In a miserable overall performance, the Toronto Maple Leafs somehow pulled the game back to 2-2 in the third period only to completely collapse inside 1:31 en route to a 5-2 loss in Buffalo on Sunday night.
Your game in ten:
1. After the first 5-10 minutes of the first period, periods one and two of this game were often like watching a prolonged Buffalo power play. The Leafs were passengers, couldn’t break the Buffalo cycle, and didn’t seem all that interested in digging in with how lethargic they were in their foot races and puck battles. This was as bad as any Leafs hockey we’ve seen this season.
2. The numbers: 39.8% CF is the worst showing of the entire Leafs season from a possession perspective despite the team trailing for most of the game — and unlike the win in Ottawa, the offensive-zone time aligned much more closely with the shot attempts. Their 36% xGF at 5v5 is their worst mark in that category since the loss to Boston in late October.
3. You had to feel bad for Frederik Andersen, who was amazing in the first period but got a raw deal drawing this start in the third game in four nights against a rested Buffalo team. The Leafs are now 2-6-3 in back-to-backs this season — the one win came in OT in a home-and-home back-to-back against the Sabres, the other over Detroit — and they didn’t seem interested in reversing that trend in Buffalo. Zach Hyman, since he’s returned from injury, has consistently been the best Leaf in these tired situations (doesn’t seem to be one for excuses), but there were not nearly enough hands pulling on the rope in this game. The good news is that the Leafs only have two more of these back-to-back sets left in their regular season and they don’t exist in the playoff schedule, assuming they make it. If they ever hope to contend for a divisional title or even just home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, they should see about fixing this Achilles heel one of these years. No rush, though.
4. For some players, it really seemed to be a case of empty gas tanks more than a mailed-in effort. After 25+ minutes of ice time in Ottawa, questionable penalty calls against him aside, Jake Muzzin looked like he was doing a sled pull on the ice for most of the night. It was a lot to ask of a player who plays hard minutes and is not a natural glider. Morgan Rielly’s mobility, stamina, and minute-munching ability has certainly been missed (don’t take it for granted next time), but knowing Sandin – Liljegren doesn’t seem to have the trust of Dave Hakstol for more than 10-12 minutes, in hindsight, you wonder if the Leafs should’ve split those two up this weekend and tried to distribute those minutes more evenly, or failing that, simply spread the minutes around more over the three pairings on the backend. I get that the Leafs had to be sure they picked up the first two points against Ottawa, but it’s not like they were facing a world-beating team with a top six you really needed to shelter anyone from. However, the situation was exacerbated by another injury situation out of the team’s control when Rasmus Sandin disappeared for the better part of the second period for an x-ray on his foot.
5. That excuse does not apply to the same extent to the Leafs’ top guns up front as their minutes were managed for the most part in the Ottawa game. The Matthews and Tavares lines came to life at the start of the first and start of the third periods, but there wasn’t much else happening beyond those intermittent pushes. The fourth line was the only one to come out on the positive side of the ledger in the possession game, as Egor Korshkov — playing on adrenaline in what was his first NHL game but his third game in three days coming up from the Marlies — gave the team a little bit of jump from down the lineup. His first NHL goal was very well taken, opening up for the one-time pass as he did and finishing inside of the post past Carter Hutton.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 17, 2020
6. The Leafs came out for the third period like they had been gifted a chance at a second life in this game, and to their credit, they made 2-2 on a great tip by Zach Hyman for his 18th of the season before nearly scoring a go-ahead goal through an Alex Kerfoot tip in front off of a John Tavares feed. However, the team was assessed a suspect tripping call shortly after, and things totally fell apart from there.
The Jack Eichel power-play goal was too easy, and it was on Mitch Marner for thinking offense-first on the penalty kill. He was hoping the puck battle on the wall was going to break his way and cheated above the puck, then simply stopped playing. Eichel cruised into the slot and picked his spot unchallenged from Marner’s side of the ice. The game is 2-2 at that point and the team needed to simply get through the kill and continue its push back at even strength — that was a costly mistake to make in the second half of a back-to-back on the road.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 17, 2020
7. Shortly after, how Ramus Sandin and Alex Kerfoot managed to turn that one-on-two puck race situation along the wall into a clear-cut breakaway for Kyle Okposo was pretty stunning. The dog’s breakfast of a 5-2 goal aside, that Okposo tally was officially curtains on the game.
8. The Leafs played a rested team last night in a back-to-back, but this excuse on its own wears thin when you consider the Leafs’ overall record in back-to-backs and the league-wide data below. This season, the Leafs play as a tired team against a rested opponent 10 times compared to nine games as the rested team against a tired opponent. It’s not ideal, but other teams have it worse, including all of Boston, Tampa Bay, and Florida:
9. However, combine playing tired vs. rested — three games in four nights vs. a team that had two consecutive days off — with two injuries to blue line regulars (including your top minute-eating defenseman) as well as two top-nine wingers up front, and apparently a flug bug that has been lingering in the room to the point where the team avoided the rink on Friday altogether… maybe there is something to be said here for the fact that it all added up on them last night. The telling part will be the response in what will be a major test this week vs. Pittsburgh.
10. Sheldon Keefe probably is not calling out Kyle Dubas here re: his team’s depth, but to be clear, Mike Babcock said something very similar last March and it was framed as such.
“We need to find more solutions to our depth. Injuries and things that we’ve had — we’re fighting some challenges on our third and fourth lines and on our defense. In the back-to-back, it really revealed itself today against a team as deep as Buffalo is.”
– Sheldon Keefe after the loss to Buffalo
It’s certainly eyebrow-raising to me to hear Keefe say that the Sabres, who have Curtis Lazar as their current 2C, are a team so deep it exposed a Leafs team that has all of its centermen healthy at the moment. It’s definitely a contrasting approach Ralph Krueger has taken in terms of balancing out his four lines compared to Keefe loading up this top six with big minutes while asking the bottom six to produce with limited touches, but I wouldn’t call Buffalo “deep.”
The narrative that is going to follow this team into the offseason if they don’t turn this year around is that Kyle Dubas has broken from conventional thinking on roster construction in order to allocate so many of his cap dollars to four forwards and it has resulted in a shallow, imbalanced roster incapable of rolling with the injury punches. I’m not buying into that line of thinking, but a week away from the deadline, the Leafs have the opportunity to play three games against playoff-calibre opponents in Pittsburgh x2 followed by Carolina (Tampa Bay follows next on Tuesday, and then Florida and Vancouver). Is this Leafs team as constructed close enough to shore up some of its depth issues at the deadline, survive these injuries, and attempt a legitimate playoff run? Or is Dubas going to have to take an honest look at this situation and do what’s right for the long-term wellbeing of the franchise? I don’t think it’s dramatic to suggest that it’s all going to be on the line this week.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: Shot Attempt Locations