The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their first three-game losing slide under Sheldon Keefe with a seven-goal rout of the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night.
Your game in ten:
1. As far as taking care of business against a team you should beat, getting back to playing with the lead, getting the team feeling good again after a rough week and the loss of its #1 defenseman to injury, and getting Rasmus Sandin off and running on the blue line against softer opposition, this was just what the doctored ordered for the Leafs.
2. The Leafs dominated the first period, made good on a number of their chances, and periods like those are great fun to watch. It’s entertaining when the Leafs, now the league’s highest-scoring team, are filling the net almost at will like that. However, in terms of closing out games with authority, the second and third periods left a lot to be desired.
There have been some positive signs at times under Keefe (vs. the Islanders most recently) that this group can focus and snuff games out like a championship-calibre squad, but it’s been too few and far between. Much has been made about the loss of Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly, but it’s more about managing the game properly and remaining committed in one-on-one battles: too often teams are gaining clean zone entries against with as much as a stick touching them and/or an easy hall pass from the left and right sides of the rink behind the net. Taking bad gambles offensively and giving free rein to the other team on the defensive side of the puck are not the habits you’re looking for in possession of the lead.
After 17 goals against in the last three games coming into the night, you would’ve liked to have seen more focus in terms of closing the game out cleanly and giving Frederik Andersen a confidence-building night in the ent, but that didn’t really take place with how the game ended.
3. One example of where the game management needs to be better: Before the second Devils’ goal, Tyson Barrie looked to be attempting to pad his stats in a 6-1 game with eight minutes left on the clock by dropping down below the hashmarks for a low-percentage wrist shot, leaving two players behind him. Not good enough.
4. It was noteworthy how pointed Sheldon Keefe was in his criticism of the team’s second-period performance, which he called maybe the team’s worst period under his watch. It made me go back and rewatch the 5v5 shifts in that period, and it became instantly clear what he was referring to.
The team got stretched out on the breakout often, threw pucks away blindly (at least five low-percentage stretch passes to no one for giveaways in just the first 10 minutes alone), turned it over in the neutral zone regularly, and then once in the o-zone, the team did not value possession down there in the slightest, attempting lackadaisical plays and low-percentage passes that were frequently off the mark, leading to abbreviated o-zone possessions.
It’s clear that Keefe is drilling into this group the importance of keeping the puck once in possession, and that second period showing justifiably drew his ire for that reason. It’s a 3-0/4-0/4-1 game by that point and score effects are real — as is the tendency to ease off the pedal against a bad team at home — but those habits against good teams will often lead to the erasure of a multi-goal lead.
5. The Leafs’ top prospect, Rasmus Sandin, didn’t disappoint the first game of his second stint with the big club. Sandin’s heads-up point shots generated two goals on the night, he was smart in transition, elusive, and played a good game overall. He was sixth among Leafs D in time on ice, but still played much more than his TOI average in his first stint (12:13/game) with 16:12 (1:53 on the PP). Getting him those confidence-building touches on the second power-play unit is a wise move from Keefe. Frankly — not to pile on Barrie — he looks better than Barrie there in terms of walking the line and using his feet to open up lanes for himself instead of firing pucks into packs of bodies.
6. Sticking with the blue line, this was also a good game from Martin Marincin overall. As usual, he made good use of his big stick, he was completing plays at a good rate, and he even got into some skirmishes. He was on for two goals for, one against, led the team shot attempt for/against, and controlled scoring chances against to a good degree. After receiving a new contract for next year earlier this week, that may have lightened the load on him mentally. It hasn’t always been perfect, but he’s used the opportunities provided by the injuries to prove he’s capable of quality depth minutes.
7. With another multi-point game (1g,1a) — his fifth in his last 16 games — Zach Hyman just keeps getting better and better offensively. He’s tracking for 27 goals and 20 assists in what will be a 62-game season for him (barring no more games missed). Those are excellent numbers and bang for the buck for the $2.25 million the Leafs are paying him for this season and next — a 61-point pace over 82 games. He’s shooting at nearly 20% and that is sure to regress (he shot at 14.5% last year), but even when it levels out, it’s still very strong production. And that’s to say nothing of his dogged determination, physicality, and defensive play that are sorely needed among this forward group.
8. Moving Pierre Engvall up next to John Tavares and William Nylander was a new look from Sheldon Keefe. It wasn’t so much a reactionary move after the blowout loss in Florida as it was a response to a rough three or four-game sequence from that line. It was not surprising to see Engvall thrive there: he offers a complimentary game to two offensively-gifted players. When the head coach is praising a player who is just 25 games into his NHL career for the responsibility he adds to a line with a veteran center and a fifth-year winger in terms of tracking back after the puck turns over or leaves the o-zone, it’s noteworthy. Engvall also engaged in scrums and clearly had skin in the game; he’s been constantly hungry and engaged from night to night.
9. It used to feel like Frederik Gauthier needed 100 chances to score once, but he’s now on pace for about 10 goals over 82 and is shooting at a 20% clip. The finish vs. Winnipeg off the feed from Mason Marchment was really well taken, he picked his spot well on his finish well last night, and he’s bearing down better overall, which was a much-deserved criticism of his offensive game in the past (it’s still not perfect — he whiffed at the backdoor with the net ajar the other night) . Combined with him taking on penalty-killing duties, is he now valuable enough as the 4C for the playoffs? It’s a good question for Kyle Dubas and company. Last year, he was probably the worst forward on either team in the Bruins series. When elite lines are going head to head in the playoffs and canceling one another out, the depth lines matter more than the attention they’re receiving in the regular season as Keefe rides his stars.
10. Don’t look now, but with his second career hat trick clinched via the 7-4 empty-net goal, Auston Matthews is on pace for 59 goals, 99 points, and a +33 plus/minus rating approaching game #50 of the season.
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts