By Alec Brownscombe & Declan Kerin
The Toronto Maple Leafs put together the complete home game they were looking for throughout the first month-plus of the season, routing the struggling New Jersey Devils at the Scotiabank Arena on Friday night.
Your game in ten:
1. This was pretty much exactly how you would draw it up if you were scripting any game but especially the first of a back-to-back. The Leafs got contributions from six different goal scorers, all four forward lines, and two of their defense pairings picked up points in what was arguably their best home performance of the season. It felt like everything went in for the Leafs tonight, but they earned their bounces for the most part.
With such a commanding lead, Mike Babcock used his fourth line a bunch — between 13 and 14 minutes — and rested his top guys with a tough back-to-back against a rested Bruins team on the docket tomorrow at TD Garden.
On defense, Nikita Zaitsev played the fewest minutes of any defenseman (that has to be a first in full games he’s played since he got here), as Travis Dermott played over 19 minutes and Igor Ozhiganov nearly 17.
2. The confidence of Morgan Rielly jumping up offensively is at an all-time high — he was practically breathing down Mitch Marner’s neck following up the play on the first goal as Marner cut into the slot before picking up the loose puck and setting the table for Hainsey’s setup to Tavares.
Here is a good data viz below of just how involved he’s been in the offensive zone this season:
I don't have last year's shots handy but I'd bet money Morgan Rielly's shot map didn't look like this last year. He's literally all over the map. (One issue: this include all situations, viz under construction will have 5v5/PP/splits when finished. #Leafs pic.twitter.com/v3f8OFR1ga
— Bill Comeau 🏒📊🇨🇦 (@billius27) November 10, 2018
In addition to the seven goals (two off his career high) and 20 points in 16 games, Rielly is on pace for 241 shots on goal right now. That’s a good rate for a high-scoring forward (just as a quick reference point, Patrik Laine put 241 shots on goal last season, Evgeni Malkin 239), and it’s more than what John Carlson put on net last season while leading the league in defense scoring.
3. As gaudy as those offensive numbers are and as much attention as they warrant, we’re seeing significant progress from Morgan Rielly as far as the detail in his game defensively. The sequence below is a great example.
Taylor Hall curls, streaks down the right side, and tries to time his shot during Rielly’s pivot. This is the type of play where the puck used to go through Rielly with some regularity. He’s figured out the subtle but effective technique of keeping one or both feet sideways to the shooter.
Ron Hainsey does this well when he’s on his game (especially on the penalty kill). It keeps a defenseman in the play if he can’t get stick on puck by creating a second layer; it’s the biggest wall a defender can create while upright. Even though Rielly didn’t get stick on puck on the play, he was able to use a skate blade to direct the puck to safety.
He makes another nice stop later in the clip — denies the entry, picks up a bobbling puck, stays with the play, denies a short break, and bats the puck that ends up tape-to-tape for Hyman.
4. Another area Morgan Rielly has improved in: Attacking forward while skating backward on zone exits and on neutral zone transition plays.
It’s a somewhat tricky technique whereby a defenseman uses an exaggerated jump forwards with their skates twisted sideways. When timed correctly, defensemen can gap up very aggressively while putting their feet in a safe position to recover. Rather than getting caught flat-footed skating against the grain, the D is able to power out of it. Rielly stumbles shortly after — points docked for the landing — but he got stick on puck, disrupted the exit, and bought time so his team could defend with structure on a 1v4.
5. After a slump of one point in nine games, Patrick Marleau has points in three consecutive and looks much better overall. He’s more involved offensively and is closing on defenders on the forecheck and tracking back better without the puck.
Some of it might be that veterans sometimes take a little bit longer to get their legs going and the league’s structure-less, chaotic state in the early going doesn’t necessarily suit them. The signs are good lately that he’s still got plenty to give — it was his disruption and second efforts on the forecheck that led to the Kadri and Rielly goals (flukey as they were).
He should’ve had a goal in this one, too. The call on the ice on his maybe-high-stick was a good goal and the replay didn’t conclusively show his stick above the crossbar. That felt like a sympathy no-goal call there.
6. The other factor at play is that Marleau is now on a line with Nazem Kadri, where he’s enjoyed success last year, scoring at a good rate during the regular season in a matchup role (27 goals) and then putting together a great series against Boston as well (four goals).
It’s interesting that Marleau and Kapanen as a winger duo didn’t work as well with Matthews as it does now with Kadri. A playmaking puck-carrier down the middle — someone who likes to hold onto the puck more than Marleau and Kapanen — suits Marleau’s game more. It also seems like Matthews is better suited playing with someone with a little more play-steering ability off the wing than the combination of Kapanen and Marleau provides; that’s why Nylander and Matthews work so well together.
Interestingly, Marleau and Nylander were a 57 CF% together last season with nearly 60% of the scoring chances. Some of that came with Marleau down the middle, but Nylander takes over a number of the C duties regardless, swinging low for the puck and lugging it through three zones.
7. The fourth line looks like a bit of a ragtag mishmash of players on paper, but they know their role, have an identity forming and continue to be effective. After a bad game where they lost their matchup pretty handily versus Vegas, they got back down to work in this game. They’re reading off each other well and supporting each other fluidly breaking out of their zone and on the cycle in the offensive end. They continue to manufacture shifts that help turn momentum for the team, starting with their first shift of the game tonight:
Here is another good o-zone shift starting off a faceoff below, with good determination off the faceoff from The Goat and Ennis; the latter executes a disruptive diagonal drive to the Devils side of the dot. After Travis Dermott keeps his feet moving and gets off a shot, they’ve got the Devils scrambled.
An example of a clean zone exit by the line below, and a great way to defend a lead by making the other team defend with relentless puck pursuit and support all over the ice from the Leafs‘ forwards and D:
Ennis’ goal was really well taken and started with his work as first man in on the forecheck, followed by jumping on the D to D pass with Gauthier sealing off the wall.
8. Line three might be starting to find its groove a little bit with back-to-back good games. Andreas Johnsson looks like what made him successful at this level last season is starting to come back to him, and the goal should allow him to exhale finally. Par Lindholm has been putting in respectable enough shifts as a stopgap 3C the past couple of games, while Connor Brown looks like a more confident player having had a few things go right for him finally around the net.
Who predicted a nice tic-tac-toe goal involving Hainsey, Lindholm and Brown before the game?
9. Auston Matthews has been out for six games now and the Leafs have done what they needed to do (regardless, but especially in wake of the injury) — tighten up some defensively.
Over the last seven games, the Leafs are giving up just 1.26 goals per 60 at 5v5 (first in the NHL over that time). A lot of the credit goes to Frederik Andersen’s superlative play, but at 5v5, they’re also 10th in Corsi Against per 60 over that time, seventh in high-danger chances against per 60, and 15th in scoring chances against per 60.
Ideally, the Leafs can continue to build on this and play sound defensive hockey once they integrate Nylander and Matthews; not that Matthews and Nylander are poor defensively, but the team’s overall commitment to playing right without the puck — being above it, tracking back hard, supporting the D better — has to remain there once (if in Willy’s case) a couple more of their big offensive weapons return to the lineup.
10. Should be a great test as a tired team playing the rested Bruins in Boston tomorrow night. Realistically, any point is gravy knowing the back-to-back circumstance with travel in between, but the Leafs can really make a statement with a victory tomorrow (with Matthews and Nylander still out of the lineup especially). The Leafs have to be feeling confident about their ability to go into tough buildings and get results right now — they’re 6-0-0 on their travels with their last three road Ws coming over Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, and Washington.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts