Are the playoffs here yet?

As much as I love spending my Saturday nights watching the Vancouver Canucks, I’m sure most of us are looking forward to a more competitive matchup in some meaningful games. The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to win their game tonight, eventually kicking things into gear in the third period.

The final score was 5-1, although that includes an empty netter from Joe Thornton. The biggest takeaway for me tonight was that the big guns showed up for Toronto, and when that happens, they’re a tough team to outscore.

Unsurprisingly, those big guns received the highest grades tonight in the report cards. Let’s dive into those individual grades now!

5 Stars

Game Puck: Auston Matthews (C, #34) — I can’t lie, it’s been pretty fun to grade Matthews this season. He’s in the middle of a career year offensively, potting two more goals tonight, which brings his total to 37 in only 48 games this year. That’s a 66-goal pace across an 82-game season.

If Connor McDavid wasn’t about to put up 100 points in a 56-game season, I’m sure Matthews would be the front-runner for the Hart. Unfortunately, it looks like he’ll have to settle for second in 2021.

Instead of showing you the clips of his two goals in this section, we’re going to show you how his linemates helped set him up for those chances.

Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — In the offseason, I remember hearing Marner say he was focusing his energy on competing for the Selke Trophy, which initially surprised me. “Aren’t you more of an Art Ross type of player?” was my first thought.

The more I break down his tape this season, though, the more I see Marner breaking up plays, forcing turnovers, and then capitalizing on those takeaways offensively.

This isn’t the first time Marner’s stolen the puck and quickly put it on Matthews’ tape. He’s created chances like this all season, including a few tonight.

4 Stars

Nick Foligno (LW, #71) — Since I know how much everyone loves charts, here’s my favourite one breaking down Foligno’s best trait in the offensive zone, courtesy of Corey Sznajder’s manual tracking. 

The man can recover loose pucks, which is how he started the following passing sequence.

Good things happen when you retrieve pucks at an elite rate. Just ask Zach Hyman.

TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — Much like puck retrievals, “defense” isn’t the sexiest part of the game, but it’s a crucial aspect to winning hockey. Getting to watch TJ Brodie on a nightly basis this season has helped show me the importance of taking away the middle of the ice in the defensive zone.

There were multiple times in this game where Vancouver tried to penetrate through the middle of Toronto’s DZ coverage and Brodie was there to block the pass. He also did a great job starting the breakout, calmly skating himself into open ice and completing a high percentage of quick little slip passes to an open forward.

Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — Nothing gets me fired up more than Alex Galchenyuk getting fired up.

That’s a fortuitous bounce, but Galchenyuk deserved one with the way he was moving his feet tonight. He finished second on the Leafs behind Matthews with four scoring chances. His best opportunity actually came off the rush, when he wound up in the neutral zone on the regroup and accelerated past the blue line to get a quality chance off from the slot.

It is worth noting the second line hasn’t been driving play that well as of late. The Galchenyuk-Tavares-Nylander combination is still below 50% in 5v5 shot share after playing 127 minutes together, making me think Galchenyuk probably comes out of the top six (and the lineup) when Hyman returns.

Jack Campbell (G, #36) — After letting in a stinker from the boards, I was worried this was going to be another off-night from Campbell. Kudos to him for shaking off the bad goal and saving everything else that came his way. He finished the night with a .963 save percentage, stopping 26 of Vancouver’s 27 shots.

The most memorable saves that come to mind include a point-blank one-timer from Nils Hoglander on the power play and Tanner Pearson’s slap shot off of an Auston Matthews missed drop pass in the defensive zone.

Coaching Staff — The tricky part with this grade is I never know how much to take out of one game for an NHL head coach and his staff. If we take a step back and evaluate how things have been going lately, we can see a lot of positive trends.

Over the last month, Toronto ranks second in the NHL in 5v5 expected goal differential (ahead of Vegas, behind Colorado). The power play has also been generating quality shots, ranking 3rd in 5v4 expected goals and scoring chances.

We can always nitpick — the PK is still underwhelming and I’m not crazy about the Kerfoot third line — but sometimes I think we tend to forget just how good this Leafs team is. Sheldon Keefe & Co. have them clicking right now, to the point where they’re playing the best hockey we’ve seen since the Mats Sundin era.

3 Stars

Adam Brooks (C, #77) — This is such a cool story. Not one person, including Adam Brooks, thought that he was going to be fighting for a roster spot this season. Now he’s playing on a line with Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza – and playing well. Brooks seems to know where everyone is on the ice at all times, as do his veteran linemates, resulting in a very cerebral but effective fourth line.

Tonight wasn’t the trio’s most dominant performance at 5v5, but they still managed to turn it around in the third period and score an important goal, with Brooks deflecting a Justin Holl point shot to give the Leafs an insurance marker.

Riley Nash is going to be joining the lineup when he’s healthy, but I’d rather see the Leafs take one of Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Simmonds out of the lineup instead of Brooks at this point. That offensive fourth line is working right now, so why not keep things clicking there and stick Nash on more of a defensive third line?

Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — The editor and owner of this site, Alec Brownscombe, doesn’t agree with me giving Rielly only 3 stars tonight. Much like the rest of the Rielly fan club, he’s of the opinion that I’m too harsh on Toronto’s minutes leader.

There’s probably some truth to that. Human memory is pretty flawed in that we tend to remember things that are consistent with our pre-existing beliefs. Maybe my brain “wants” to remember the times when Rielly is giving up too much space off the rush defensively. It probably also “wants” to forget the way he holds the line in the offensive zone and puts pressure on the opposing defense with his skating ability.

Confirmation bias is hard for any human being to overcome, which is why I’m such a big fan of using data (and large samples) to help guide my decision making in these areas.

“Ian, the data says Rielly was good tonight.”

I’ll give you that, but only if you’re willing to admit that he’s basically been a break-even player at 5v5 over the last three seasons.

Rasmus Sandin (LD, #38) — Things didn’t start off great for Sandin, who got his face smashed into the boards early in the game.

The end result: a few quick stitches and he’s back on the ice.

It’s good to know he’s officially a Hockey Player now. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as dynamic tonight as his last couple of appearances, but Sandin was still showing off some of his patience on the breakout.

Tavares-Nylander — As I mentioned in the Galchenyuk section, this line hasn’t exactly been dominating play at 5v5 recently. Sure, both John Tavares and William Nylander picked up assists on the Galchenyuk goal, but they haven’t been owning the puck. The shot differential was slightly positive tonight, although that has been trending down as of late.

I do wonder if having more of a puck-hound on that line would help them sustain pressure in the offensive zone more often. We know how good Nylander is with the puck on his stick when he gets open space, but they’ve been having trouble creating that space recently. Throw a Hyman or Foligno in there and things definitely open up for the skill guys.

2 Stars

The Muzzin-Holl Pair — We’ll give Justin Holl some credit for blasting a slapshot from the point and picking up the primary assist on Brooks’ deflection goal, but I still find myself a bit worried with his play lately.

Defensively, I’ve found that he’s been backing up a bit too often, giving opposing forwards space to gain the zone and get a shot off before Holl can get his stick on the puck. He’s great at activating into the play when the situation calls for it, although his puck-moving under pressure hasn’t been as crisp in his most recent games.

With Jake Muzzin, he’s so good defensively that it’s hard to get too upset with him, even when his pairing gets outshot and out-chanced like it did tonight at 5v5. There were a few plays he made without that puck that were just textbook defense, whether it’s gapping up at the right time to kill the entry, or a clean stick-lift and exit pass. If Leafs fans have anything to be worried about, it’s not Muzzin.

Thornton-Spezza — I’ve loved the Thornton-Brooks-Spezza combination on the fourth line, but they got outplayed tonight. Joe Thornton was still playing keep-away in the offensive zone, making the right read to get the puck to an open linemate on the cycle. The issue was they had trouble getting there, failing to kill cycles defensively and transition the puck up the ice with consistency.

On the plus side, Jason Spezza picked up another point.

What’s funny is that draglikepull tweeted this before the goal that Spezza picked up another point on this evening. It was only a secondary assist, but if you’re interested, here’s a look at the 5v5 Primary Points per 60 leaders this season (300 TOI minimum).

  1. Connor McDavid
  2. Auston Matthews
  3. Jason Robertson
  4. Jason Spezza
  5. Mark Stone
  6. Mitch Marner

Talk about elite company.

Travis Dermott (RD, #23) — With Sandin missing a few shifts in the first period, Dermott got an opportunity to play “higher” in the lineup with Toronto running only 5 D. It didn’t go very well; Dermott bobbled a couple of plays in the defensive zone that resulted in chances against.

We should mention how much more confident Dermott looks making plays in the offensive zone off the cycle, pinching lower down the boards to create the passing lane. Then again, it’s the defensive side of the puck where he needs to be impressing his coaches (in front of the net, along the boards, on the PK), and I thought he could’ve handled himself better in that department tonight.

1 Star

The Third Line — As fun as it is to think about running Foligno-Matthews-Marner and Hyman-Tavares-Nylander as your top six, it leaves Toronto with a third line that can’t really do much of anything.

Ilya Mikheyev is such a phenomenal penalty killer that it’s hard to imagine him leaving the lineup. He’s so good at disrupting the other team’s defenseman, anticipating the drop-pass play that every NHL power play seems to be running. He picked off another one tonight. That relentless puck pursuit and long stick is what makes him an effective defensive player.

I feel the need to bring up the fact that, once again, Alex Kerfoot got outshot and out-chanced at even strength tonight. This is obviously only one game, but he has the worst 5v5 numbers among active Leafs forwards by a significant margin. He’s been a staple in the lineup all season, but if you look at the results, they indicate he’s no longer one of their 12 best forwards.

Speaking of which, besides “intangibles” and fighting, I’m having trouble finding much value in what Wayne Simmonds is providing at 5v5. Tonight was a rough game for him, turning pucks over in the neutral zone and struggling to complete even the simple passes. We can all picture him having momentum-swinging moments in the playoffs, but I could also see his line getting filled in at even strength.

Reading the tea leaves, Toronto’s recent lineup moves haven’t suggested that any of these three will be coming out of the lineup. I think that stance needs to be re-evaluated.

Heat Map

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

The 5v5 scoring chance breakdown wraps this game up in a nutshell. Here’s a look at it from Toronto’s perspective.

  • 1st period: 5-10 (33%)
  • 2nd period 12-11 (52%)
  • 3rd period: 8-2 (80%)

The Leafs didn’t “start on time” but they sure as heck finished this one.

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

This is completely ridiculous. Toronto clearly needs to run a Sandin-Sandin pairing.

Maybe instead of micro-analyzing goals against on shots from the boards (xG of 0.01), we should spend our time a bit more productively.

Take it from me: hockey nerd who’s micro-analyzed every Leafs goal against in 2021. Most of this sport is randomness.

That Nick guy is alright too.

Dirtiest team in the league.

Final Grade: B