The Toronto Maple Leafs snapped a two-game losing slide in emphatic fashion with a blowout win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night.
Your game in ten:
1. The Leafs nipped a mini-losing slump in the bud — they still haven’t lost more than two in a row this season — with a fantastic effort right from the start, totally burying the Flyers inside 13 minutes. Bad starts have largely been the Leafs’ undoing at home this season, but this was a fantastic response after an undeserved loss in Columbus the prior night. The fact that the Leafs have been able to prevent the inevitable ‘dips’ in their season from turning into real losing slumps is really impressive as far as the consistency of this group through 24 games. “Make sure the ups are longer than the downs,” is the Mike Babcock mantra and his team has been able to do that all season so far even with some key absences up front.
It was a 4-0 game inside 13 minutes against a Flyers team that completely mailed it in and never really showed signs of life outside of the odd shift here or there. Overall, it was an easy game to play in and almost everyone on the Leafs looked good.
2. For a team that plays as fast as the Leafs do through their top nine, the fourth line is definitely a departure from that in the overall pace of their play, but here is a good example below of what the line is doing such a good job of as a unit: supporting the puck. It’s a bit of a nothing shift, but there are multiple Leafs in the frame at all times here. You can throw a blanket over the three forwards on the defensive-zone support on the breakout. Once in the offensive zone, Josh Leivo does a good job as the F3 on the play of supporting the pinch from his defenseman and tracking back through the middle of the ice so they can recover the puck, regroup, and get back onto offense.
3. Frederik Gauthier could’ve had three or four goals between the Columbus and Philadelphia games just from playing sound hockey from crease to crease and being in the right spots, but he’s been unable to finish off plays, which will likely always be the frustration with him to some degree.
It’s a tough decision when Matthews gets back (likely around the same time Nylander does, assuming that gets done) as to which of Lindholm or Gauthier plays each night and then which of Leivo or Ennis plays on the wing. It’s almost at the point where you have to draw straws because none of these players are short-changing the team on effort and they’ve all been effective in the job they’ve been asked to do. That said…
Par Lindholm is playing further up the lineup and has more of an offensive element of his game — he also plays faster than Gauthier — so it’s likely Gauthier has to sit some games out and bide his time for the next opportunity. Josh Leivo, unfortunately, likely ends up back in the press box as well by virtue of handedness; while he’s played his off wing a fair bit in his career, he’s much better on the right than the left at the NHL level and Babcock clearly prefers him there.
It’s a bit of a shame to disrupt the chemistry L4 has built, though; they’ve been able to generate ice-tilting shifts on a consistent basis for a team that has lacked a consistently effective line four for quite some time prior to the start of this season (more thoughts on this later). Getting Matthews-Nylander back, though, is certainly a tradeoff you’ll take every day of the week. Ultimately, this is what depth looks like on a great team: Someone good is going to sit each night.
4. In preseason and coming out of camp, Andreas Johnsson looked slow and frankly like an undersized winger who was not impacting the game whatsoever. Suddenly, the confidence and the separation gear in his skating is back in a big way. The NHL is a funny league in that a player in Johnsson’s position can spend a lot of time doing all the right things and he’ll go 10 games without the opportunities Johnsson got in the first 12 minutes of the first period. Kudos to him for making good on each of them (it probably helped he had the book on former teammate Calvin Pickard) and credit to him for fighting his way back to the Johnsson of old. He makes the Leafs that much more dangerous as far as how fast and determined of a team they are through their top nine.
5. Johnsson should be in for a linemate upgrade soon, too, with the return of Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Matthews – Nylander, Tavares – Marner, and Kadri – Kapanen will be the fixed pairs inside the top nine, with Lindholm – Brown likely the L4 duo. The rest is open for debate. It’s unlikely Hyman is removed from Marner and Tavares right away with the dominance of that line and how it’s gelled of late (and also knowing Babcock trusts it up against anybody matchup wise).
That leaves the wing of Matthews and Nylander line up for grabs as well as the left wing next to Kadri and Kapanen. My guess is we see Babcock go with the original plan from the summer which was to play Marleau with Matthews and Nylander. (Marleau, by the way, could’ve had a hat trick of his own in this one, but Anthony Stolarz wasn’t quite the sieve Pickard was and turned him aside blocker side twice on a couple of odd-man/partial breakaways).
