Coming off a pair of home losses to Calgary and Dallas, the Toronto Maple Leafs responded with arguably their best performance of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

Your game in ten:

1.  It’s been rare to walk away from a Leafs game this season and say that the Leafs worked the other team into the ground, but that would be a fair description of this game. It was a textbook road performance — score first, win the special teams battle, four lines going, limit the time and space of the other team’s stars, win your faceoffs, don’t sit back on the lead. Checkmarks across the board.

The Leafs controlled 60+% of the shot attempts over the first 40 minutes, and even as score effects set in and they were out-possessed 70/30 in the third, the Penguins were credited with just three high-danger scoring chances at 5v5 in the final 20.

The Leafs exited their zone cleanly enough that they were generating speed through the neutral zone and gaining the offensive blue line with control. They didn’t have to go retrieve the puck a ton, although they were better in that area, too. For their part, Pittsburgh was conceding their defensive blue line fairly easily — partly due to respect for the Leafs‘ pace — and the Leafs took full advantage.

2.  After a bit of a slow start overall, Leafs penalty kill went a perfect 5-for-5 on the night against one of the best power plays in the league several years running.

Pittsburgh has a really dynamic man advantage that has enough experience and star power to improvise different styles of power play setups. They rotate from along the top — a somewhat antiquated PP umbrella setup that was in fashion in the NHL a few years ago — with two down low (sometimes below the goal line). They go high-to-low in a fluid fashion, switch to a 1-3-1, and then back again.

Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill

Pittsburgh can make a penalty kill prescout for the opposing team very difficult, but the Leafs didn’t bite on north-to-south play and took away east-west passes while maintaining a mostly rigid structure, with good stick placement and anticipatory skills taking away lanes/options. They were also surer with their clearances, which had been an issue at times in the first month.

Mitch Marner was an absolute force shorthanded, turning the penalty kill into more open ice — an opportunity to use both wings for himself — and he was able to generate offensive chances while burning valuable seconds off the clock.

3.  Morgan Rielly has had his incredible offensive numbers to start the year attributed to a red-hot powerplay with so many stars on it. That is partially true, but the power play has dried up and he has still been producing at a fantastic clip — without Matthews and without Nylander.

Before Rielly scored his first goal in this game, you could tell that he was going to have a big night. Not to be hyperbolic, but this was one of Rielly’s better defensive performances as a Leaf. He was shutting down play after play against Crosby (9 chances for and 5 against in the matchup). He played hard against that line, was physical and committed in his one-on-one battles, excellent at maintaining tight gaps, and he was transitioning to offense quickly and efficiently. It wasn’t perfect, as Sid got inside him a few times, but it’s never easy against #87.

Offensively, Rielly was aggressive joining the rush all night, calling for the puck and getting it back on his first goal and timing his pinch to the post for the power play goal. He is now on pace for 105 points (35g, 70a) — which obviously won’t hold up, but even as it normalizes, he should put up some eye-popping numbers that will get him into some Norris conversations.

From Jonas Siegel:

Most prolific 14-game starts in the last decade by an NHL defenceman (courtesy @hockey_ref):

Tomas Kaberle – 18 points
Morgan Rielly – 18
Nicklas Lidstrom – 16

4.  And that’s no easy task in his role, especially with Ron Hainsey as his partner, who had a good game but it goes without saying should not be on a top pair lining up against the likes of Crosby in an ideal world. Hainsey’s handedness and lack of puck-handling abilities make for some sketchy play breaking out of the zone or trying to go quickly D-to-D and up the ice. That said, he was even in possession against Crosby and doubled up on scoring chances for vs. against (8-4) while on the ice in what was arguably his best game of the year.

Nice night for a guy we’ve been hard on around here of late.

5.  Mr. “Just OK,” John Tavares is on pace for 94 pts (47g, 47a) and was unlucky — again — not to have a multi-goal game. Elite competitors like Tavares, when they’re frustrated like he was against Dallas, just dig in and become more determined. This was a stud performance up against the best center in the world, outscoring Crosby 2-0 and out-chancing him 9-3 in that matchup.

