see tonight’s 3-0 goal, which felt like his first touch of the game). In the third period, the line should’ve combined for a pretty goal similar to the bang-bang play by the Tyler Bozak unit for JVR’s 2-0 goal in the first, but Mitch Marner somehow hit the far post on an empty net.
The Leafs have beat up on two non-playoff teams in these last two games, but there’s no doubt they’re a rejuvenated offense right now with the L2 and L4 shakeups.
4. It’s tough to say what part is the Leafs’ approach to development and the strength of the Marlies program right now — over-ripening players on a great AHL team to ensure they hit the ground running with confidence — and how much of it is just his personality, but Travis Dermott’s swagger and courage to make plays is really impressive to watch. Around six minutes into the second period, he took a quick glance over his shoulder and fired a cross-ice backhand stretch pass to hit Zach Hyman in stride in the neutral zone from the top of the defensive-zone faceoff circle. He’ll be the last man back in possession and look like he’s out of options only for him to invent one or two different exit options out of thin air. Down low in the d-zone, he’s mastered the bump pass off his backhand to the safety valve in the middle to relieve the trouble and kick-start the transition. He’s got an eyes-on-the-back-of-his head quality to him when it comes to reading forechecking pressure and a very low panic threshold in possession.
This was another really impressive game from Dermott, including his third point in his last two games with the assist on Justin Holl’s second in as many games off of a poised, heads-up play at the offensive blue line to fake the shot and slide the puck off to his right.
5. That was a really pretty finish by Zach Hyman on his 4-0 goal, which took him up to 10 on the season, tying his rookie season total through 53 games. Coming off of the right wing, he’s had a number of moments like that this year where he’s caught you off guard and made you do a double take to confirm the identity of the player — be it a nice pass, a move in tight to the net, or taking a defender wide and rounding the net. Nice reminders of what Hyman can do on his strong side versus how it can look at times when Nylander and Matthews are firing laser passes at him on his off wing.
6. Speaking of handedness, I supported splitting up Kadri and Komarov as much as anybody, but it felt like the discussion focused too much on the perceived flaws and limitations in Komarov’s game versus the overall dynamic of the line, which was the real issue. These tweets from last season in case it’s been forgotten:
Leo Komarov is in the 99th percentile via 5v5 DXPM. Only 7 NHL Forwards have played 500+ mins in that group.
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) February 22, 2017
Which means arguably only 3 guys make a larger impact – Bergeron, Koivu and Ward.
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) February 22, 2017
Remember: Komarov was playing his strong side with either Brown or Nylander on the other wing for the most part last season. Leo has looked great on the left side of the fourth line since the move (as well as on the penalty kill, which is absolutely rolling right now) and will be a key role player for this team down the stretch and into the playoffs.
7. It’s anybody’s guess which direction the Leafs take with the blue line once Ron Hainsey and Morgan Rielly are back. We know for sure the top four will be Rielly – Hainsey / Gardiner – Zaitsev, but any of the following bottom pair combinations could be in play:
Dermott – Carrick
Dermott – Polak
Borgman – Dermott
Dermott – Holl
In the last review, I figured Dermott has likely bumped Borgman from his regular LD spot on the bottom pair, but that was more to do with Dermott’s play than any real struggles from Borgman, who I thought played a good game tonight absorbing/evading forechecking pressure and moving the puck. They’ve faced struggling opponents, but the Leafs D, in general, has done a good job transitioning the puck/getting it into the forwards’ hands quickly with Polak out, Gardiner dialled in, and Dermott + Holl added. A stiffer test awaits on Saturday, but they’ll likely have some help on the way.
8. The Leafs have had an off-and-on feel to their schedule all year. Outside of the bye week and All-Star break, they’ve also had a few significant breaks, including a four-day pause in the middle of November and a one-game-in-six-days stretch in early December. Coming off of their bye week and the All-Star break, the games will now stack up in late February, with seven in 11 days at the end of the month.
From there, starting with the outdoor game against Washington in early March, the Leafs will play just two games between February 28 and March 9 (ten days) followed by another three-day break between March 10 and 13. That makes for a very busy rest of March; they’ll close out the month with 10 games in 16 days.
9. With all of that said, I’d look to get Curtis McElhinney into more than just back-to-back situations down the stretch here. In addition to taking advantage of their situation in the standings to keep Andersen fresh for the playoffs – the Leafs may end up in a battle for home-ice advantage, but their divisional postseason berth is about as secure as can be – McElhinney has earned some extra trust as with his play as well. He is now 5-4-0 with a .931 save percentage and two shutouts playing exclusively in back-to-back situations.
10. Bring on Boston. Currently Marchand-less but 9-1-2 in their last 12 overall and 9-1-2 in their last 12 at home, this should be a great test for the Leafs against their probable round-one opponent.