The Maple Leafs officially hit 50 wins and set a franchise record in points with 106. They currently sit third overall in the league in points percentage and sixth in goal differential.
It almost certainly won’t be enough to finish first with the Panthers in the midst of a 10-game winning streak and now eight points ahead with a game in hand and only six games remaining. But the Leafs are in the driver’s seat when it comes to home-ice advantage in the first round.
They currently sit six points ahead of Tampa Bay (with one more game played than the Lightning), and they are nine points up on Boston (again, with one more game played than the Bruins).
With six games remaining, it should be noted that three are against Tampa Bay, Florida, and Boston. This isn’t completely over yet, one way or the other.
There have been a lot of words written about home-ice advantage — or the lack thereof — come playoff time. To sum up (from 2020):
In the postseason, home-ice advantage has played a pivotal role. According to Hockey Reference, home teams have a record of 2,398-1774 in the playoffs, for a win percentage of .575.
That includes a .584 winning percentage in Game 7s, although there are recent examples of visiting teams spoiling the party in those series-deciding games.
To some degree, starting on the road can be nice. The pressure is on the home team to hold serve, and the visiting team can go out there almost pressure-free to start the series. Lose game one? It’s no big deal. Even after game two, as the saying goes, the series isn’t over until a team loses at home.
For this Leafs team, though, I think home ice matters. They have simply been a fragile group to this point. Sizing up a first-round matchup against Tampa Bay or Boston in the first round, do you want to go into Tampa Bay against the reigning two-time Champs for a Game 7? Is it even worth typing out the question as to whether or not the Leafs want to go into Boston for a Game 7?
Ultimately, the Leafs shouldn’t be afraid of anyone except maybe themselves. Part of setting themselves up for success is clinching home ice through the first round so they can play the series-deciding games in the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena, where they have the third-best home record in the league (and no, the last two playoff rounds against Columbus and Montreal in front of 0-500 people does not qualify as anything even remotely resembling home-ice advantage).
With two weeks left in the season, the Leafs have put themselves in a good position to ensure Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 are played in Toronto.
– I loved seeing William Nylander streak down the wing and rip a slapshot by Ilya Samsonov. Maybe I’m old school, but slapshots are a bit of a lost art, and I still think there’s a place for them in the game. They come off the stick with ridiculous power and are hard to read, giving the shooter a decent chance of blowing one by a goalie if they can shoot it like Nylander. Snapshots are all about changing direction and a quick release. A slapshot is simply pure.
Nylander has 15 points in his last 10 games, six of which have come on the power play. His 74 points are a career-high; his 31 goals have tied a career-high; the 18:16 he’s averaging per game is a career-high; the 3.19 shots per game he’s launching on net is the first time he’s averaging over three per game, and his 28 power-play points is also a career-high.
– It was an interesting week of responses after big hits for the Leafs. Kyle Clifford fought Tom Wilson after he collided with Jack Campbell, and Wayne Simmonds fought Russ Johnson after he crushed Mark Giordano. Against Buffalo, the team came out flat, and I wasn’t really sure if they would go after Dylan Cozens given the ending of the Heritage Classic. You can’t address them all or hold onto every grudge, but this has generally been an improved area for the Leafs compared to past season.
Players are involved in scrums, teammates stick up for each other, and there’s a growing group of players that get better when games turn physical on the team. The Islanders and Capitals pretty clearly came out with a game plan to hit the Leafs, and the Leafs won both games.
– We’ve mentioned this a little previously when Timothy Liljegren loaded up a one-timer and scored against the Jets. He scored against the Sabres last week, but what also stood out was the snapper he took that rang the post against Ottawa before the Bunting goal. It was a good, hard snap shot he got through with some heat on it.
Against the Sabres, Liljegren had a separate one-timer that almost resulted in a goal. He’s at 21 points (four goals) in 55 games while averaging 1.25 shots per game. That’s a good, productive rookie season. He has a nice enough shot in his arsenal to suggest he’s capable of more.
– Against the Senators, Justin Holl played just 16:22, which was his third-lowest total of the season. He was backup to 18:36 the following night against the Islanders, and his pairing was generally matching up against the Islanders’ top two lines. Liljegren played 19:45 against the Islanders and was paired with Morgan Rielly as the game went along.
There is internal competition on the right side, and some of the tea leaves here are pretty clear to read. It should also be noted that Ilya Lyubushkin is averaging just 16:20 in TOI per game.
– In the summer, I looked into how Cup-winning teams distribute their ice-time and wrote the following: “The last nine Cup-winning teams have combined to have just one player average under 10 minutes a night and win the Cup – Pat Maroon, in the bubble, averaged 9:25.” So far in April, the only Leafs fourth-liner averaging more than 10 minutes is Colin Blackwell at 10:01. The next is Nick Abruzzese at 8:51 followed by Kyle Clifford at 8:13, Wayne Simmonds at 7:51, and Jason Spezza at 7:31.
The fourth line can come off as inconsequential (it all comes down to the stars!), but the margins are so insanely tight when you are potentially staring down Tampa Bay – Florida – Carolina – Colorado. Every little thing matters, and the playoffs are a war of attrition. In the Leafs’ last two playoff series, their bottom forwards actually averaged more than this group is currently playing.
“I don’t believe he was ever dissatisfied with the team. If anything, he was dissatisfied with his own game. It wasn’t with the team.”
– Ilya Mikheyev’s agent, Dan Milstein, on the report he requested a trade last summer
This was a bit of an interesting way to… spin this. I don’t want to get into Ilya Mikheyev’s next contract and whether they can afford to keep him; I think fans are tired of hearing about this contract stuff in the middle of a season, especially when the team is set to embark on a playoff run. For now, I’ll say he has had an exceptional season, and whatever tension there might have been seems to have been put aside.
“I still feel super confident. I know this team can do amazing things and personally, I can do amazing things too. I’m still learning and growing. Some rocky moments but, ultimately, it will keep making me better as long as I keep learning.”
– Jack Campbell on his confidence level right now
So far, Jack Campbell has an .896 save percentage in six games since returning. He has flashed some good moments since he’s come back, but he hasn’t truly put it together. It’s the biggest elephant in the room at this point with this team. The Leafs are 23rd in goals against per game since January 1 – nobody else in the bottom 13 is slated to make the playoffs this season. They have outscored a lot of problems the past few months, but at some point, the hot sticks are going to cool off a little bit.
“Auston’s got a minor injury. At this point here it’s going to be day to day. It’s really out of an abundance of caution. We’ll give him the day off and re-assess him from there.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Auston Matthews sitting out a game
All you can really do is hope this is accurate (i.e., they aren’t downplaying it), and that Auston Matthews is fully healthy. Keefe indicated after the game that if it was a playoff game he would have been playing.
Tweets of the Week
Matt Knies has informed the Maple Leafs he’s going back to school for another year.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) April 14, 2022
I am happy that this whole saga is over because I was tired of hearing about it. Matthew Knies is a really nice prospect, but the idea that he was just going to walk onto the team and into the top six seemed like wishful thinking to me. It almost never goes that way, and when a team rushes prospects late in the season, it’s usually not a great development path come the following season.
Nick Robertson is the closest-to-home example. Chris Kreider was in a similar situation and played mostly in the AHL the following year. Calgary brought in Sam Bennett, who never really developed the way he should have. Cole Caufield had a really rough first half of this season after a good Cup run.
Truthfully, I was happy to hear he is returning. This is a great decision for his development. He was a point-per-game player in college this season, which is awesome for his age. Now go light the league on fire next season, and then we’ll talk.
Of course Mitch Marner is #1
Passes to the slot per game…
— Meghan Chayka (@MeghanChayka) April 14, 2022
Shots from the slot per game.
— Meghan Chayka (@MeghanChayka) April 14, 2022
It’s not exactly a surprise to Leafs fans that Mitch Marner is good at passing and Auston Matthews gets a ton of good looks, but seeing where they rank league-wide really hammers it home. Truly, part of me wonders what happens if they take even a marginal step back production-wse, and what that domino effect would be in the playoffs against great opponents on a nightly basis.
we’ve got a Paul MacLean appearance at Leafs skate this morning.
first that I can remember this season.
— Mike Stephens (@mikeystephens81) April 14, 2022
I thought this was a very interesting note – especially as Paul MacLean has led some very successful power-play units in his career, and the Leafs’ power play has dipped a little of late.
Since April 1, they are clicking at under 14 percent, which is 17th in the league at this time. In March, they had the third-best power play in the league. You don’t want to overreact, but this would also be the third season in a row that the Leafs’ power play cratered down the stretch.
One thing they have seemingly moved away from of late that is worth looking into more: Nylander on the half-wall. With Matthews out of the lineup, he was back in that spot and scored from there.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I really like that Sheldon Keefe used Auston Matthews’ absence as an opportunity to shake up the lines. At this point in the season, I don’t particularly care if it works in terms of getting a win at the end of the game. It’s about getting some looks and data on different combinations to see how they look.
I can’t stress this enough – they will need to shake up the lines throughout the playoffs. If you, like me, complained since the Babcock era about stagnant lines and a lack of flexibility, well, this is the other side of that. It won’t always work, but it sparks ideas and it keeps players on their toes. Sign me up.
2. I think one experiment they can kind of mix in right now is pairing up Colin Blackwell and Alex Kerfoot. In a world where the Leafs are fully healthy, I would have Ondrej Kase in the top nine in place of Kerfoot, and that means a fourth line with those two (and probably one of Jason Spezza/Wayne Simmonds depending on the skill/physicality direction they want to go). Plus, with their speed, it could be an annoying line to play against for opponents.
3. I think it’s quite noteworthy that the Leafs have started running a second power-play unit featuring two defensemen (Timothy Liljegren and Mark Giordano). At first, it didn’t make a ton of sense to me (use a forward!), but three things stand out.
The first is that both defensemen are productive and good enough to do it. The second is that the second unit barely plays, and if the Leafs are counting on their second unit to bail out their first unit, there are much bigger problems to discuss. The third is that they will likely only pick up the final 30 seconds or so on the power play, which means they have to be ready to shift to 5v5 play — the Leafs coaching staff may not want to do that with, say, Ilya Mikheyev playing defense in the playoffs.
At first, I didn’t like it at all, but I have talked myself into it.
4. Similarly, I wouldn’t mind giving Morgan Rielly – Mark Giordano the odd look. I could see that as a pairing option when the Leafs need offense. They are the two defensemen on this team that I trust the most to make a good play with the puck on their stick. Even if it was just to end periods in the offensive zone — or to throw out with the Matthews line — I’m sure they would be a fun duo.
5. Lastly, I really liked uniting William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner for a look against Ottawa. They didn’t score, but they drew a penalty. Again, I’m running through situations in preparation for the playoffs. I discussed in the Game in 10 on Saturday night, but if they’re down a goal, they will want to load up a trio.
We are seeing a good John Tavares line right now that doesn’t include William Nylander on it, so there is a follow-up unit. And they also have Michael Bunting to mix into either that line or to swap with Nylander. It’s not a permanent option, but it’s a viable one to turn to. In saying that, give them some reps.