This was a big win.
After a 3-0 start under Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto Maple Leafs had lost some momentum by losing three of their next four. A tough road win against the defending Stanley Cup Champions was exactly what this team needed, with the Leafs finally finding a way to keep the goal-light operator busy. While it wasn’t a perfect showing, the Leafs jumped out to a 4-1 lead after the first and Frederik Andersen never gave the Blues a chance to get back in the game.
As John Tavares would say, let’s build from here.
The game in 10:
1. The Leafs won the special teams battle in dominant fashion, outscoring the Blues 3-0 despite having two fewer power plays. Toronto has been frustrating to watch on both special teams this year, and having the second power-play unit score feels like found money. Jason Spezza redeemed himself, at least a little bit, for his power-play blunder against Colorado, and he’s quietly up to 12 points in 20 games. That’s not too bad for a 36-year old who was almost cut from the team under his former head coach.
The Matthews goal was flukey, but it did allow the Leafs to end up a perfect two-for-two with the man advantage. Mix in a key short-handed goal from Zach Hyman, and you have a recipe for success. The penalty kill certainly looked better; it was nice to see them rewarded for their effort with an unexpected goal. It’s tough to lose a hockey game when you win the special teams battle 3-0.
2. Heading into this game, a major key to watch for me was the performance of the Hyman-Tavares-Marner line. Hyman played with Kerfoot and Kapanen on Wednesday night when Marner returned to the lineup against Colorado, but last year’s top line was reunited last night to face Ryan O’Reilly’s line. They did not disappoint.
Marner was one of the league’s most dangerous five-on-five scorers last season, but this production has taken a major dip to start the 2019-2020 campaign. He earned a primary assist just 2:50 into the game, and while Jordan Binnington probably could have had it, he certainly wasn’t going to complain. Per Natural Stat Trick, Tavares led the way with a 71 CF% at five-on-five last night, to go along with a 69.5 xGF%. They won a tough road matchup against a terrific player in Ryan O’Reilly, and when they win the first line battle, the Leafs usually have the depth behind them to win the game.
3. A 5-2 win doesn’t usually lead to much talk about the team’s goaltender, but Frederik Andersen was terrific last night and made some big saves at key times. The Leafs started a bit slow and he made a big save one minute in after the puck bounced off the boards right to the edge of his crease. They were fortunate to be up 1-0, and after the Leafs jumped out to a 4-1 lead, Andersen never gave the Blues a chance to gather any momentum.
Andersen’s save percentage improved to .918 this season, which is what we have all come to expect from him. Since 2015-16, his save percentages are .919, .918, .918, .917, and .918. It’s tough to be more consistent than that, and while I don’t think he’s the best player in the league, I wouldn’t be surprised if he earned a MVP vote or two this year. When I think of the top ten players who are the “most valuable to their team”, Andersen comes to mind at this point.
4. Once again, we saw a few things from Sheldon Keefe that we probably wouldn’t have seen from Mike Babcock. Keefe continued to showcase some new in-game combinations and we got to see a couple of shifts of a Matthews-Tavares-Nylander line in the first. Keefe strategized around the TV timeouts to get his top players more ice time — he also did this during last year’s Calder Cup playoffs with Rasmus Sandin.
Keefe also called a timeout after the Blues scored two minutes into the third, as he either did not like what he saw or wanted to calm the team down. We’ve seen him use his timeouts aggressively in his brief stint, and I thought the team responded well. Given the lead, Keefe also spread out the ice time more tonight, with Barrie and Rielly leading the way with just under 22 minutes. Nic Petan, who played 9:02, was the only player not to see ten minutes of ice time.
5. The Leafs have had their fair share of mental errors this season. In that vein, I have no idea how Tyler Bozak got behind Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin with ten minutes to play. The Leafs had a three-goal lead at the time, and while this did not end up costing them, I hope the coaching staff addresses this.
We saw a Spezza error cost them last game and I’m still baffled by Kapanen’s throwing-the-stick penalty against Montreal from earlier in the year. There were also a couple of cringe-worthy giveaways in the first game against Buffalo. The win is nice — and they were unlikely to blow a 5-2 lead — but it’s time to start reducing their number of mental errors.
6. Toronto’s fourth line did not have a great night at five-on-five by the numbers, but I continue to see positives with the Spezza-Engvall duo. Both players found the scoresheet on special teams, with Spezza showing off his shot for a power-play goal and Engvall showing off his speed for a short-handed assist. Engvall had a very impressive performance on the penalty kill, even if you omit his assist. His speed and long reach is annoying to play against and there was a short-handed shift where he had the puck, curled back, wasted some time, rushed up the ice, and then finally fired a hard wrist shot.
Babcock ran a Gauthier-Shore duo out there on most nights, which gave them both a left-handed and right-handed face-off option. If the fourth line iced the puck and the other team threw their top line over the boards, you at least had some faith that the Leafs could win the faceoff and get the puck out. They still have that luxury with Spezza and Engvall, but with far more offensive fire power. If they ever get fully healthy, they’re going to have a tough time sending Engvall down.
7. The Leafs look like a completely different team when they have all three of their centre-right wing duos in the lineup. It’s tough to overstate just how good Nylander has been this year and his hard work directly led to the first Matthews goal. A takeaway specialist, his ability to pick-pocket opposing defenders gives the Leafs extra possession time while their opponents are vulnerable.
Marner got off to a slow start this season, and when he missed time due to injury, it led to many people shrugging it off like it wasn’t a big deal. This is a roster built on star power; when one of Tavares, Matthews, Marner, or Nylander are missing (yes, I’m including Nylander here), you quickly notice a major difference. The Kerfoot-Kapanen duo is strong for a third line; I’m hopeful that we will continue to see these three duos in the lineup for an extended stretch.
8. Pontus Aberg made his Leafs debut, and his #46 jersey gave me far too many Roman Polak flashbacks. He brought some energy to the lineup, but ultimately, I thought he was fairly unnoticeable out there. Aberg was great with the Marlies, but I have no idea why they’re using him on a line with Matthews and Nylander.
Aberg played mostly right-wing with the Marlies and he consistently showed off his well-rounded style of play. He’s adequate in transition, works hard, and offers a pretty good shot. He played in the Ovechkin spot on the Marlies power play and had Bracco feeding him, but obviously, he won’t have that role on the Leafs top unit. While I like the idea of putting recent call-ups in a position to succeed, I’d rather not play Aberg on his off-wing and I’d prefer to have a heavier player next to Matthews and Nylander. Aberg developed great chemistry with Engvall on the Marlies — I’d like to reunite them on Toronto’s fourth line.
9. When the Leafs deploy a Rielly-Barrie pairing, it feels like the team has five forwards on the ice. I don’t mind them together when the team is desperate for a goal, but I probably would have broken them up once the team jumped out to an early lead. If I was an opposing coach, I’d be trying to get my top scoring line out against them as much as possible, so I’m not sure how long this duo will last.
Ultimately, this was similar to the November 23rd game against Colorado, where the Leafs got out to a huge lead. The Leafs did not come as close to blowing the lead this time, but it did still make the second and third periods tougher to evaluate. The Leafs got a few bounces tonight and Jordan Binnington wasn’t great, but the Leafs were due for this. Both Carter Hart and Philip Grubauer had excellent games against Toronto this week, and at some point, you had to figure that the shots would start to go in.
10. Last but not least, the biggest story of the night was Laila Anderson, who attended the game with her bone marrow donor, Kenton Felmlee:
“On Thursday night, for the very first time, she [Laila Anderson] had the chance to give the donor who saved her life the biggest hug an 11-year-old could muster.” ??
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) December 7, 2019
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 8, 2019
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
5v5 Shot Attempt Heat Map