On a night of shiny new objects, the Toronto Maple Leafs integrated trade deadline acquisitions Colin Blackwell and Mark Giordano into their lineup and got a PK-fueled win over the New Jersey Devils 3-2 at Scotiabank Arena. 

It’s not too often that you win a hockey game because 66.7% of your goals were scored shorthanded, but this Leafs team has been great on special teams all year long, and tonight was no different. The top line delivered a goal and the speedy third-liners added two on the PK to power Petr Mrazek to a win in his return to the Toronto crease.

Your game in 10:

1.  Tonight was a night of firsts for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first game in the new Justin Bieber-designed Next Gen uniforms, and the first game for trade deadline acquisitions Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell.

Let’s start with the big name, Giordano. Sheldon Keefe paired the veteran defenseman with the team’s most inexperienced blue-liner, Timothy Liljegren. I think this pairing worked stylistically and they were rock solid in their debut. Giordano played 18:59 tonight in total, including 2:41 on the power-play. In his 16 minutes at even strength tonight, he posted an 81.24% xGF%.

I didn’t notice him all that often, but for a defenseman with a defensive focus, that’s never a bad thing to say. Case in point: the Devils produced just 0.09 expected goals with Giordano on the ice at even strength. The Leafs will take that every day of the week.

Liljegren stood out for one physical hit (more on that later), but otherwise played a pretty subtle game, too. His analytics were wildly positive as well, and it was yet another game where the Leafs won the expected goals battle with the young Swede on the ice.

When a pair eats up that much time at 5v5 and the most notable development during that time was “Giordano got called for tripping Tatar but then the refs reversed the call,” I think that’s a step in the right direction. Giordano didn’t play on the penalty kill (surprising to me), and his power-play time was mostly forgettable, too, but for reasons beyond his control.

2.  The other new addition, Colin Blackwell, had a pretty interesting game when we talk about comparing the numbers to the eye test. I thought the eye test was pretty favorable to the scrappy forward. Blackwell was full of energy, providing a spark plug presence on a fourth line that (due to its age) typically plays at the pace of a snail. I noticed him on the ice during many of his shifts, and it seemed like things happened with him out there. I didn’t find myself bemoaning his efforts whatsoever, although maybe you could argue he was out of place slightly on a goal against (we’ll look at that later on).

The analytics disagree, deeming him one of Toronto’s two worst forwards tonight by xGF% at even strength. I’m not really sure where the gap here is, but I didn’t think Blackwell’s performance lines up with those numbers. I’d like to see him skate with Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza again because both seemed to have a little more jump with Blackwell on their line.

3.  The Leafs got off to a really strong start to this game, racking up many of the shots through the first 10 minutes, and they dominated the first period as a whole. Toronto didn’t score in the first period, but the Devils got next to nothing (one chance for Nathan Bastian that Mrazek denied) offensively and the Leafs got a few good looks, owning the expected goals and scoring chances in the game.

Anthony Petrielli has been talking recently about the way that the Leafs start and end periods, as well as how they start games, and I thought tonight was a good showing in terms of beginning a game with zest, even if it wasn’t rewarded.

4.  The Devils came back charging hard in the second period, playing with a lot more energy and they were able to get on their first power play. I thought Petr Mrazek was at the limit for the most bad luck that could possibly be inflicted on a player, but then he had to be subjected to this deflection off Ilya Lyubushkin’s leg:

That would be a sensational re-direct if it were an offensive player’s stick, but instead, it deflects off his own defenseman’s leg. I don’t think there’s anything Mrazek possibly could have done differently there. It was just really poor luck to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead, when it didn’t feel like they had earned it.

If there’s one positive thing to say about this deflection is that Mrazek didn’t let it go to his head or send him spiraling. I came into the game worried about Mrazek’s (likely) fragile mental state only a few days after being waived, and this sort of thing can crack a goaltender’s swagger. It didn’t tonight, and that’s a good sign.

5.  The Leafs’ power play was really poor tonight. Not long after this goal went in, Toronto got its second crack at the man-advantage and it was just as bad as the first try. PK Subban put the puck into the stands and got hit with a delay of game call, but the Leafs couldn’t get anything going, not even sniffing a scoring chance to tie the game. The first PP back in the opening stanza wasn’t any better.

In both cases, the Leafs spent the whole time chasing the Devils around the ice. They’d go for a zone entry, make a sloppy pass between the center line and the blue line, turn it over, and then have to track down the speedy Devils for 20 seconds to get it back.

There was very little offensive zone time or puck movement, and as a result, there was no way for us to read into Mark Giordano’s presence on the second power-play unit now that Rasmus Sandin is injured. It was a really disappointing showing from this element of the Leafs’ special teams.

6.  The penalty kill was the exact opposite of the power play, however. The opening goal for Damon Severson was a PPG, but that was a bad luck play. Everything else from the Toronto PK was simply excellent. They went back on the penalty kill after Auston Matthews went to the box in the second period and the chances started coming for the Leafs, rather than the Devils.

David Kampf and Alex Kerfoot got a 2v1 rush, and then just moments after that came up unsuccessful, it was Ilya Mikheyev‘s turn to dazzle:

Shoutout to Kerfoot for the steal on Sharangovich and then the quick up to Mikheyev. That was Kerfoot’s 35th assist of the season, continuing to add to his career-high, while Mikheyev potted his 13th goal in only his 34th game this season. Both players are in the midst of career years. But that wouldn’t be all for Toronto’s penalty kill…

7.  There was a three-minute stretch of this game in the back-half of the second period that was completely chaotic. First, there was the Mikheyev goal from the previous point, followed by a tally from Nico Hischier less than two minutes later:

The penalty that Mikheyev had been killing previously was newly expired when the Devils entered the zone. TJ Brodie got caught up high, disengaged from the play, Colin Blackwell was perhaps slightly out of position, and that created two players down low, with only Justin Holl to help out. Holl gave Mrazek a bit of help on the first save, but he was unable to both whack away at the rebound AND tie-up Hischier at the same time, allowing the Devils’ young centerman to bat the puck in to restore the New Jersey lead.

I didn’t think this was the greatest night ever for the Brodie-Holl pairing, though Holl was the better of the two, in my opinion.

There have been several times this year where it feels like the top line led by Auston Matthews suddenly decides it wants to score and then they make it happen in the blink of an eye. That occurred right after that Hischier goal, when a cycle play goes Bunting –> Matthews –> Marner for the equalizer less than one minute later:

The top line may not have been as dominant as normal tonight (Matthews had just a 44.92% xGF% at even strength tonight), but they are still good to create several great chances and probably to score on one. That happened at Scotiabank Arena tonight, and it was Mitch Marner who got the goal, continuing to track towards a 30+ goal season.

8.  When Ilya Mikheyev got hit with a four-minute high sticking call in the later stages of the third period, I thought about tweeting, “Well, now the Leafs get four minutes to go on the attack,” because that’s what the Leafs’ PK felt like tonight. I should’ve tweeted it because it would’ve been clairvoyant.

The matchup tonight was a battle between the team with the most short-handed goals and the team who has ceded the most to the opposition, and it felt like it. The Leafs needed to kill off four minutes of Devil PP time with under seven minutes to go, which they did magnificently, denying quality looks and then getting the go-ahead goal for their second shorty of the night:

William Nylander (getting rare PK work) drove the net and attracted Nico Hischier, giving Pierre Engvall room to go to work on Dougie Hamilton and the goaltender Nico Daws. Engvall’s dangle was beautiful, and the shot beat Daws glove-side.

The Leafs suddenly had the lead and not long after, David Kampf drew a penalty to kill off the remainder of the Devils’ PP. Once that Leafs’ advantage (which produced nothing of note) was done, there were ~100 seconds left in the game. Toronto handled the closing minutes fine and the win was in the books. Penalty killing mastery got it done.

9.  I would be remiss not to spend a point talking about Petr Mrazek again. He allowed the two goals but otherwise looked composed and steady. He made 20 saves on 22 shots (.909 SV%) and came out close to even in the advanced numbers (-0.16 GSAx, per Evolving Hockey; MoneyPuck had him +0.31). Except for the second goal (and I suppose, the bad bounce on the first one), the Leafs’ defense made life pretty easy on Mrazek in only allowing ~2 xGA, depending on which model you use.

This Leafs team does not need great goaltending to win a lot of games; it just needs neutral goaltending. That’s what Mrazek gave the team tonight, and it’s a step in the right direction after Mrazek’s last start (the Heritage Classic) was horrendous. This is a nice sign:

Mrazek wasn’t swimming as much as he can and seemed reasonably confident. He made a few saves like the one above when needed, but otherwise, he was steady. Again, progress.

Sheldon Keefe has an interesting decision to make about goaltending as it pertains to the weekend. The Leafs play back-to-back against Montreal and then Florida. The status of Jack Campbell is unknown, but assuming his options are Mrazek and Erik Källgren, it will be a fascinating decision.

Instinct says that Mrazek played well and to go back with him, but if they do want to use one goalie on one night and one on the other, it may be best to start the rookie against the less imposing Canadiens and use the veteran (Mrazek) against the fearsome Panthers. Or maybe Keefe thinks Mrazek could go both nights if he plays well against the Habs? We’ll see.

10.  My last point tonight is about the physicality. We often joke there are no analytics for grit, and that’s true, because I wish there were better stats beyond “hits” to measure physicality — because it feels like Toronto is playing a lot heavier and more physical than they were even just a month ago.

One shift stood out to me tonight: In the span of about 30 seconds, Ilya Lyubushkin went for a thundering hit but whiffed, Colin Blackwell delivered a cruncher in the neutral zone, Timothy Liljegren dumped his man in the defensive zone, and then Wayne Simmonds started a scrum after the whistle. Clips of said shift:

It’s easy to say that this increase has come from the addition of players to the lineup, notably Lyubushkin the “Russian Bear,” but I would argue it’s a team-wide thing, something that has been amplified since the Matthews suspension. One piece of evidence for that is the fact the biggest hit tonight was probably Justin Holl ejecting the lightning-quick Jack Hughes:

It feels like Sheldon Keefe has told the guys to finish their checks more often, to play the body more aggressively on rush chances against entering the defensive zone, and to try and wear the opponents down more. I kind of like it, as it gives the Leafs a different, sandpaper(ish) sort of feel that hasn’t been as present in the past. Will it pay dividends against teams like Tampa, Florida, or Boston? I’m not sure, but we’ll find out.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 3 vs. Devils 2