X marks the spot.

We can officially put an “X” next to the Toronto Maple Leafs now that they’ve clinched a playoff spot with their 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. They got some help from the Ottawa Senators, who defeated Vancouver 6-3 earlier in the day, but we’ll focus our analysis on the Leafs tonight — since they’re the only team who matters.

After getting out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, things got a bit wonky in the shots and scoring chances department. The Galchenyuk-Tavares-Nylander line got absolutely caved in at even strength, yet Toronto still managed to hold their lead thanks to some strong goaltending and defensive play.

I’m sure you know the format by now. I don’t love getting wishy-washy in these introductory paragraphs; I’d rather just get to the actual analysis. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the individual player evaluations for tonight’s game.

It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards.

5 Stars

Game Puck: Auston Matthews (C, #34) — Sometimes you just have to laugh at the things this guy can do with a hockey puck.

What’s crazy is this wasn’t the only time Matthews batted the puck out of the air — to himself — and got a shot off before the defense had a chance to blink. This takes me back to the time Elliotte Friedman got caught shouting “WOW!” live on the broadcast when watching Matthews in warmup for Team North America back in 2016.

We’ve come to expect special plays from #34 by now, but it’s still fun to watch him do things we haven’t seen a player his size do before. Pucks just seem to find his stick in the offensive zone. It’s silly.

The Thornton-Brooks-Spezza Line — This isn’t a line any of us expected to see coming into the season, but it might be my favourite fourth-line combination the Leafs have tried in 2021. Joe Thornton is out there winning seemingly every puck battle along the boards to keep the cycle going in the offensive zone. Adam Brooks is making a case for himself to stick with the big club come playoff time, while Jason Spezza is casually tying Rocket Richard on the all-time points list.

It helps when Jake Allen misplays a puck behind the net, or when Jake Muzzin scores on a point shot off of Jon Merrill’s stick in front, but I tend to care more about the process than the result. This fourth line was making plays in the offensive zone. I’m talking east-west passes; quick little give-and-goes to get around defenders; using the full width of the ice on the cycle and covering as F3 for their pinching defensemen.

What’s impressed me the most is Brooks’ skating, which has come a long way over the last few years. He’s been able to catch opposing forwards on the backcheck, breaking up plays in the neutral zone and starting rush sequences the other way. I know he’s not the biggest 4C out there, but with his ability to make quick passes and kill plays with his surprisingly good stick defensively, I think there’s a case forming that he should stick with Thornton and Spezza even when things tighten up in the playoffs.

4 Stars

Jack Campbell (G, #36) — He stopped 32 of 33 shots tonight, with the only goal coming off a Nick Suzuki wrister where Campbell was screened by Justin Holl. It goes without saying he played well, making a few key stops on a Joel Armia breakaway, Corey Perry in tight, and Shea Weber on the power play with his booming slap shot.

That last one didn’t look like fun, but Campbell seemed to shake it off pretty well. It was nice to see him regain some of his confidence tonight, especially when playing the puck, where he looked much more comfortable starting the breakout for Toronto on dump-ins.

Wayne Simmonds (RW, #24) — He was the best player on his line tonight, completing a few high-leverage passes to move play up the ice. That’s usually not an area in which we expect Simmonds to thrive, making it that much more meaningful when he is completing those plays in transition.

He was doing all of his other usual stuff, getting in on the forecheck and bulldozing his way to the front of the net, but it was the passing tonight that really stood out.

Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — His partner had a few rough moments, forcing Muzzin to be the stable defensive presence we all expect him to be. I’m not going to give him too much credit on his goal from distance, which was more of a fluke than anything, bouncing off a defender’s stick in front.

What I will give him credit for is his stellar defending, both against the rush and the cycle. Muzzin does a great job using his strength to dislodge opposing forwards from the puck, whether it’s at the blue line when they bounce off of him at full speed, or in front of the net, where he simply pushes them out of the way.

This probably isn’t news to anyone: Jake Muzzin is good at defense.

3 Stars

Nick Foligno (LW, #71) — Speaking of good defense, that’s exactly what we saw from Toronto’s newest addition tonight. When the Habs were trying to mount a comeback in the third period, Foligno took away the middle of the ice, getting his stick on pucks multiple times to break up those high-value passes. On the forecheck, he was great at forcing board battles when Montreal’s defensemen were trying to start the breakout, similar to what we’ve seen Zach Hyman do for years.

Foligno also picked up a primary assist on a play where he didn’t complete the pass, but gets nothing for this breakaway feed to Matthews.

Sometimes this sport doesn’t make any sense.

Travis Dermott (RD, #23) — Maybe Travis Dermott was a RD this whole time and none of us realized it.

I really enjoyed his game tonight, particularly because he was forced out of his comfort zone and still found a way to succeed. For example, he’s usually the puck-mover while Zach Bogosian plays the “heavy” role in the corners and in front of the net. That isn’t the case anymore now that Rasmus Sandin has taken over as the pairing’s primary puck-mover.

It’s put Dermott in a situation where he has to win more battles in front, get physical along the boards, and most importantly for his long-term value, kill penalties. I thought he did well in all those areas tonight. If he can continue to play well without the puck in his own end, it could put Keefe in a tough spot when Bogosian comes back from injury.

Rasmus Sandin (LD, #38) — Like we just mentioned, Sandin is the puck-mover on his pairing. When you watch him start the breakout, it’s easy to see how confident he is with the puck on his stick. He’s great at waiting that extra half-second to suck in the forechecker, right before passing it to a teammate in open ice.

That trait has made him an excellent power-play quarterback, making a lot of us wonder if he’ll eventually take over for Morgan Rielly in that department sooner rather than later. The biggest concern with Sandin is how well he can handle himself in his own end. Tonight, I saw him lose quite a few puck battles below the goal line.

Now, he did deliver a big hit on Jake Evans, which probably should’ve been two minutes for boarding. Between that and the Blake Wheeler reverse hit, it’s clear that Sandin can pack some punch at 183 pounds, but we’d be lying if we said his strength wasn’t a concern in the tough areas of the ice, especially when the penalty standard is loosened in the playoffs.

If he can start to win a few more of those battles, I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s a regular moving forward.

Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — This wasn’t his most dynamic game, but in typical Marner fashion, he pulled off a structure-breaking pass that gifted one of his teammates an empty net.

There’s a reason Marner ranks second only to Connor McDavid in 5v4 Assists per 60 since entering the league; he can make passes that other mortals can’t. It’s a valuable trait in that you can impact the outcome of the game even if you have a bit of an off-night at 5v5.

Coaching Staff — I’d like to use this section to address Toronto’s special teams since it’s an area of the game where coaches can make a major impact.

On the power play, the Leafs‘ puck movement looks much quicker lately. They’re zipping the puck around the OZ, finding John Tavares in the bumper spot more often, who’s been making quick plays either down low to William Nylander or firing a quick shot on net. The entries still aren’t as clean as you’d like them to be, but the in-zone play is finally starting to look as dangerous as it should with Toronto’s five best offensive players on the ice.

On the penalty kill, I have to be honest, I’m not loving it. Too often this season, we’ve seen the Leafs’ PK give the opposing PP the shot they’re looking for, which was Cole Caufield on the left dot tonight. They also need to do a better job of standing up at the blueline. I understand that you don’t want to get beat behind for an odd-man rush, but you’re doing the opposing PP a favour by backing off the blue line and giving them the free zone entry.

Another thing to consider: Foligno is winning only 45.8 percent of his faceoffs this season. In his 14-year NHL career, he only has one season above 50 percent. The Leafs have been using him on draws in PK situations lately, which I’m not sure is the ideal situation considering how often it leads to the opposing PP starting off with the puck, set up in formation.

2 Stars

Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — It’s not a good sign when Alex Galchenyuk is the most defensively responsible forward on his line. This came at a cost; he generated zero shot attempts, but at least he was putting in effort on the backcheck, intercepting passes in the DZ, and for the most part, “standing in the right spots” as Mike Babcock would say.

This make me think of the infamous Chris Rock bit about doing what you’re supposed to do. I find myself rooting for Galchenyuk when he doesn’t blow his assignment defensively, when realistically, we shouldn’t be giving him that much credit. “What do you want, a cookie?”

The fact that his defensive commitment cost him essentially all of his value on offense and transition tonight is very concerning. It’s making me wonder if the Galchenyuk we saw in the first few games was a mirage. He has seven more games to convince us otherwise, so let’s see what he does with that opportunity.

TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — His pairing got lit up at even strength tonight. As one half of that pairing, some of the blame obviously falls on Brodie. His puck-moving under pressure wasn’t the greatest tonight. While he was good defensively, he also tended to back up a bit too much, to the point where he was conceding clean entries when he had an opportunity to kill the play earlier.

