Faced with a different challenge against the New York Islanders tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs passed another test with a 3-0 shutout victory with their backup goalie in net.
Your game in ten:
1. Sheldon Keefe can do no wrong right now, can he?
Getting more rest for Frederik Andersen is clearly a priority that needs to be taken seriously, and it’s a luxury the Leafs have afforded themselves with their remarkable 20-game turnaround. When I saw the news today that Michael Hutchinson was going to start — which raised plenty of eyebrows knowing it was going to be a tough matchup (i.e. why not Edmonton on Monday instead?) — my first thought was it was a “feel” call by the coach with a few factors likely at play:
- Keefe and other the staff dealing with Hutchinson directly (i.e. Steve Briere) like Hutchinson’s mindset and confidence level right now and wanted to give him a shot against a real team on a HNIC at home, thinking he would respond to the challenge. It was a great call — he did, and this was a big confidence booster for him to take forward.
- As good of a team as the Islanders are, it was probably going to be a low-event, tight-checking hockey game, as opposed to the river hockey he’s been exposed to frequently in his starts this season.
- Things are going so well for the team right now that you almost need to manufacture a little bit of healthy controversy/adversity for the group to keep them engaged and prevent the natural human complacency that can start to set in when the success level is high over a sustained period of time.
2. Also noteworthy: The Islanders were making a push before the TV timeout with around five minutes left in the third and the Leafs came out and generated a couple of good offensive-zone shifts afterward — whatever message he’s been preaching to get the team settled and defending leads better in third periods of late is clearly resonating. As in so many facets of the game under Keefe, the team has made big strides in this area in a very short period of time.
3. A lot of opponents have and will come into Toronto with a gameplan that’s not as staunchly defensive as the Islanders’ but certainly shares a lot of the same aims as Barry Trotz’s group did tonight — take away their speed through the neutral zone, get pucks in behind their D consistently, work them down low, and challenge them physically. Bruce Boudreau called it “playing physical against a non-physical team” on New Year’s Eve in Minnesota, who couldn’t execute on it because the Leafs had the puck for most of the night.
The Leafs continue to pass test after test during this run — the Islanders will likely leave the game feeling they executed on their game plan pretty well overall, but the Leafs’ ability to stay with it through the game, not beat themselves, and wait patiently for their opportunities — with the confidence of knowing they will be able to make good on them when they come — was impressive. This is the kind of versatility a team needs to win the Spring.
It’s well and good to strive to generate controlled entry after controlled entry (and the Leafs are doing a much better job of that overall under Keefe), but when a team takes away time and space and swarms the puck carrier in five-man units as well as the Islanders do, you don’t have much choice but to make sure you take care of the puck. The Leafs mostly did a good job of living to fight another day in terms of when to make the safe play — and when they erred, Hutchinson was there with a couple of partial breakaway saves and one clear-cut breakaway save in addition to stopping all the pucks he should stop from the perimeter.
4. That was the big difference in what Michael Hutchinson did tonight — you would be hard-pressed to go back through even his worst starts this season and find too many of what you could fairly label a true softie, but he just didn’t come up with the big timely saves NHL goaltenders need to come up with. He did that tonight, most notably with a big glove save on Mat Barzal that set the stage for the 1-0 goal at the other end. He earned a break with a couple of posts as well, one of which (off the stick of Johnny Boychuk) directly preceded the Leafs’ 2-0 goal.
5. On the 2-0 goal, the way Auston Matthews can time it and angle his blade flat while still getting the contact he needs on the puck is so impressive. Just the way he can instinctively manipulate the blade of his stick to find the net, in general, is staggering — e.g. that goal against the Blues last month where he opened the stick blade up ever so slightly in tight to chip the puck over Jordan Binnington’s pad from a spot where 99% of players would’ve just stuffed the puck into the goalie.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 5, 2020
He also scored a goal against San Jose in October where he was winding his way in off the wing on Martin Jones with his head up and saw that the five-hole was wide open, so he made a last-second correction in the process of the release and launched the puck more from the mid-blade than heel-to-toe so he could keep it low and sling it through the wickets. It will never get old watching Matthews invent ways to score goals — a true improvisational genius at work.
6. As poorly as Noah Dobson played it, I didn’t think Kasperi Kapanen had that kind of one-on-one move coming down his off wing up his sleeve. That was a roasting. Don’t sleep on the feed to Engvall, either — getting that over to him so quickly by sliding a backhand pass underneath Boychuk was beautifully executed.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 5, 2020
7. Also liked how Pierre Engvall didn’t mess around and shot it through the net from in tight with a confident finish — he’s shown to be a good finisher (with a heavy shot) since arriving in the league and is on a 23-goal pace over 82 games. Credit to Declan Kerin here at MLHS, who for the past year has been convinced Engvall would take to the NHL very quickly.
Keefe’s answer after the game on Engvall’s development was fantastic; many probably don’t realize how much heavy lifting he was asked to do in the AHL from the get-go on checking lines despite arriving in North America as a scorer. He’s a big guy with great reach and skating ability who plays a mature, well-rounded game; now that he’s been slotted in on a third line that plays relatively easy minutes against checking lines, he’s scoring in the league right away and giving the Leafs’ secondary scoring a nice lift.
8. Back at home, if you were keeping an eye on the matchup game after the Rielly-Barrie pairing struggled on the road in the top matchup vs. the Scheifele line, Martin Marincin – Justin Holl drew the Barzal line for the most part and did a nice job there — with Marincin and Holl on the ice vs. Barzal, the Leafs outshot them 7-2 (shot attempts were 10-7) and outscored them 2-0. The pairing finished plus-three on the night as they were on the ice late for the empty-net goal as well.
Keefe’s ability to stopgap in response to injuries has been impressive so far — and is certainly helped by his familiarity with many of his depth pieces from his Marlies days, such as the history of the Marincin-Holl pairing in matchup situations in the AHL playoffs.
9. Sans Jake Muzzin, this is an ugly d-core on paper right now that is playing over its head. A big part of that is the Leafs playing faster on defense with better support — that helps mitigate Martin Marincin’s biggest weakness, which is hanging onto the puck for any serious length of time and trying to execute those lengthier outlet passes. Able to find his outlet with a little bump pass to get the puck moving out, he’s been able to keep it simple with the puck and has been pretty good defending the rush and the cycle with his body positioning and reach. Marincin has figured out some simple patterns he can rely on for when and where to turn defensively; combined with his length, it can be quite effective. This is no long-term solution, of course, but as a stopgap, he’s been solid so far.
10. The edge is now just six for the first-place Boston Bruins, who have dropped three straight and have won just four of their last 15 games. The loser point has been their saving grace to an extent — and shows how tough it can be to make up serious ground in the league — but my how things can change.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts