The good times kept on rolling to start 2020 for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who extended their points streak to nine games (8-0-1) with a 6-3 win in Winnipeg on Thursday night.
Your game in ten:
1. This is now the franchise’s longest stretch of four-plus goal games since the early 90s — nine in a row. The team is putting together one of the organization’s best-ever regular-season runs at a time when they absolutely needed it to save a season in peril. It’s been remarkable to witness a turnaround of this magnitude and expediency; the team is now back on a 100-point pace thanks to this 19-game stretch where the team has picked up 29 points and scored a whopping 79 goals under Sheldon Keefe.
A few of the beat reporters who have covered and traveled with the team for a long time have mentioned this being the loosest the group has ever seemed with this core of players, and that’s certainly how it looks watching them play — occasionally for the worse, but much more frequently for the better offensively.
2. The Leafs were very opportunistic in this game in the first 40 minutes, taking full advantage of an off-night for Connor Hellebuyck (who made a mess of William Nylander‘s 1-0 goal, really should have had Mitch Marner’s 5-3 power-play goal, and had a chance to come up with saves on the other three) as well as the inevitable turnover in his own slot from Luca Sbisa. Despite getting badly outpossessed (75/25) / outchanced (60/40) in the second period and giving up three goals, the Leafs still emerged from the middle frame up two thanks to a nice rush led and finished off by Travis Dermott, a quick play off an offensive-zone faceoff for Pierre Engvall‘s goal, and dribbler through Hellebuyck off a Mitch Marner shot on the power play.
The middle 30 was far from pretty for the Leafs, who stopped skating for periods of time, were conceding their blue line with ease, and were essentially letting Scheifele, Connor, and Laine have their way with them. At one point, they had conceded 16 consecutive shots on goal without mustering one of their own. The majority of the Scheifele matchup fell to the Matthews line and the Rielly-Barrie pairing, who did not have a game to remember at 5v5 — they had under 30% possession in that matchup, couldn’t generate many defensive stops, and gave up too many good looks from the slot.
3. The most concerning part of the way the team handled their multi-goal lead coming out of the first period was how easily the Jets were traversing the neutral zone untouched — that’s not how you safely defend leads against dangerous offensive teams. You can tell there is a real confidence within the Leafs’ group right now that they could score on every shift, though, and the Leafs broke the Jets’ will by responding with a big push offensively whenever they needed one. Over the past couple of years, these Leafs-Jets matchups have often turned into firewagon hockey, with the Jets typically ending up on the wrong side of it.
4. In terms of the line shuffling in the top six, it’s not that we can confidently say Matthews-Nylander or Tavares-Nylander is going to be permanent or that they will prove the better configuration for this team in the long run (Keefe won’t commit to anything indefinitely). But the success of those new duos so far speaks to how playing with the same players for long enough without a break from one another can get stale; even brilliant offensive talents can fall into repetitive, predictable patterns and creativity starts to suffer. It shakes players awake by forcing them to think and adapt, and the creative juices can start to flow again for elite offensive players when they’re made to do so.
The opponent in this game, the Winnipeg Jets, have done something similar with their top guns — Wheeler and Scheifele were stapled to one another for years, but Paul Maurice has more often gone with Scheifele – Laine this season to good results — Scheifele – Wheeler barely broke even in 5v5 goal share last season, while Scheifele-Laine has outscored the opposition 33-22 at 5v5 so far in 2019-20.
5. As for the John Tavares and William Nylander duo, they’ve outscored the opposition 5-3 at 5v5, but their control over the run of play and the scoring chances is remarkable — they’ve owned 69% (60 chances for, 27 against) of the scoring chances and over 64% of the expected goals.
Tavares is bringing out a lot in Nylander and vice versa — you can see they’ve got a lot of trust in one another’s ability to hang onto pucks, make plays, and to come out on the right end of loose puck battles, so they are finding each other in good spots all over the offensive zone. Tavares looks totally dialed in at the moment with his loose-puck tracking and playmaking in traffic — he’s constantly keeping plays alive in the o-zone, roasting d-men regularly in tight quarters, and finding his linemates in high-danger areas. His play to basically one-touch it back to Kerfoot for the 6-3 tic-tac-toe goal by Nylander was a really smart play by him.
With his third period goal in tonight's game, William Nylander registered his 200th career NHL point. #LeafsForever
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) January 3, 2020
With that goal, Nylander is up to eight goals and 15 points in his last eight games, with three game-winners in that mix.
Frederik Andersen stood tall as Scheifele line generated three or four looks on quick one-time plays from the slot on a single shift with around 15 minutes left in the third; the Jets appeared to be gearing up to make a final push with the score at 5-3, but that 6-3 goal took the wind out of their sails. The Leafs took care of the lead quite well defensively from there, but it led with the offense basically breaking Winnipeg’s will.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 3, 2020
6. When watching a new offensive combination like Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander light it up, I start to think about the playoffs and the “series within the series.” Good teams that can defend will start to find answers with their matchups and gameplan for the opposition’s best weapons, particularly as a series wears on, but I’m guessing the Leafs are going to be a much more difficult team to pin down this year with some of these tried-and-tested combinations up their sleeve. Between the power units Keefe will load up for offensive zone faceoffs or after penalty kills, the different iterations we’ve seen within the top six at different times, and their willingness to ride their stars more — the jury is out on their ability to go deep with their defensive play and chancier style, but the Leafs are able to throw a lot at the opposition over the duration of a game and a series.
7. It can be difficult to assess the fourth line within Keefe’s deployment as he leans on his top guns early and often in the pursuit of an early lead (with a lot of success so far); they’re so often lost in the shuffle early. Depending on the circumstances of the game, it is not unusual for the fourth line to land in the 5-7 minute range on the night. In the second period, where the Leafs lost their way in the game for an extended period, Adam Brooks and Mason Marchment played one shift each for 44 seconds and 51 seconds of ice time, respectively, in the entire middle 20. Once the game felt more in hand at 5-3/6-3 in the third, Keefe did mix in a few more shifts for his fourth line and we saw some flashes of the potential there with Mason Marchment added.
It was nice to experience that “here we go” feeling when Marchment dumped a puck in early in his shift in the first period and landed a good hit. Once Nazem Kadri was traded, the Leafs no longer had anybody on the roster that spikes your anticipation when chasing down a puck on the forecheck — aside from maybe Zach Hyman, but that’s more about him likely coming out on the right side of the battle and it leading to something productive than it is about him likely burying someone.
With his reach and size, Marchment is a handful along the wall when he’s protecting the puck and making the D turn, although I’m curious to see how he fares against the size and strength of NHL defensemen as his balance on his skates has been a work in progress over the years.
— David Nestico (@davidnestico200) January 3, 2020
8. It’s noteworthy that Keefe and Dubas are taking the opportunity, in wake of the three injuries down the left wing, to take a peek at a bunch of developing depth pieces that are banging on the ceiling looking for a callup. Getting these players a taste of the NHL serves as both a reward and a motivator for them while providing more information for the coaching staff and management to go on as they sort out the depth of the roster and determine what they have internally — a particularly important process ahead of the trade deadline in terms of evaluating what they could part with for the right defenseman or depth center. In general, I’m encouraged by the level of curiosity shown by Keefe to find out what he truly has in the best 25 or so players in the organization.
9. Also, the “little things” like getting Adam Brooks in for his hometown game and starting him on the first shift, dressing Mason Marchment in the same city his dad made his NHL debut, and giving Brooks and Marchment the power-play time on the meaningless man advantage at the end of the game — it can help keep even the players that are going to return to the AHL (if the team does finally get fully healthy or close to it up front) a little more engaged and motivated, and that only helps the team in the long run should injuries strike or if a deadline trade creates an opening.
10. Quietly, the Leafs’ penalty kill has been slipping again of late — they’ve conceded a PP goal in seven of their last nine while killing at just 66% over that span. This game got interesting again due to a PK breakdown that was too easy for the Jets off of the initial entry; we’ve mentioned it before, but Kasperi Kapanen (who had a strong game on the third line at 5v5) has struggled shorthanded this season, in addition to Frederik Gauthier still learning the role. Despite carrying the play for large stretches of the second period, it felt like the Jets were starting to run out of ideas and weren’t really up to much on that power play; then Kapanen and Marincin got beat clean on the entry, Marincin got boxed in, and Kapanen stopped skating, creating a gulf for Connor to walk into. Just after Engvall and Hyman have emerged/returned as parts of the solution here, Moore, Mikheyev and Muzzin have all been lost to injury, so the personnel shuffle continues and it’s been a bit of an ongoing battle to find consistency shorthanded.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts