It could be purely academic at this point, but with three games remaining for each of Boston and Tampa Bay, the Bruins still have a chance to finish third in the Atlantic.
Tampa Bay is three points up on Boston, and their three remaining games are against Columbus (x2) and the New York Islanders, so it’s all but a sure thing. In a scenario where the Leafs actually play the Bruins instead, we’ll still include them here as we begin to look at how the Leafs stack up against both of their possible round-one opponents.
Those are three of the best teams in the league right there, as we all know by this point.
Each team provides different challenges. Tampa Bay is a little more well-rounded in terms of their ability to play a high-end skill game or a defensive, low-scoring game backed by an elite goalie. We almost have to take all their numbers with a grain of salt to some degree knowing they are so proven at playoff time.
After the Leafs beat Tampa Bay handily at the beginning of April, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper noted that his team simply didn’t play well:
“We didn’t manage our game. We were way, way, too easy to play against tonight. It was like a light practice for them. It’s too bad because you want to see where you’re at. I thought we kind of turned the corner a bit but clearly we haven’t.”
The Lightning are the reigning two-time Cup champs; they aren’t going to cede ground to anyone, and they’ve earned that right. They can play any which way, and that’s probably the scariest thing about them. They can win on all levels: special teams, skill, grind-it-out defense, elite goaltending — you name it, they can do it.
Boston plays a lower-scoring, more methodical, cycling style of game where they control puck possession. If the opposition gains a lead or opens it up scoring-wise on them, the Bruins are vulnerable. They don’t exactly have the firepower to overcome it (15th overall in goals per game).
In their two games against Boston this year, the Leafs have scored 11 goals total. After the Bruins’ first loss, Bruce Cassidy lamented the style of play:
“You get into their type of game — we’ll say trading chances, but still more transition there. For us, I think we need to play with more puck possession in the O-zone and be harder to play against in our end… There were some easy goals for them tonight — that they worked for, don’t get me wrong — but I think we were soft on pucks when we just needed to be harder.”
We’re going to dig deeper into the first-round matchup when the opponent is official, but on the surface, we have one team in Boston that will try to slow the game down and grind on the Leafs. Alternatively, we have a Tampa Bay team dripping with Cup-winning experience and moxie that can play any game you want to play.
To be the best, you have to beat the best. Either way, the Leafs are going to face a truly mettle-testing path to emerge from their division.
– The Leafs’ special teams have both been struggling in April, and while it’s been a little less than a month, the timing and the fact that the Leafs’ special teams have nosedived in each of the last two seasons before letting them down in the playoffs is a legitimate reason for concern at this point. They are clicking at 15.2 percent (19th) on the power play and the penalty kill is at 75 percent (26th).
– So, what’s happening here? On the penalty kill, I am not sure if it’s the lack of legs, the missing personnel (Ondrej Kase), or opposition power plays getting better as the season goes on, but the Leafs are getting crushed on the half-walls now compared to earlier in the year.
Tampa Bay scored a crisp one-timer goal with a pass right through the middle of the ice to a wide-open Steven Stamkos. Washington scored a power-play goal that was called back (which was a great challenge by the Leafs’ staff), but on the goal itself, Alex Ovechkin had all day to stand there and make an easy play to TJ Oshie.
Against Florida, Claude Giroux received a cross-ice pass with a bunch of time to wind up a slap shot and score. He wasn’t rushed at all – the Leafs simply shifted into position to try to block the shot.
The Leafs’ penalty kill has never been effective because it blocks shots; it’s effective because it doesn’t allow opponents to set up, become comfortable, and take their preferred shots. Lately, the opposition’s power play is getting their preferred shots.
– The Leafs’ penalty kill has been able to generate offense as well, but they are also probably taking it too far when TJ Brodie is rushing up the ice for what was essentially a 3v3 in a game that was already 3-0. The rush was stopped, Tampa Bay turned up ice, and Nikita Kucherov eventually scored.
– On the power play, the Leafs are fourth in expected goals in April and fifth in raw scoring chance totals. Their shooting percentage is 20th. They are getting chances, and that’s been clear when watching them.
