After three losses in their last four games, the Toronto Maple Leafs bounced back with a convincing road win in New Jersey on Thursday night.
Your game in ten:
1. A good sign it’s going to be a good night: Following a choppy first (and only) power play with the new-look units early in the first period, a 4v4 situation with John Tavares in the box develops immediately after the expiration of the man advantage and a unit of Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Ron Hainsey, and Nikita Zaitsev comes over the boards vs. Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson. The Leafs score through a Hainsey point shot to put them up 1-0.
2. The Tavares – Marner line would be good whether you plugged Johnsson or Marleau in there, but it certainly finds another level when Zach Hyman is on the left. Johnsson is no slouch when it comes to forechecking, nosing around in the dirty areas, extending plays and going to the front of the net, but Hyman’s extra heft and elite forechecking ability take it up another notch or two. The combined motors of Marner, Tavares and Hyman, Marner’s creative genius, Tavares’ hands and finishing ability in tight to the net, and Hyman’s ability to pressure/turn over pucks and draw attention/create space by going hard to the front of the net with remarkable consistency, has the makings of a near-perfect hockey line (Hyman just needs to be left-handed). That was a dominant display from the top line tonight.
3. Zach Hyman’s puck pressure/retrieval ability played a role in all three first-period Leaf goals. It’s incredible how low maintenance he is; he missed three weeks and was suspended for three games not long before that, so he’d barely played any competitive games in the past four weeks. It helps when you play a style of game that doesn’t rely so much on timing/confidence, but it speaks to the preparation and commitment to returning in peak shape as well. It’s telling that Babcock doesn’t believe in the traditional injury timelines when it comes to Hyman.
4. It comes with the disclaimer that the Devils are in dire straits this season and are without Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson at the moment (that said, they’ve been good at home — 11-4-4 before tonight). But that was the best third-period the Leafs have played this year while in possession of the lead. They carried 72% of the shot attempts and the Devils were credited with one scoring chance to the Leafs’ eight; the Leafs also outshot them 14-3 at 5v5. The Leafs kept their foot on the Devils’ throats and it looked for a moment that New Jersey wasn’t going to leave the defensive end before time ran out. When they finally got up ice and pulled their goalie, they generated a half-look (blown one-timer from Palmieri), and Mitch Marner led the way as the Leafs iced it with an empty netter.
As far as zone time goes, and how much time the Leafs spent cycling it down low, that was as impressive of a period as the Leafs have played all year. It’s an easy game for your defense and goaltender when you’re on top of the other team and all they can do is dump and change. The Devils repeatedly flipped to center ice, the Leafs D shot it back in, and the Leafs forwards went back to work, shaving minute after minute off the clock 200 feet from the Leaf net.
5. With the zone time the Leafs generated (65% possession on the night at 5v5, a season-high), there was more involvement from the defense from a shot generation standpoint than the typical game — there were 14 shots on goal from the Leafs defense tonight, all at even strength. On average, the Leafs get 8.1 shots per game from their D core with their regular six in the lineup, with 2.7 of those shots coming from Morgan Rielly alone.
By contrast, Nashville averages about 12.4. Among the other elite offenses, San Jose averages 11.7, while Calgary and Tampa Bay are around 10. Washington and Pittsburgh are closer to the Leafs’ range at 8.3 and 8.9, respectively, but none of the top offenses are as low as the Leafs in that area.
6. There are pretty obvious reasons for it — Pittsburgh and Toronto get it done more off the rush and via “fast” three-man cycles where they break teams down quickly, complete successful passes to the slot, and funnel pucks at the net via their forward group more often. That contrasts with San Jose and Nashville’s heavier low-to-high cycle style oriented more around feeding an elite group of pointmen. There is a power play element to it as well, as the Leafs do not generate much from the top on the man advantage.
7. Michael Hutchinson had no chance on the 3-1 goal while the Brian Boyle goal 26 seconds later (may have picked up a slight deflection off a Leaf stick) was in the “could have” category, but he was again very solid between the pipes for the fourth straight start. The Leafs dictated the game for the vast majority of the 60 minutes, but the Devils had a few good looks on the counter off the occasional turnover or Leaf D caught up ice, and he was dialed in all the way through. The sample sizes are too small to make any real conclusions, but there is a certain confidence his style of play inspires over that of Sparks’ so far — it’s more quiet and efficient, with much less extraneous movement in the crease; he rarely overplays it in there.
8. Through 15 games, here are the numbers for William Nylander (thought he was flying tonight with lots of good moments… looks to be pretty much at full speed to me now):
- 1st on the team in shot attempt %
- 2nd on the team in unblocked shot attempt %
- 1st in shots for %
- 1st in scoring chance %
- 1st in high danger scoring chance %
The problem: He’s leading the team in missed shots per game at 1.5 per game vs. his 1.8 shots on goal per night. Matthews and Kadri are right there with him, but they put 2.4 and 3.2 on net per game at the same time.
9. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle because he’s in his own head and it, in turn, makes him more hesitant to shoot. This has been a problem for Nylander all along, though — he’d help himself out by shooting for holes in goalies and for rebounds more often (and then stopping at the net more afterward) versus the constant top-corner hunting. He put another glorious chance high of the mark again tonight. If he wants to go from a 20-goal scorer to a 30-goal guy — he certainly has the shooting talent and overall skill set to be one — ugly goals are going to have to be a more prominent feature of his game.
Tavares (hit 300 career goals tonight and 29 through 43 on the season), Matthews, and Marleau are all examples of this on his own team.
10. All in all, that’s the kind of performance you want against an inferior opponent as the lead-in to the biggest game of the year so far versus Boston on Saturday. A loss tonight vs. Washington by Boston means they’re four back and the Leafs have a game in hand, but it’s a big divisional four-point swing and an HNIC game to really get up for on home ice.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts