Scoring chances galore in a dominant win for Toronto

I’m a big fan of using “scoring chances” to measure how well a team played. These refer to shots from the slot, which is the area on the ice from the posts out to the dots and then up to the top of the circle, making a “home plate” shape that I’m sure you’ve seen on the broadcast before.

Auston Matthews had eight scoring chances tonight, William Nylander had six, Ilya Mikheyev had five, and even Pierre Engvall had four. When you’re generating that much offensively, you’re not going to lose many hockey games. Unsurprisingly, the Leafs defeated the Canadiens in this one by a final score of 5-2.

There a lot of fun storylines in this game. Matthews scored his 40th goal, Mikheyev had one disallowed — because of course he did — and Montreal’s rookie netminder got shelled in the first period. To help dissect tonight’s matchup in greater detail, let’s go through each Maple Leaf individually.

It’s time for some Leafs Report Cards!

5 Stars

Game Puck: Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — He’s evolved into such a complete player. Marner might not have the heavy shot or giant frame to give him the “full package” up front, but he’s found a way to consistently yield elite results defensively while scoring at a 102-point pace this season.

Watching him kill penalties at a high level, win battles for loose pucks in the corners, and then make spectacular plays with the puck on his stick has been quite the joy to watch this season.

I couldn’t fit it into the clip here, but Marner started this breakout with a between-the-legs touch pass to Matthews. Then he got himself into open ice at the other side of the rink and went into London Knights Mode.

He also made a great pass to Matthews on his 40th goal, which is the 25th that Marner has assisted on this season. As dominant of a scorer as #34 is, I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t reach the heights he has this season without some of the passes Marner has been feeding him.

It makes for a lethal combination.

John Tavares (C, #91) — Right from his first shift, Tavares was dominating play in tight spaces. After getting knocked down along the boards, he was still able to make a play with the puck, which eventually ended up on Alex Galchenyuk’s stick and in the back of the net.

You could argue that was a bit of a flukey play, except for the fact that the majority of Tavares’ shifts followed a similar trajectory. He was winning puck battles in all three zones, making guys miss in 1-on-1 situations, and threading passes to Nylander for some high-quality chances.

Tavares also found the back of the net on this rebound.

Much like Matthews, his hand-eye coordination is just on another level. Tavares will often get his stick on pucks before the defender even realizes where it is. You don’t need elite speed when your hands are that quick.

Auston Matthews (C, #34) — Ladies and gentlemen, he did it.

That’s 40 goals in 49 games for Matthews, which is just absurd. He and Connor McDavid are both having career years in this COVID-shortened season, seemingly pushing each other after every game to see who’s going to one-up the other.

McDavid is likely to end up with the Hart, but that shouldn’t take away from the special season Matthews is having. He’s been generating chances at an other-worldly level all season, leading the Leafs with eight tonight.

They come in different ways, too. Some of those are one-timers, others are curl-and-drag wristers off the rush, and that last one was a cheeky little shot five-hole, with Matthews using his deceptive release to fool the goaltender and tuck it between his legs. Darryl Belfry likes to talk about diversity of skill — Matthews’ diversity of shooting skill might be the best I’ve ever seen.

4 Stars

The Rielly-Brodie Pair — The Yin-Yang to this pairing has paid off well for Toronto this season. As we all know by now, Morgan Rielly is an athletic freak who uses his speed to blow by his man and create transition opportunities for his team. Sometimes that leaves the Leafs vulnerable defensively, which is where TJ Brodie steps in to provide a steady presence.

Sometimes that steadiness manifests itself in transition defense, but it can also be just a simple “slip pass” in the DZ when Brodie is under pressure. He was actually the one starting most of Toronto’s breakouts tonight, giving Rielly an opportunity to skate up into the play and create numbers for the Leafs off the rush.

The good news is that the pros significantly outweighed the cons tonight for Rielly, with Toronto outshooting and out-chancing Montreal by 10 when he was on the ice at 5v5. It certainly helps playing most of your minutes with Matthews and Tavares, but they also benefit from the offensive value Rielly provides by moving the puck up the ice with elite efficiency.

Travis Dermott (RD, #23) — It’s easy to defer to Rasmus Sandin on the breakout, but Dermott made slick some plays of his own in transition. There were multiple times he was able to beat the first forechecker with an elusive move and get the puck up the ice to his forwards in open space. It’s why Engvall had so much room to grab his own rebound off the rush for a goal.

Now, I would’ve liked to see Dermott do a better job taking away the backdoor pass on the Cole Caufield goal, but as we’ll discuss shortly, Sandin put him in a terrible position with a DZ turnover. It was also a textbook saucer pass that landed flat on Caufield’s tape for the backdoor tap-in.

Otherwise, Dermott looked good defensively. He was gapping up in the neutral zone, both at 5v5 and on the PK. The biggest thing that blew me away was how confident he looked with the puck on his stick, making guys miss and completing passes in the offensive zone after gaining the blueline.

Now that’s a sick zoney.

Alex Kerfoot (C, #15) — Just a quick reminder that quality of teammates impact your 5v5 results more than anything, and Kerfoot was playing with Mikheyev-Noesen. I’m not sure how much you’d expect that line to create offensively, but Kerfoot was doing everything he could, lofting saucer passes on teammates’ tape in the slot.

He was using his quickness to his advantage tonight, winding up in the neutral zone to build up speed and then slice through the trap. This also helped him win 50-50 races on the forecheck, where he was surprisingly strong on the puck.

Another area where he surprised me: Kerfoot was actually shooting from good shooting positions. The number of times he’s passed himself out of a good scoring chance are too many to count, so it was nice to see him keep the defense and goaltender honest by firing his deceptively hard shot on net a few times from the slot.

3 Stars

Rasmus Sandin (LD, #38) — Let’s get this out of the way: this was a brutal turnover.

With three forwards going up the ice, Sandin has to make a play to advance the puck there. In failing to do so, he puts Dermott in no-man’s land and essentially costs his team a goal against.

Mistakes like these are part of the learning curve for young NHL defensemen. The good news is that he didn’t let it shake his confidence, coming out on his next shift looking just as poised as ever, making forecheckers miss and snapping passes up the ice.

The most exciting part about Sandin’s game is his ability to run a power play, using his edgework to explore all areas of the ice, which is how he gained the zone singlehandedly at 5v4.

My biggest frustration with the Leafs’ power play this season has been their entries. Sandin showing opposing PKs that he isn’t afraid to carry the puck in himself will go a long way towards opening up space for Toronto’s four skilled forwards.

The Engvall-Spezza-Simmonds Line — What a weird combination of players.

“Weird” is actually a great way to describe Pierre Engvall’s game. Skating himself into bad ice in the offensive zone? Check. Blowing by his man in transition and creating rush opportunities out of nothing? Check. Firing shots from 50-feet away? Check. Getting rewarded for it by corralling his own rebound and beating an AHL-calibre goalie who failed to get back to his post? You know he did!

Unfortunately, Engvall followed this up with an error defensively that’s so characteristic of the concerns we’ve had with him all season, I could see it being the reason he’s held out of the lineup moving forward.

Much like Frederik Gauthier, Engvall stands 6’5 and has some decent weight to go with it (215 pounds). It shouldn’t be hard for him to give Artturi Lehkonen a little bump there to clear the front of the net. Instead, he avoids contact and loses the puck battle. We’ve seen this too much from a player who needs to be trusted defensively to have value.

With regards to Jason Spezza, I didn’t have too many notes on him tonight, other than the fact he was walked by Tyler Toffoli in the neutral zone on that Lehkonen goal. Spezza also made a few nice saucer passes off the rush, most notably to Tavares on the power play.

Wayne Simmonds is the forward I actually came away most impressed with on this line. His role is to provide energy to the Leafs, but it really helps when he combines that passion with some passing. He connected on a couple of nice plays in the neutral zone, stick-handling his way across the blue line and then completing the following pass, which are high-value plays in the modern game.

William Nylander (RW, #88) — In his first couple shifts, you got the feeling this was going to be one of those “do not engage” nights from Nylander.

It’s a meaningless game late in the season, but we’ve seen enough of these moments from Nylander to know it’s a bad habit he can fall into defensively. The good news is that he started to pick things up in the second period and then really started buzzing in the third, using his speed to blow by defenders and generate rush opportunities.

You don’t finish the game with six scoring chances having played poorly, but I did want to show that clip because I think it’s a crucial aspect of Nylander’s game that he’s been asked to clean up in the past. Old habits die hard sometimes, which is why I’m hoping we see Nylander play more like he did in the back half of tonight’s game come playoff time.

Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — I’m of two minds on Jake Muzzin. On the one hand, he’s the defensive specialist on the team who can be trusted to clear the puck on the PK, take away the front of the net, and kill plays early in the neutral zone. He was excellent in those areas tonight.

On the other hand, he’s been Toronto’s worst puck mover in 2021, which was also true in this game.

Data from Corey Sznajder’s manual tracking

He’s so good defensively it hasn’t mattered much this season, but he’s far enough away from his teammates on that graph that it’s some legitimate cause for concern. Muzzin played well without the puck tonight and even picked up two assists offensively, but he needs to start making better passes out of the DZ.

Jack Campbell (G, #36) — Quickly going through the goals against, since it’s what Goalie Twitter is going to do anyways, the rebound on the Lehkonen goal was a bad one to give up for Campbell. He had no chance on the backdoor saucer pass to Caufield, so that’s essentially one mistake on 21 shots against.

The Leafs did a good job of maintaining puck possession and preventing the Habs from generating much offensively, although Campbell did need to come up big on a Josh Anderson breakaway.

2 Stars

Coaching Staff — Let me start by saying I love the way Toronto has been playing at 5v5 lately. They’ve made it look easy advancing the puck up the ice as a five-man unit, really spacing the ice to take advantage of their skill up front.

The biggest criticism you can make of the team right now is that their power play hasn’t been clicking at the elite rate it should be. Their solution to start things off tonight: split units with Thornton on PP1 as the bumper.

In Sheldon Keefe’s defense, he mentioned after the game that most of the big guns were really tired when Toronto got that first power play. The coaches quickly reverted back to the Death Unit (the four high-paid forwards plus Sandin), but it’s concerning to me that they even tried this again.

Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — It’s not his fault when he gets thrown into a role that doesn’t fit his skillset, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating when Thornton fails to make plays on the power play. Even at 5v5, it took well over 10 minutes before he connected on a pass to Matthews-Marner.

Thornton did end up finishing the game with an assist to Marner, but for the most part, he was a third wheel at even strength. I’m usually big on praising Thornton for winning puck battles in the OZ and making heady passes to reverse play to the weak side, but honestly, I didn’t see much of that from him tonight.

Alex Galchenyuk (LW, #12) — On his first shift, he scored a backhand goal 16 seconds into the game.

Afterwards, he was pretty quiet. Galchenyuk was still able to pull off a few fancy moves with the puck and generate some chances, finishing the game with three shots from the slot, but it felt like he could have provided more value. A lot of Leafs possessions ended with him getting pushed around in a board battle and the Montreal defender making a pass out of the zone.

If he’s going to stick in the lineup, Galchenyuk needs to keep playing with that same relentless energy we saw in his first few games. Otherwise, he could find himself on the outside looking in when we reach Game 1 of the playoffs.

He also needs to cut down on the undisciplined stick infractions (five minor penalties in his last six games). Thankfully, the PK stepped up with a big kill early in the third period with the game at 4-2.

Ilya Mikheyev (LW, #65) — “Two on one for Ilya Mikheyev and he…forgot the puck?” His feet are just too fast for his hands. I love watching him use his long stick to force turnovers and then burst up the ice for rush chances, but I also know the odds of him successfully beating a defender and/or goalie after crossing the blueline are slim to none.

As if things couldn’t get worse for him, he had a gorgeous one-timer find the back of the net, only to get called back because Stefan Noesen forgot where the crease was. I’m not sure if Mikheyev has been walking under every ladder he can find in downtown Toronto this season, but he needs the reverse-voodoo magic Taylor Hall’s been using in Boston.

Did I mention Taylor Hall’s shooting percentage is regressing back to the mean? Just thought I’d bring that up for no reason at all.

1 Star

The Fishbowl Helmet

It’s the kiss of death to any defenseman trying to make a pass in the DZ. Poor Justin Holl had a rough first period trying to make plays with the puck. I’ll give him some credit, he looked much better as the game went on, but it was such a comedy of errors early on that I’m not sure I have any other choice than to rank him this low tonight.

Injury aside, his play as of late has been concerning. We know Muzzin elevates his partners’ results – just ask Nikita Zaitsev – which is why I find myself asking, just how good is Holl at the NHL level? I used to argue that he was a legitimate #4 defenseman, but I’m starting to lean closer to #5 lately.

Stefan Noesen (RW, #26) — I could give you a detailed scouting report on Stefan Noesen’s long stick in the neutral zone, but who are we kidding here? The Leafs gave him a game towards the end of the season to be nice, but at 5v5, he didn’t accomplish much of anything.

His most memorable moment in a Leafs uniform is standing in the crease the one time Mikheyev scored a nice goal. Unlike Par Lindholm, at least I’ll remember Noesen.

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 Leafs controlled 63 percent of the shots and 62 percent of the scoring chances at 5v5.

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 was tweeted before puck-drop. Are we sure this guy isn’t a wizard?

As fun as it is to watch the Leafs score goals in bunches, how have they not found a better goal song than Hall and freaking Oates?

That’s a 67-goal pace across an 82-game regular season.

It’s completely unrelated to tonight’s Leafs game, but this kid is 15 years old. Connor Bedard isn’t even eligible until the 2023 draft and he’s already embarrassing the world’s best 17-year-olds.

Agreed, Stefan. You really hit the Noesen the head with that quote.

*Logs off the internet forever*

Final Grade: A