Auston Matthews missing some time — and not being fully healthy at times when he has been playing — hurts, for sure. The Leafs’ coaching staff will likely chalk it up to some bad luck and stick with it, but one thing that has stood out is that the PP unit isn’t moving around as much, which has been a common problem down the stretch in the past few years.
Some bad luck hits, and they get stagnant and static instead of going back to what made them successful. As a result, they aren’t as dynamic.
– We mentioned Ilya Mikheyev adding the backhand move to his repertoire a few weeks ago. Now he’s walking in, squaring up goalies, and scoring five-hole. Against Florida, he got into an altercation with Sam Bennett (one of the underrated best fighters in the league). Against Tampa Bay, he got into it with Alex Killorn at one point.
Mikheyev is continuing to add dimensions to his game as the season goes along. He’s up to 20 goals on the season and is playing to a 32-goal, 50-point pace. Talk about having a nice contract year.
– I thought it was a really nice response game from Erik Kallgren against Washington. Keefe had to leave him in the net to get shelled against Tampa Bay — that game wasn’t really his fault — but he showed us a little something by coming back in his next start and playing really well.
He has an .886 save percentage in 13 games, so he hasn’t exactly won an NHL job moving forward, but his game has been a bit stronger than that number suggests. He’s at least put himself into the conversation for some sort of NHL role (backup or their clear #3) moving forward. He is signed for next year at a $750,000 cap hit.
“It was a hard game. It was a good pace. We haven’t seen a team like this for the last little bit, so it was good to grind one out.”
– Andrew Brunette following the Panthers’ 3-2 overtime win against the Leafs
One thing that stood out in the two recent games against the Panthers is that the game was played at Florida’s pace. There were lots of chances, the neutral zone was open, and there was lots of speed both ways.
That is not really the Leafs’ ideal brand of hockey. They are thought of as an offensive force – and they can score with the best of them – but the Leafs like to hold onto the puck and completely control the flow of play. Ideally, they would impose that on the Panthers and disrupt their game a bit in the process. It’s easier said than done, of course — especially in Florida, where the Panthers are the best home team in the league.
“It was a real gutsy and gritty effort from the guys to find a way there. We didn’t have much today. It seemed like we were playing on fumes for most of the night. We were encouraging the guys at 3-1 to not accept their fate, keep pushing, and start with one.”
– Sheldon Keefe following the 4 – 3 comeback victory against Washington
It felt like the Leafs were going through the motions for a good chunk of this game — and, if we’re being honest, for a good chunk of the past week as well. But they stuck with it in this game and battled back for a nice win. Hopefully, they carry that through the final week of the season and into the playoffs.
“He’s just found a real groove with his role and been really stable and consistent with where he’s been in the lineup. I just think he’s having a better understanding of how he can impact the game with his tools. He’s so fast and so strong, and it’s just understanding how to use that.”
– John Tavares on Pierre Engvall
A career-high 14 goals, a career-high 33 points, and a career-high 13:11 time-on-ice per game, including locking himself in as a regular penalty killer. The Leafs can’t ask for much more out of Pierre Engvall.
As Tavares notes above, Engvall seems to better understand how he can use his combination of length, strength, and speed to make plays. Against Tampa Bay, he drove wide, cut to the net, and created a mini-breakaway for himself. He didn’t score, but it was a little play where he wasn’t doing anything all that flashy or fancy; he was just letting his natural abilities do the work.
Tweets of the Week
This is essentially exactly what I was hoping for since the day the Leafs signed Tavares pic.twitter.com/eWcZ3q491R
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) April 20, 2022
As far as the regular season goes, you can’t ask for much more from this group. As always, the question will be whether it translates to playoff success.
Keefe on Abruzzese last night: "Virtually every time he touched the puck, the next guy to touch it played on our team. That was really nice to see."
Here's some plays that I liked from the rookie over the past two games. Such a high IQ player. pic.twitter.com/Pz8kOCvICJ
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) April 20, 2022
Nick Abruzzese has had some really good opportunities – including playing with Matthews and Marner! – and hasn’t been able to cash in or really make a case for playing time in the playoffs unless there is an emergency situation.
