The Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping the road continues to be their safe haven as they visit the PPG Paints Arena looking to atone for a 3-0 shutout loss at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 18.
It was never going to be sustainable, but the fall has been especially precipitous for the Leafs‘ 5v5 shooting percentage after their first seven games — from 11.3% (3rd) in the first seven to 5.6% (27th) in the last six — and suddenly they’re sitting outside of the top three in the Atlantic with an 8-5-0 record. Thursday’s 2-1 loss against Dallas provided some encouraging signs in the run of play at least, as the Leafs controlled close to 70% of the scoring chances overall (66% from home plate).
The Penguins possession numbers took a dip below average into late October; their shot attempt numbers this year mirror the Leafs‘, as both are high-event teams that sit in and around the top five in shot attempts for and in the bottom ten for shot attempts against. However, the Penguins are continuing to shoot the lights out through the first month with a league-leading 11.7 shooting percentage at 5v5.
Both Teams Looking for Offensive Balance, More out of Bottom Six
If you’re the Leafs or any team going into a building like the PPG Paints Arena to line up against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without last change, a saw-off (scoring wise) against the Pittsburgh top six is always a satisfactory result. If that turns out to be the outcome, the Leafs will need contributions out of their depth lines in order to get a result on the road tonight.
Both of these teams are looking for more out of their bottom sixes early in the season, with an injury down the middle creating the need for adjustments. The Leafs, as Alec pointed out in a game review recently, only have two even-strength goals from their current group of bottom six forwards if you take away the empty-netter by Connor Brown.
The Penguins, meanwhile, have been top heavy with their offense as well, and with 3C Derick Brassard out of the lineup injured, they have shaken up their bottom two lines entering tonight in search of a spark and more balance. Riley Sheahan has been moved into the middle in between Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist, while Matt Cullen will center Derek Grant and Daniel Sprong.
The Leafs will need all hands on deck tonight and might need one of their bottom six lines to win a matchup — not just in terms of possession share, but with an important offensive contribution. Additionally, with the benefit of last change, Mike Sullivan will look for opportunities to get Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby offensive-zone starts against secondary opposition, and the Leafs will need their bottom six to give them safe minutes in those situations.
On the flip side, Sullivan uses Sheahan and Cullen on defensive zone draws to free up Malkin and Crosby — Sheahan has started 84 shifts in the d-zone vs. 15 in the o-zone, and Cullen 71 vs. 15. Those are situations the John Tavares and Nazem Kadri lines can take advantage of if they can win their draws and spend those shifts inside the Penguins end of the ice.
Power on Power & The Matchup Game
As mentioned, Sullivan doesn’t hard match or “chase” matchups — not at the expense of the flow on his bench or getting his stars plenty of offensive-zone looks against secondary lines. That said, when an elite center like John Tavares comes to town, Sullivan typically goes power on power with Sidney Crosby for a good portion of the evening.
For those who haven’t caught a Penguins game to start the year, Crosby — always searching for areas for improvement on the margins of his nearly perfect skill set — looks to have found another level in his 200-foot game. Evidence of how effective #87 has been in the matchup role is the Penguins’ perfect record up against playoff teams from last season so far this year.
Chris Johnston provided the numbers today: Tavares has been outscored 15 to 11 in the Crosby matchup over the course of his career, but six of those Crosby goals came in Tavares’ rookie year, when Sid was a fifth-year pro.
In addition to a big effort from Tavares, the Leafs will be looking for a spirited game from Kadri in the type of matchup (vs. Malkin) that he’s come to relish in the years since Mike Babcock turned him into a matchup center.
The Leafs’ coaching staff has opted for a planned rotation for the bottom pair of the defense this season, resting Igor Ozihganov for the occasional game as he adjusts to the rigors of the NHL game and schedule. With Martin Marincin and Justin Holl waiting in the wings with some solid performances under their belts, it makes injuries and tough stretches from other players easier to manage.