Johnsson and Kapanen have a history together in the AHL and I like the sounds of a Johnsson – Kadri – Kapanen line. It’s not a big group, but there is a good mix of pace, skill and sandpaper in what would constitute the closest thing the Leafs have to a chippy, skilled line.
6. Not to belabour the point from earlier, but as fantastic as that top nine sounds, I do think the Leafs will have difficulty recreating their current fourth-line mix. It’s a mixed grab bag of players that I’d never have anticipated could produce these kinds of results, but there is clearly an identity that has formed and a strong chemistry among these three. Leivo/Ennis – Lindholm – Brown has more than enough hockey ability to constitute a good fourth line, but it’d likely take some time to figure it out the way the current L4 has.
Gauthier is like a flipped-up ping pong table on defense — it’s almost as though he plays goal for this two wingers. It’s never pretty, but he’s always thinking a play ahead, he gets in lanes really well, and he has a good attention to detail when it comes keeping his stick down and in position for loose pucks.
Tyler Ennis has added more of a grinder’s mentality to his unique skill set down low, where — as the smallest player in the league who can therefore turn tighter than anyone — he brings those tight-radius switchbacks that big defensemen have difficulty reacting to. That complements Goat/Leivo’s sterling board play with Ennis’ ability to pop in and out of holes easily with the puck under control.
7. Radko Gudas was just about the only Philadelphia Flyer playing a lick of defense in this game. He broke cycles for an exit on a number of occasions, laid down for some key shot blocks (even with the game well out of reach), played right to the end of the game, threw a few heavy hits on the Leafs as they were making a mockery of the rest of his team (Marner, Johnsson), pinched in offensively, and directed a bunch of shots to the net from the offensive blue line.
Radko Gudas should be among the list of players the Leafs should be considering for a cheap upgrade for the D on the right side. 3SOG, 4Missed, 8 hits, 2 big blocked shots, ~53cf%, made plays at the net, exited the zone well and played right til the end of the game tonight.
— MLHS (@LeafsNews) November 25, 2018
This would be a solid, not-unrealistic addition on the right side of the Leafs defense if he ever sprung free in what’s shaping up to be another lost season in Philly. One more year on his deal at $3.3 million is something the Leafs can probably make work cap-wise also.
People will talk about the foot speed element, but it’s an overstated problem in Gudas’ case and he would probably fit in well in Toronto with how aggressive he is pushing up in the neutral zone.
8. Some harsh words from Mike Babcock in response to Garret Sparks’ post-game comments (relayed to him by a reporter) that the shutout helps him believe he belongs in the league:
He said that, did he? K. The only problem with talking is that you’ve got to back that up then, right?
I looked up the Sparks presser and the specific comment about belonging in the league is never said — just that he hopes to relax now and play his game, and that it’s been impossible not to read some of what’s been said about him in the media. Granted, the videos available in the Leafs video vault aren’t the full-length versions.
Either way, if it isn’t clear already, Mike Babcock hates even the faintest whiff of entitlement from players who haven’t proven anything in the league yet.
9. Probably not getting enough attention because the team’s main draw is its offensive skill: With the shutout last night, the Leafs are now third in the league in goals against per game (2.58). They are bottom ten still in shots against per game, so Frederik Andersen’s elite play is a big part of this, but there is something to be said here about how the Leafs approach their structure and transition game. We’ve heard Babcock talk before about how the shot clock is irrelevant to the coaching staff and it’s all about chances for/against. Everything the Leafs do is about trying to feed more speed into their transition game and to make teams play too fast for their own comfort. At times they’ll take a flip out to no one if it means they can reset, defend with structure, and counter off of it, activating the speed of their transition game.
That said, they’re checking much better in general of late and they’ve also looked like a more organized team coming out of their own end with the layers they’re creating and how they’ve incorporated short, medium, and long-range options on the breakout.
10. Don’t be too shocked if the schedule catches up to the Leafs in one of these next two games (vs. BOS Monday and then vs. SJ on Wednesday). By Wednesday, the Leafs will have played eight games in 14 days with a lot of travel and two back-to-back sets mixed in. The schedule will lighten up a little once the calendar turns to December with nine games in the first 21 days with no back-to-backs.
with notes from Declan Kerin
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts