The Toronto Maple Leafs put the exclamation mark on a historic regular season last night by sweeping the season series against the Montreal Canadiens and setting a franchise record for points in a season in the process.
As we wait for the outcome of the Bruins vs. Panthers game to determine the identity of the Leafs‘ first-round opponent, here are five thoughts for your Sunday:
Leafs finish strong despite nothing to play for
In both of the final two games versus the Devils and Canadiens, it was obvious the Leafs weren’t coming out with much urgency (probably because there was none). They got outshot heavily to start both games, and weren’t very good in the opening two periods, but they manufactured a late push with good third periods in both games.
Last night, the Leafs came out for the third, scored early, and you knew in the first few minutes – William Nylander and Mitch Marner both backchecked hard and stripped a Habs player before buzzing on offense – they were going to win the game.
The Leafs, with some credit here going to Babcock and his staff, did a pretty good job of staying motivated through an unusually long stretch of meaningless games with the team locked firmly into third place in the division. That’s not necessarily an easy task when there was no real pressure coming from those chasing from behind and no realistic ambitions toward catching a team ahead in the divisional standings.
What helped is that the Leafs were able to collect on some rest time and easy opponents after their bizarre and taxing schedule in the first half of the season. They finished up with just 15 games in the final 34 days, with 10 coming against non-playoff opponents. Their travel was limited, with nine games coming at home and only one out-of-Conference away game (in Nashville) in those six road trips.
Among the good teams they played, they did lose to the Lightning – a game they should’ve won after running up a 3-0 lead – as well as the Devils (who were hungry to clinch) and the Jets (who were rested in a back-to-back for the Leafs), but they beat Nashville convincingly as well as the Penguins.
In the end, the Leafs went 10-5-0 over that stretch, and finished up by sweeping the season series against Montreal while grabbing a couple of new franchise records in the process — a strong note to round out a special regular season. The Leafs avoided injuries and played competitively enough in the final couple of weeks, which should mean they aren’t going to be jumping into the fast lane going 50 when the puck drops for Game 1 on Thursday.
Frederik Andersen earns franchise record
It was also a productive final tune-up game for Frederik Andersen, who was sharp early and a one-man show on the first two Leafs penalty kills. The Leafs PK didn’t let the Habs set up at all on their third opportunity, but there were a number of great looks on opportunities one and two and Andersen shut the door.
Andersen won’t admit it in the media with the team’s focus squarely on the playoffs, but you can bet that the franchise record for wins in a season (38) means a lot to him… and same goes for a fan base that had to bear knowing Andrew Raycroft held that title for far too long.
With .949 and .939 starts to finish up the regular season, it was mission accomplished as far as getting Andersen feeling better prior to the postseason (he was a .884 SV% in March).
Andersen’s final regular season numbers: 38-21-5 with a .918 save percentage. The save percentage was identical to his first year as a Leaf in the same number of games played/started, but he faced 159 more shots against this season and won five more games. The timing of his best segments this season also seemed to coincide with the worst segments from the team in front of him.
Needless to say, as Andersen goes, the Leafs go in the playoffs. If he can get red-hot again at the right time of year, the Leafs offense can take care of the rest.
Patrick Marleau heating up ahead of the playoffs
With the hilarious empty-net goal Carey Price handed Patrick Marleau last night – what an exclamation point on the Habs’ 2017-18 season — he matched his goal total from his final season in San Jose by scoring his 27th of the campaign.
Five of those were scored on empty nets (tied for third in the league), but you obviously have to be trusted and reliable to be out there in those situations, and Marleau also scored 22 of his goals at even strength – third on the team behind Matthews and JVR. His five game winners were tied for second on the team and his 38 even strength points were fourth behind the Big Three.
He was productive at even strength while playing on a matchup line next to Nazem Kadri all year. Together, Kadri and Marleau out-scored tough opposition 35-28 at 5v5 over the course of the season (56% GF).
Marleau finished up his regular season with seven goals and 13 points in his final 16 games, and it was noticeable watching the final stretch that he seemed to be elevating his game, with a little extra jump visible in his stride. Veterans who have been through it as many times as Marleau has know how to navigate the grind and when it’s time to start ramping it up.
Marleau has 120 points in 177 career playoff games. That kind of post-season experience is invaluable on a team without much of it otherwise, and he’ll be playing a far bigger role — and has been a leader in the group from the beginning of the season — compared to Brian Boyle last year.
What will the fourth line look like in Game 1 and beyond?
Mike Babcock has already more or less confirmed the fourth line is going to be Leo Komarov – Tomas Plekanec – Kasperi Kapanen to start the playoffs, but it was interesting to hear Babcock continue to praise Andreas Johnsson even after games where he was a healthy scratch.
It’s hard to argue that Leo Komarov hasn’t earned his spot for the playoffs. He’s played a tough matchup role for Babcock since Babcock took over the bench. He’s been reliable late in games, in defensive zone situations, and he’s a savvy penalty killer who can take draws well. His physical edge and gamesmanship will also help in the postseason. Babcock, or any coach for that matter, is not going to throw a veteran like that overboard overnight in favour of the shiny new toy – especially not at playoff time.
But Komarov can play both wings, meaning we could see Kapanen and Johnsson swap in and out. Four lines are important, but benches do tend to shorten a little in the playoffs, no matter how deep you are. There will be games where the Leafs are chasing and the fourth line sees very limited minutes at 5v5 (which is partially why Komarov’s utility in a variety of game states and situations makes him a shoe-in to stay in the lineup).
A lot of it is going to depend on how the special teams are performing. Kasperi Kapanen’s wheels are an asset on the PK, while Andreas Johnsson is an asset on the PP as the man in the middle.
Two units rolling on Leafs power play entering the playoffs
The Leafs power play may have underachieved for large swaths of the season, but the hope is it is now peaking at the right time of year. After a lengthy stretch between Oct. 22 and Feb. 14 where they were clicking at just 17% — 25th in the NHL – the Leafs are now converting at 44% over the past month heading into the playoffs.
With two units that skilled, if their execution is on and the puck movement is crisp, there isn’t much the opposition PK units can do. Between the Marner unit’s slot-tip-by-Kadri or down-low-to-JVR play, and the Matthews unit’s seam pass from Nylander to Matthews, it’s no real mystery what is coming most of the time, but it doesn’t seem to matter if the “puck speed,” as Babcock puts it, is fast and the Leafs hit their marks.
On the first goal last night, Matthews did a great job of looping high, timing his route, and creating the lane for Nylander to slide a pass through. With the decoy in the middle drawing attention plus the respect Nylander’s shot demands – and how Nylander can disguise his intentions when he has the puck protected on the outside of his body on his strong side — it’s a lot to account for. Of course, Matthews’ ability to catch and release on his strong side is matched by few across the league.
Boston and Tampa Bay both load up one main unit that takes the lion’s share of the PP minutes, as is the typical setup. Where the Lightning and Bruins’ big guns are in the 3:00-3:30 range in power play time per game, the Leafs have their nine mainstay PP players in a 17-second range between 1:59 and 2:16 per night.
|BOS (PP TOI/g)||TB (PP TOI/g)||TOR (PP TOI/g)|
|Krug (3:24/g)||Kucherov (3:30/g)||JVR (2:16/g)|
|Marchand (3:04/g)||Stamkos (3:27/g)||Rielly (2:11/g)|
|Pastrnak (3:04/g)||Hedman (3:24/g)||Marner (2:11/g)|
|Bergeron (2:57/g)||Namestnikov (3:18/g)||Bozak (2:11/g)|
If the Leafs can keep this momentum going on the man advantage, two equally dangerous units that can split the time evenly provides the Leafs with a nice edge in the upcoming playoff series. They can exploit secondary PK personnel and keep both units fresh.
Part of the reason why a good penalty kill – or a bad power play, however you want to look at it — can be momentum-changing in the course of a game is because five of the other team’s best offensive players are now on the bench, and the team coming off of the successful kill can exploit favourable match up situations with their rested top lines.
The Leafs don’t have as much of an issue that way; two quality units is a plus both on the PP if they score, and coming off of the PP if they don’t.
Boston or Tampa Bay?
On that note, the Tampa Bay penalty kill has been killing at just 72% in the second half of the season — 29th in the NHL.
There are a lot of angles to cover on the Tampa Bay vs. Boston question entering into tonight’s game between the Panthers and Bruins, but at risk of sounding too simplistic: I’d want the team that’s allowed 3.6 goals a game since the start of March, including 17 power play goals against in the last 18 games.