On many of the passes above, I would expect a guy in the NHL to make them. That said, he is a heady player who has a good feel for the game. He clearly needs to develop further, either over the offseason, or — more likely — in the AHL next season before making the step full time.
— Mark (@MarkUkLeaf) April 23, 2022
I’ve been meaning to discuss this “acquisition.” The Marlies added Phillipe Myers on loan, but he is still technically under contract with the Nashville Predators. He played 27 games in the NHL this season before falling out of favour, and he has another year on his contract at $2.55 million, which is a lot of money for a player who may not make the team. The Predators already have five defensemen under contract next season, and Jeremy Lauzon is an RFA who they just acquired. It’s a crowded group.
That brings us to the Marlies. First off, they need the help right now. If nothing else, the move makes them better as they try to make the playoffs this season. Even if Myers returns to Nashville and this is it for him in Toronto, it’s worthwhile to increase the playoff odds and get the developing talent some AHL playoff experience.
And then there is the other angle where maybe they are taking a free look at a defenseman they can later acquire for very little. He’s 6’5, right-handed, and has a little skill (and I don’t want to go crazy on that one highlight; you could find Martin Marinicin doing the same thing in the AHL).
Myers has played nearly 150 games in the league and he’s still just 25 years old. This is a nice development project that could have all sorts of upside if it pans out.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If Michael Bunting is going to be out to start the playoffs — and arguably, even if he is back — I think I would load up the top line with William Nylander up there. I don’t think any of the other Leafs wingers are skilled enough not to slow that line down.
John Tavares has shown he can play with lesser wingers and perform well his entire career, including this season. It would also give Sheldon Keefe an opportunity to reunite the Ilya Mikheyev – David Kampf – Pierre Engvall line that was so good. If Bunting or Ondrej Kase could get healthy for the second line, it comes together pretty nicely.
2. I think the Auston Matthews absence was a good reminder that William Nylander needs to be given looks on the half-wall of the power play, even when everyone is healthy. We’ve said it all the time here for years: He has a bomb.
Nylander scored twice on the half-wall with Matthews out. It’s not a coincidence. When he gets a little extra time and space to wind up and shoot, good things happen for the Leafs.
3. I want to follow up on a note a few weeks ago where we discussed David Kampf as the fourth-line center. We got a look at it last week at times, and I quite liked it in terms of creating a low-event line that doesn’t cost the team much.
Kampf is a nice player who has come as advertised – a good faceoff man, penalty killer, and checking center. He has a career-high 11 goals and is shooting a career-high 11.1%. His 26 points are also a career-high. He’s not very productive and doesn’t produce the way you would expect a third-line center to.
The Lightning’s 3C is Anthony Cirelli, who has 42 points. A healthy Bruins team generally uses Charlie Coyle as the 3C; he has 43 points.
Kampf has been great in his role and not at all a problem in the regular season, but it helps that Matthews and Marner have been laying waste to the league. Any sort of cooling off from them — even just marginally — magnifies any deficiencies in depth scoring.
With that said, it’s at least plausible to think Kampf might have to make his way down to the fourth line to help the Leafs score more. If that does happen, I think he could do well centering, say, Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds.
4. I don’t know his health status — I’m saying this from afar — but I think I would start Jack Campbell in both of the remaining games. I wouldn’t wait until Friday — that’s a long break from Saturday to Friday — and I wouldn’t start him only Tuesday, because the Leafs will likely open the playoffs the following Monday or Tuesday.
Those breaks are too long. Part of getting in a rhythm is playing games. The nice thing is Campbell did look really good against Florida. You have to keep it rolling by playing him.
5. With two games left, I think I’d be stressing to the players the need to ramp up their play. I know the thought is to get through the games healthy — and that’s definitely important — but I don’t think you float through a few games, basically take a week off, and think you’re going to start the playoffs the following week by hitting the ground running.
Tampa Bay, for one, is clearly serving notice right now that they are ready to go. The goal should be to match it this week.