The Dermott-Ozhiganov pairing remains the go-to choice for the time being, though, and will be back together tonight. While they’ve obviously seen easier matchups than the ironclad top-four of Rielly, Hainsey, Gardiner and Zaitsev, they’ve been the team’s best pairing some nights.
The Leafs also recalled Trevor Moore last night, using the extra roster spot available with Auston Matthews on IR. With the week-long lull in the Marlies‘ schedule, it serves as a deserved reward for Moore, who has been lights out with the Marlies so far this season (eight goals in 10 games). While he won’t play tonight, the Leafs have a back-to-back coming up, and especially if the Leafs bottom six continues to struggle offensively, Moore could be in line to make his NHL debut this week.
with notes from Alec Brownscombe
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Trevor Moore call-up:
Obviously, we’re in a spot where we don’t have any extras. He’s played really good down there and it’s my understanding that they don’t have a game for a while, so this gives us an opportunity to look at him. If we need him, we’ll use him.
The Leafs’ encouraging performance against Dallas despite the loss:
We had lots of chances, no question about it, but, in the end, you’ve got to find ways to score. I liked our game, though, and I said that after. I have no issues with our last game. You do it every night, you end up winning your share.
Our big thing is — start on time. That doesn’t necessarily mean just play good, because we played good last game. We’ve got to find ways to score first more often. The stats in the league show that when you score first, you’ve got a way better chance of winning.
We were easy on their goaltender. We didn’t have enough seconds, weren’t at the net enough, and didn’t make their goalie work. That’s a big part of scoring — you’ve got to make it tough on the other team’s goalie. They’ve got a real good goalie. If we want to have success tonight, we’ve got to make it hard on him.
Babcock on why the team has been better on the road this year:
Yeah, I don’t know 100% why it’s been that way. I know we set the team record last year at home, so why is that? Our preparation is much the same way. I just said to the guys, “we’ve got to do a better job.” They’ve got to do a better job when it comes to starts.
Babcock on how the matchups will shake out:
You know Sheahan and Cullen are going to take every d-zone faceoff, so if you want to have your offensive people out in those offensive situations, then that means that they’re not matching up against [Crosby or Malkin]. That’s part of the game — that’s why you have to create value for yourself. You’ve got to be able to play against the best players and play in the d-zone.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan on whether it’s a priority to match up Crosby’s line up against the opposition’s top line:
Based on our opponents, I think we try to look for matchups that give us the best chance to win, and we have so much faith in Sid and his line and his 200-foot game that we think they can play against anybody. That’s why we choose to go power against power at times.
We don’t always do it. We don’t chase it in the game. We do entrust a number of our players with those responsibilities. We try to focus on our team and making sure we keep our guys into the flow of the game so they have the best opportunity to do what they do best.
Certainly. part of the reason we play power against power a lot is because we have so much faith in Sid and his line, in particular, and their 200-foot games.
Sullivan on finding balance up front:
That’s part of our challenge, depending on what our combinations look like. We’re trying to find some balance within the group. I think it’s important that we get four lines going. We’re playing a game every other day here for quite a while and we want to make sure we spread the burden of responsibility.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#21 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #26 Par Lindholm – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #32 Josh Leivo
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Scratched: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Trevor Moore
Unsigned: William Nylander
Injured: Auston Matthews (shoulder)
Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines
#59 Jake Guentzel – #87 Sidney Crosby – #12 Dominik Simon
#62 Carl Hagelin – #71 Evgeni Malkin – #81 Phil Kessel
#17 Bryan Rust – #15 Riley Sheahan – #72 Patric Hornqvist
#38 Derek Grant – #7 Matt Cullen – #32 Daniel Sprong
#8 Brian Dumoulin – #58 Kris Letang
#3 Olli Maatta – #6 Jamie Oleksiak
#73 Jack Johnson – #2 Chad Ruhwedel
#30 Matt Murray
#1 Casey DeSmith
Injured: Justin Schultz, Derick Brassard