We’ll break down the other half of the pair, but I think we need to acknowledge the fact that bad games like these can’t be entirely Morgan Rielly’s fault at 5v5.

Should one of these guys be benched? — This is the section where I make the argument to take Alex Kerfoot or Ilya Mikheyev out of the lineup. Let’s start with Kerfoot.

Here’s a list of Leafs with a 5v5 scoring chance share below 50%.

  • Travis Boyd (waived)
  • Mikko Lehtonen (traded)
  • Jimmy Vesey (waived)
  • Nic Petan (waived)
  • Alex Kerfoot

We could bring up his frustrating 14 minutes tonight, but I’m more concerned with the 581 minutes he’s spent under water at even strength in 2021. Unless he’s stapled to Tavares-Nylander’s hip, Kerfoot hasn’t been able to accomplish much of anything at 5v5. He isn’t strong enough to win battles in the dirty areas (i.e. getting man-handled by Tyler Toffoli in the corner), and he isn’t producing enough offense to make up for his poor play-driving numbers (i.e. putting the puck over the net on his only real scoring chance of the game).

With Mikheyev, there’s obvious value in his puck pursuit, especially on the PK. On the other hand, his inability to make plays with the puck on his stick has reached the point where I’m not sure what the differences are between him and Pierre Engvall.

  • Annoying forechecker with a long stick? Check.
  • Zero ability to complete passes in the OZ? Check.
  • Terrible shot selection from distance? Check.
  • Lots of odd-man rushes that never convert? Check.

Since Keefe is so intent on keeping Engvall out of the lineup, frankly, I have to ask: why not Mikheyev too?

1 Star

There’s more to life than Points — I always find it funny when old-school types will tell you not to use numbers to evaluate hockey players, then they proceed to make all of their evaluations based on points (and plus-minus). See: awards voting over the last decade.

Tonight was a great example of why you shouldn’t do that. Morgan Rielly finished the game with two assists but got out-chanced 17-5 at even strength. William Nylander picked up a goal on the power play but got out-chanced 9-1 at evens. At some point, we have to hold players accountable for their impact on the game at 5v5.

What’s weird is that Nylander is usually one of the league’s better play drivers, but as we all know by now, he has a tendency to not fully “engage” himself some nights. This was one of those nights.

He did start moving his feet in the third period after having a talk with Keefe, but that’s too little, too late.

With Rielly, we should mention that he made a great pass to Marner from the point on the PP when it looked like he wanted to shoot it. That’s a great decision from someone I tend to criticize for poor shot selection.

On the other side of the puck, I’d argue the referee defended the rush better than Rielly tonight.

If you’re wondering why Rielly gives up so many shots and chances against, it’s because he fails to take away space in the neutral zone, unlike stripes on Cole Caufield here.

Justin Holl (RD, #3) — When he’s defending well, it looks like this.

Awkwardly getting his stick on the puck at just the right moment. The opposite of that happened on the Suzuki goal, with Holl giving him too much of a gap to get the shot off.

Holl also got burned by Armia on this weird play.

Sometimes it’s just not your night.

John Tavares (C, #91) — This was a “burn the tape” game for Tavares. There were multiple blown coverages defensively, lots of turnovers in bad areas of the ice, and limited offensive chances until later in the third period when the game was out of hand. We can blame Nylander and Galchenyuk all we want, but at the end of the day, your center is expected to provide more 200-foot value than Tavares did tonight.

He’s been on fire of late, so we know he’s better than this.

Heat Map

Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

This is the type of game that makes my head hurt as a stats nerd.

The shots were a 51-49 split in favour of Toronto, although Montreal controlled 57 percent of the scoring chances but somehow lost the xG battle to Toronto, who had 60 percent of those.

All of this is to say, I have no clue what to do with that information, especially since score effects kicked in pretty early.

Game Score

Game score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to measure single-game performance. You can read more about it here.

Tweets of the Night

Wait, Adam Fox has more points and a better plus-minus than Victor Hedman? Maybe awards voting comes down to having a big name more than anything.

Internet, do your thing with this one.

It’s too bad we don’t get a full 82-game schedule to see what a healthy Matthews could’ve accomplished this year. It’s right up there with some of the all-time great scoring seasons.

This is one of the better articles I’ve read in a while. Highly recommend checking it out when you have the time.

Sometimes you have to look around and count your blessings, especially considering how messed up things have been for the last 13.5 months.

Final Grade: B-