It’s an extended notes edition of the Leafs Notebook this week. Let’s get right to it!
– I was playing with some leading/trailing stats looking into the playoffs and found some interesting things worth discussing. The Leafs should end up leading the league in wins when leading after the first period (30), as the next two teams are currently three behind them (Winnipeg and Washington). But when leading, they are only a middling team at controlling play – 11th in the league in shot attempts percentage while ahead and 18th in controlling unblocked attempts while ahead. According to natural stat trick, they are 4th last in scoring chances against per 60 when leading, 7th last in goals against per 60, and 5th last in shots against per 60 minutes while leading. The Leafs are a high-powered and deep offensive team that can attack in waves, which is why they are second in the league in goals scored. That will erase a lot of mistakes. In the playoffs, we’ll see how they handle getting out to leads against elite teams.
– Frederik Andersen’s save percentage is now at .917, which is tied for 19th among goalies that have played in 20 games this season. His save percentage in March was .884. He is currently third in the league in minutes played, and still leads the league in shots faced. It’s going to be really interesting to see what he looks like in the playoffs starting every other day. The Leafs really seem to believe he’s at his best with a heavy workload. This will be something to monitor and carry into next season to figure out how to deploy him. The Leafs have known they will be finishing third for a while and really did not look for opportunities to rest and preserve Andersen.
– Found this surprising:
Last season was so unexpected and fun, but this year’s team is pure business. It would have been easy to guess that they would give up a couple fewer goals this season. I didn’t think they were this much better offensively, though. And Matthews has missed a good chunk of the year.
– Speaking of Matthews, I noticed — while at the game against Buffalo — that on defensive zone draws where Nylander takes the faceoff and Matthews is the inside winger, Matthews takes a different route on his release than the other left wingers.
If you weren’t already aware, the Leafs run a pretty simple set play off of the defensive zone draw when they win it. The defenseman takes the puck behind the net or bumps it to his partner behind the net, depending on the opponent/faceoff outcome. The winger that lines up on the inside hashmark skates straight to their wing and up around the blue line — that way they are ready to tip a hard pass out of the zone, thereby backing up the defense.
The other left wingers, Marleau and JVR in particular, skate in a straight line to the corner of the blue line in their zone, usually, and body off the defenseman for a play. Matthews – it’s hard to tell on TV – skates a bit of an outside-in route where he trails to the wall and then turns to the middle. That forces the defenseman to then protect the inside if it’s a clean defensive zone win because the Leafs defenseman (in this case it was Gardiner) would be able to hit him for an inside pass for a dangerous scoring chance.
When Matthews turns in, it gives him room to operate along the wall instead of having the defensemen angle him off. Thought that was an interesting little wrinkle from Matthews.
– Against Winnipeg, Patrick Marleau scored a power play goal on a play from Auston Matthews and Jake Gardiner. Later that game, the Leafs got a power play halfway through the third down two and the same situation was set up, but Gardiner did not put the pass on money to Matthews, who couldn’t recover the bad pass and was forced to regroup. I have no idea if he would have scored, but I thought that was the chance to get back into the game. The margins against the high-end teams are really that tight — a missed pass here, a bad break there. The playoffs are going to be all about execution and the little plays adding up.
– Against Buffalo last night, Risto Ristolainen got a big hit in on Marleau (and they were jawing throughout the game after that) and Justin Falk got a pretty big lick in on Nylander (and the Leafs did score after). I know Babcock has been fond of saying Matt Martin keeps the flies off, but the Sabres were pretty freely taking runs throughout the night and connected with two of the Leafs better players. Late in the game, Ristolainen actually took a bit of a run at Martin, who was not happy and appeared to challenge him to a fight. Ristolainen simply skated away. There used to be a time where players would have to fight when challenged like that. Not anymore. It is what it is.
– Thought it was a nice gesture by Mike Babcock to put Auston Matthews on in the final minute against Buffalo to go for the hat trick. You wouldn’t necessarily take him as the type of guy to do that, but it is a good way to win some brownie points. The Leafs were definitely trying to set him up and were passing up on a few shooting opportunities.
– The spin move Auston Matthews made in the second was also ridiculous – if you play his shot, which you have to, that move is pretty well impossible to stop if he executes it. Watching it live, his feet turned so quickly that it would take some pretty high-end stick positioning and quick feet to even come close to sticking with him.
– Noticed Buffalo really pressured Mitch Marner on the half-wall much more than other teams – particularly at the games I went to live only a month ago. Marner was still able to generate some chances, but how teams play it in the playoffs will be intriguing (it’s worth noting that Tampa has a bad penalty kill, in particular). The Leafs might have to adjust. This is where it might hurt them not having a big shot up top. The saving grace is how good JVR is in front of the net; as long as you get it there, he has a chance of finishing it. And for all the attention JVR gets there, Kadri is tied with him in power play goals this season. Teams have to pick their poison.
– Andreas Johnsson has had a strong debut and Babcock has praised him, but keep in mind Babcock has routinely praised the young players. He criticizes the veterans, if anyone, in the media. Against Buffalo, though, there was a play in the second period where his defenseman to cover got the puck at the point and wound up to shoot, and Johnsson went down off his feet to try to block it. I know that Babcock won’t like that and it will be a teaching moment – you can’t leave your feet in the NHL pretty well ever. The defenseman faked the shot and went around him for a better scoring chance. Once in a while you have to dive, but a 5v5 shift in a relatively controlled defensive zone situation is not it.
– Nice to see Tomas Plekanec get on the board with two points in his last three games. Babcock made sure to get him out a ton against the Sabres, in particular, as he played over 14 minutes. Against the Jets, though, he only played 7:44. His game before that — against Florida – saw him clock 9:36. There has been a lot of talk about the fourth line and it being a playoff threat, but teams generally play a three-line game in the playoffs. You still need a good fourth line to play some minutes, but it should be interesting to see how the ice time breaks down in the playoffs. The Leafs have three really good forward lines and they will need to play a ton.
– Similarly, Kasperi Kapanen hasn’t even hit the 10-minute mark in any of his last three games. The fourth line has had some exciting moments and may well have more skill than any Leafs fourth line I’ve ever seen, but they still barely play and how they factor into the playoffs will be anyone’s guess.
– That ice time breakdown is also why Leo Komarov will get back in there. He will be playing more than 10 minutes per night getting penalty killing time, playing key defensive zone faceoffs, and getting the odd power play shift in front of the net on the Matthews unit, too.
“Obviously, special teams tonight for us — we weren’t as good on the kill. We didn’t have Polie here, though, and we didn’t have Leo, so we weren’t as good, or Plekanec. It was obvious on our kill.”
– Mike Babcock when asked about getting two points against the Islanders
This was the first thing he said when asked about the game. People will debate Roman Polak and Leo Komarov and possibly even Tomas Plekanec playing in the playoffs, but they are playing. Young kids will not be taking their place.
“Both units are so different so it’s tough to pre-scout our power play. Matthews & Nylander have such good shots so you have to honour those guys and they move it well too.”
– Jake Gardiner on the Leafs’ two power play units
It’s going to be interesting to see how they are used in the playoffs. Who will go on first? Who might start a period? Who will they turn to when down a goal? With the goalie pulled? There are too many variables to answer all of that right now. Heck, it might be slightly different from game to game.
“The turning point in the game I think was the Dermott shot block on Chairot because back-to-back you go to five D, we’re a pretty big, strong team we get some zone time that you may not get. You take a good skating D out on a back-to-back that’s a challenge for them.”
– Paul Maurice on the Jets’ win over the Leafs
Jake Gardiner played over 27 minutes for the night to try to make up for it. Against a weaker team, it might not have been a big deal, but when you get two really good opponents, something like this can make the difference.
Video Tidbit of the Week
One big emphasis with Babcock as coach is the team’s puck management. Tyler Bozak is going for a change here; he could easily dump the puck down in Buffalo’s end and switch off, but he actually regroups it back to his own team and changes. This is what good teams do: Change lines while controlling the puck.
The Leafs fourth line comes on and does end up dumping it in, and it leads to a pretty nondescript shift versus the Sabres top line with Ryan O’Reilly. Now compare that to what might have happened had Bozak dumped it down in Buffalo’s end. The Sabres would regroup with their top line against the Leafs fourth line and probably dominate the shift. It’s a little thing, but this is winning at the margins.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. The Leafs plan on playing Frederik Andersen the last two games of the season. I’d do that, too.
2. I think I’d be fine-tuning the lines leading up to the playoffs now, too. If they wanted to play Josh Leivo it would have happened already. At the end of the day, I think that fourth line will be Komarov – Plekanec – Kapanen. Hopefully, they can put that trio together for the final two games and get into a bit of a rhythm.
3. If Travis Dermott is not going to be back in time for the playoffs, I think the Leafs should mix up those defensive pairings again. They won’t have Connor Carrick on the top pairing come playoff time. I’m not in love with the idea of him on the left, but I’d try him on the left with Polak and see what it looks like. And then I’d go from there. The Leafs have three good left defensemen, but they aren’t really prepared for a left defense injury unless they are bringing up Andreas Borgman again (and that’s not something to feel warm and fuzzy about right about now).
4. I think the New Jersey game coming up has to be treated as a playoff game as best as possible. The Devils might have clinched a spot by then, but it’s the closest thing the Leafs will have to a tune-up heading into the playoffs. The Jets game would not really count for me with the Leafs on the second half of a back-to-back. The Leafs didn’t play poorly in March by any means, but it was a bit of a “cruise control” month for the team. Now they need to start ramping it up.
5. I think we should enjoy these final two games. I wrote last week that this is possibly the most successful regular season in Leafs history — that should be celebrated. What a year this team has had. If you’re at the game on Saturday, make sure to get an ‘ole’ chant going.