A big part of that also was Mitch Marner, who was absolutely flying in this game, keeping his feet moving at all times. On the Tavares goal, it was his super play to gain the zone, back the D off, trim some speed off to buy time (he had the presence of mind to make sure he wasn’t going to take a hit cutting in from the boards), and send a shot-for-a-tip that set up Tavares, who made no mistake.

Marner’s puck-tracking has been incredible the past few games — he affects the game like a high-end center when he’s going — and that makes him someone who can handle big matchup situations and complement Tavares nicely with and without the puck.

6.  Pittsburgh had difficulty containing Kasperi Kapanen‘s speed off the rush all night, in addition to the headaches he was giving the Penguins on the forecheck.  He wasn’t able to finish on a 2-on-1 with Kadri in the first, but it was a sign of things to come on the night from a player who likely had some money on the board (Pittsburgh being his former team).

It was his beautiful feed that set up the goal by Marleau, who produced an equally beautiful finish.  On pace for 35 goals, 35 assists (70pts) for the year, this is much better production than Kapanen has produced on any team he’s been on at any level. There will be some cooling off here, but he is getting himself into scoring positions for different looks other than just getting behind the D for breakaways, and he’s a more dangerous player because of it.

Despite some fan (and media) criticism of Babcock’s reluctance to play him higher in the lineup earlier, there is a method to the madness and the result is a player who had a reputation as a perimeter offensive player evolving into a hard-checking, two-way player that plays pissed off and hungry, in addition being a top 5-10 fastest player in the league.

7.  After stopping 31 of 31 shots for his first shutout of the season, Frederik Andersen is sailing along with a .924 save percentage. When Andersen is playing his best, there are clear similarities to Carey Price, a goalie he’s mentioned as a model for him on occasion — efficient and quiet, reading plays and anticipating the play really well (it’s clear that Andersen pays attention in penalty kill meetings and pre-scouts the team like a skater, less like a goalie).

Andersen was controlling shots with his toes and placing rebounds where he wanted to help turn shots against into a breakout for. He sealed up the ice with his pads well when he was down and wasn’t hunting to find pucks through traffic (and a credit goes to the Leafs defencemen there for knowing when to block and get out of the way). Goalies that don’t have a ton of confidence will often have their toes on the edge of the crease, while confident goalies will have their heels at the crease line, which is where we normally see Andersen’s when he’s feeling good — that’s where they were in this game and have been for much of the opening month.

On a post-and-out to challenge a shooter from a diagonal, he’s putting perfect weight on his pushes and isn’t over-rotating (pushing too hard, spinning too much and having to correct himself with his free skate). Going post-to-post, he is in control right now and doesn’t have to make very many corrections. The Penguins hit two posts where Andersen was beaten on the play, but you have to be good to be lucky.

Fantastic start to the year from Andersen.

8.  A good example here of the kind of shift the Leafs’ fourth line has been able to produce which, while not showing on the score sheet, helped turn momentum in the team’s favour.

  • Rielly calls back the forwards to curl deeper, which Gauthier does, only for Rielly to send a stretch pass to Ennis, who chips it in himself and starts a long cycle shift.
  • Great board work from Leivo with a hit to the numbers of Letang, who forces it up the boards on his backhand
  • Oziganov provides a nice pinch, with support from the Goat; even when they lost the zone, Oziganov takes only a short trip back to reload and go D to D to Dermott
  • Dermott patiently waits for the Leafs to clear the zone and sends a nice area pass for Ennis, who starts the process again
  • Pittsburgh is forced into an icing

9.   With the Penguins caught on the ice tired, Babcock was able to throw the Tavares line over the boards for an o-zone shift against a tired Penguins unit. Last season, that would have been the Bozak/JVR line coming out to take the faceoff, but this is one of the small things that makes a big difference when there is no line to hide.

The Tavares line got to work and got another shot on goal followed by an o-zone faceoff. The Tavares line stayed on during the commercial break, and after two back and forth plays, the Leafs scored off Marner’s great entry and shot-for-pass to Tavares. All stemming from a good fourth-line shift? All from stemming from a good fourth-line shift.

10.   All-in-all, this was a dominant road game from the Leafs, who played within their structure defensively and slowly ground down the two-time Cup champs. They played with pace, flexed their muscles at 5v5 and on the PK, and showed they can beat top competition with two important stars out of the lineup. Just what the doctor ordered.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Condensed Game