The Toronto Maple Leafs kept the good times rolling on home ice with a thrilling back-and-forth win over the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night.
Your game in ten:
1. The Leafs have now won 11 in a row at home, extending a new franchise record, as the ACC has become a fortress for them in the second half of the season. They have fallen behind in some of these games – and played a pretty awful middle 30-35 minutes tonight, including a 22% CF showing in the second period — but they’re never out of it at home because they’re just about impossible to put away, even without Auston Matthews in the lineup. When the Leafs turned it on and got back to playing, the Stars — in a back to back situation — couldn’t deal with their pace.
Stars' Hitchcock: "What we’re finding coming out here, quite frankly, the game in the East is a lot different than it is in the West. The speed factor out here is significant. Obviously, Pittsburgh set the table, but every team seems to have tremendous speed in their lineup … "
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 14, 2018
It’s a real shame that the divisional format is such that the Leafs could end up being the third-placed team in the Conference and will end up playing games 1, 2, 5, and 7 away from the ACC in round one. If they made it through Boston and presumably Tampa Bay – the top two teams in the League, arguably – they’d automatically have home ice advantage in the Conference Final as things currently stand. Shows how ridiculous the entire format can be.
2. What more can you say about Curtis McElhinney at this point? He starts only in back-to-back situations and consistently gets the job done behind a tired team. He gets thrown in cold into a wild game tonight and shuts the door when needed, including a couple of big saves in the shootout. That’s three times in the last month in a bit that he’s stepped in after Andersen left the game injured or was pulled (vs. Washington) and he was good each time. He’s been everything you could possibly want in a backup at this point. There is a big caveat here knowing the modestness of his workload, of course, but his save percentage stacks up fourth in the NHL currently among goalies with 10 or more starts (.928).
3. It was the Mitch Marner show on that 6-on-5 leading to the tying goal.
That 6 on 5 was basically keep giving it to Marner on the half-wall until they score.
— Anthony Petrielli (@APetrielli) March 15, 2018
The whole thing had an air of inevitability about it. Everyone knows what’s coming from the Leafs in man-advantage situations, but Marner pulling the strings with JVR at the net front has proven to be an unsolvable dilemma for the opposition. The Leafs have gone five-for-five in their last three games on the power play, in addition to the 6-on-5 goal late tonight.
Constantly pushing the pace and creating, Marner is stampeding towards the playoffs with his confidence at an all-time high. After a pretty good (low-event) showing head to head against Malkin last Saturday, Nylander was also fantastic in the third period of this game, including a great drive in alone on Kari Lehtonen, as well as a scintillating dangle to open up a look in the slot that he passed off to Patrick Marleau (who couldn’t connect on the one-timer). The points haven’t been there for Nylander like they have Marner — and he was battling a little bit trying to find his way at center initially after Matthews went down — but both are elevating their games nicely in Matthews’ absence. That’s what you want to see.
Interesting stat here while on the note about Matthews’ absence, as well as the aforementioned home-ice dominance: The Leafs are now 8-0-0 at home without Matthews. Away from the ACC, they’re 1-6-2 with him out of the lineup.
4. While he’s taken a step back production wise (on pace for 42 points), Tyler Bozak is now 5-for-6 in the shootout this season. With a career 43.7% success rate, he’s just outside the top 10 in the NHL among active players with a minimum of 25 shootout attempts. Tyler Seguin is fifth best in the league at 50%, but McElhinney got the better of him tonight to secure the team’s seventh shootout win in nine attempts – that alone is responsible for a six-point improvement in the standings after the Leafs secured a total of one extra point in nine attempts last season.
5. Not much to go on with Andreas Johnsson’s debut – he played just 7:34 and put one shot on goal. He looks to be the shortest player on the roster, but as we saw often with the Marlies, he doesn’t shy away even after withstanding physical punishment. In the first period, he mixed it up a little with Alex Radulov and Radulov responded the next shift by slamming his face into the glass, leaving him with a shiner — one of several sustained since arriving in North America — when he returned to the game to start the second period. We didn’t have much to go on as far as actual contributions to the game, but he’s got moxie.
I’d still rather see Josh Leivo get into as much action as possible; he brings an element the Leafs lack more as far as a big body who can work the walls effectively and getting him into game shape should be a priority. He also deserves better than the raw deal he’s been getting after the time he’s logged in practice and the way he’s performed when in the lineup.
That said, I can see there is some logic in wanting to reward guys (be it Johnsson or Justin Holl, and perhaps Garret Sparks now) and size them up ahead of the playoffs, as it’s one luxury the Leafs have with their current spot in the standings.
6. Ron Hainsey’s ability to dig deep at important times in games and get the job done — such as the overtime 4-on-3 penalty kill tonight – has been huge for this team. He’s obviously going to be relied on heavily in key defensive situations in the playoffs.
He made a bad read on the first Dallas goal, which isn’t concerning on its own, but it is a little worrisome that he looks like he’s dragging himself around the ice a little more of late and seems to be involved in more of the goals against in general. His numbers reflect that: Since the start of February, Hainsey’s been a 44.8% CF with a 42.9% GF over his last 17 games. In his first 51, he was a 49.1% CF with a 57% GF.
7. Hainsey has described his 2017 offseason as strikingly short after playing until mid-June in the Penguins’ Cup win – it was the first time, at the age of 36, that he’s ever played any games past early April over his entire career. He plays an unforgiving role on this team, up against top competition every night while also leading the entire league in shorthanded time on ice (he’s played 23 minutes more on the PK than second-place Zdeno Chara). That is just about the hardest mix of minutes you can play as an NHL defenseman.
Hainsey seems like a guy who’s going to find a way to dig deep and get it done in crunch time no matter his circumstances. But the Leafs have been asking a lot of a guy with that kind of mileage on him. Partly it’s out of necessity, but it’s good to see his shorthanded minutes reduced some of late, down to 3:01 a game since Feb. 1. versus his 4:01/game average for the season. The coaching staff should be cognizant of this down the stretch in these meaningless games as far as the standings are concerned (you still want to enter the playoffs playing really well, but rest has to be a priority here, too).
8. The Jake Gardiner – Roman Polak pairing seems to work out okay as a stopgap solution. Going back to 2015-16, they’ve shared the ice at 5v5 for 483 minutes and the team has outscored the opposition 20-16 in those minutes and out-chanced the opposition 240-223 (possession has been just 48%, though), with fairly low event minutes overall.
Throwing Alex Radulov onto Frederik Andersen aside, Polak is showing some signs of rounding into respectable form down the stretch and into the playoffs, just as he did last year.
Babcock started that pair to begin the game and Polak set the tone nicely by destroying a Stars player along the boards. Polak was a beast in his battles on the PK in overtime and has generally been solid there this season. He’s also put in steady 5v5 shifts against quality competition lately, including one of his best games as a Leaf versus Pittsburgh. Few wanted to afford Polak the time he needed to fully recover from losing his offseason and getting back up to speed with the recovery from a serious knee injury, but the patience might end up working out to the benefit of the team in the playoffs (where he was excellent last Spring). Not because Polak is a fantastic defenseman or anything more than a #6; the Leafs just don’t have a better right-handed option behind Hainsey and Zaitsev (when he’s healthy) right now than Polak, and he’s a real asset on the PK.
9. The 5-4 Dallas goal caused by Connor Carrick’s turnover begins with a mismatch due to the icing prior, but it sure was ugly coming off of a won draw, with tons of time and space to make a play. While he’s shown flashes of what he can do on the offensive blue line – including an assist on the first JVR goal tonight – just about everything else Carrick does seems to be too slow and a little sloppy. He lacks the pace and puck skills required to be a regular NHL defenseman when it comes to executing and getting the puck moving cleanly against a big-league forecheck, and he doesn’t make up for it as much in other areas the way Polak does. I don’t think this was ever much of a competition in Babcock’s eyes, anyway, so much as it was about bringing Polak along as he got back up to speed coming off of a serious injury. They’ll need all the depth they can get, though, with Carrick serving as a decent #7.
10. In addition to the franchise records for points and wins that are in the Leafs’ grasp, there are lots of impressive individual milestones coming up soon: With his hat trick, JVR is now one off of 30 goals; with his goal, Kadri is now two off of 30; with two assists, Marner is now one off of 40 assists on the season. Matthews has two to go to hit 30 once he returns. That’s three 30-plus goal scorers (likely) for a combined cap hit of under $10 million total (leaving out performance bonuses for now). Throw in a 40-45 assist player in Marner and make it $10 million and change. Pretty amazing, even if the bargain fun stops beginning this summer — although Kadri’s contract will continue to be a steal for four more seasons, and Marner and Matthews still have one year remaining on those ELCs.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts