Largely thanks to the play of goaltender Matt Murray, the Maple Leafs found a late tying goal and scraped out a point in an overtime loss to the high-flying Devils on Thursday night.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs got off to a decent enough start to this game inside the first 10-15 minutes over the three game states (5v5, PP, PK). Neither team really took over, but the Leafs came out with a good pace to their game — matching New Jersey’s, at the very least — and created some offensive-zone shifts. They killed a penalty off without much issue. Their power play came through on its first opportunity, winning a few battles down and moving the puck with urgency and purpose en route to Auston Matthews’ 1-0 goal, which was set up by some nice patience with the puck at the side of the net by Michael Bunting.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 18, 2022
Unfortunately, they never really got back to that calibre of play, either on the power play or at 5v5, for the rest of the game. The Leafs have now scored the first goal on eight occasions this season and have only three wins to show for it.
2. There was a big let-off from the Leafs in the final five minutes of the first period after taking the lead. Sheldon Keefe went with his fourth line — which he trusts more than his patchwork “third line” at this point — coming off of the first-unit power-play goal, creating a challenging matchup against a line of Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Erik Haula for New Jersey.
Lost battles along the boards created the opening for Bratt’s goal. Denis Malgin couldn’t get a puck out up the right wall, Mark Giordano lost a battle on the other wall, and neither Malgin nor Holl was alert to Bratt ghosting to the front of the net for what was a bang-bang play and an immediate tying goal against (off of a really good pass/play by Jack Hughes).
3. The Leafs‘ third line got worked over on the next shift, and the Matthews line got hemmed in on their next time out before the intermission. The Devils ratcheted up the urgency after conceding and built some momentum off of their goal; the Leafs were not able to match it, turning it over four or five times along the wall or down low around the goal line under the Devils’ forechecking pressure.
It’s hard to put a finger on the reason why, but the ability to build momentum off of goals and truly take over games hasn’t really been there for the Leafs with much consistency yet this season (the example in the first 21 minutes of Tuesday’s win over Pittsburgh has been a pretty rare occurrence this season so far). The Leafs are leading for just 13 minutes per game on average right now (17th in the league) compared to over 20 minutes a game on average last season (second in the NHL).
4. After a tough opening shift for the Kerfoot-Tavares-Marner line, the opening passages of the second period were pretty back and forth. The Devils took the lead just three minutes in when Jordie Benn overextended himself while leading a zone entry; he stickhandled into traffic trying to make a play inside the line, leading to a turnover and an odd-man rush against.
Morgan Rielly played it quite passively in on the resulting 2v1 (and probably didn’t have the pass negated if Nico Hischier chose to pass it, if we’re honest). Hischier picked his spot beautifully on the far-side past Matt Murray.
There was a similar 2-on-1 situation at the tail end of a Leafs’ power play a little later on; it wasn’t an attacker as skilled as Hischier, but a Devils forward (Nathan Bastian) was attacking down the left wing, with a Devils player driving the back post and a Leafs defenseman a stride behind him. While it was a right-handed vs. left-handed puck carrier, the play was really similar in terms of the players’ positioning on the ice. Rasmus Sandin provided a much better showing of what 2v1 defense can look like in that situation:
5. In a game where Matt Murray was playing really well to keep the Devils to just the two goals, the Leafs’ 5-2 advantage in power plays (really more like 4.33 power plays as one was abbreviated coming off of four-on-four) could’ve been enough to tip this game in their favour, but they failed to take advantage of their final four opportunities.
The Devils appeared to be a little more selective than a lot of the top penalty kills around the league in terms of when they pressured the puck on the PK, seemingly content to remain fairly conservative within their structure. On the first second-period power play, there was a moment when a puck squirted free and William Nylander needed to fetch it before it escaped the zone, and he looked almost surprised no Devil bothered contesting it or pressuring him at all.
With a tightly-packed PK unit and a little extra time and space around the perimeter, the Leafs didn’t seem to have a great plan in place for adjusting to it. They did almost score on a one-time play to Auston Matthews down near the goal line late third-period power play (well saved by Vanecek).
6. The Leafs’ start to the third period while down a goal looked like a team (poorly) trying to protect a one-goal lead, not one chasing the game. In the seven minutes before the Leafs’ first power-play opportunity of the final period, expected goals were 90% in New Jersey’s favour. The Leafs kept turning the puck over, including an early shift where there was a string of giveaways from Mitch Marner, Mark Giordano, and a particularly bad one from Justin Holl at the end of a long shift leading to a Jack Hughes chance in alone on Matt Murray (who came up with a really good post-to-post toe save to keep it at 2-1).
It looked like the Leafs’ defense — with the not overly-fleet-of-foot Giordano, Holl, Benn, and Sandin making up four of the six D at the moment in Brodie’s absence — was struggling with the speed of the Devils on the forecheck at various times throughout the game. The Leafs were outskated and outworked for good chunks of the third period by a Devils team that seems to play the same way no matter the score and was going for the throat to start the final frame.
7. The Leafs did hang around, though, largely thanks to the play of Matt Murray between the pipes. Said Lindy Ruff after the game: “If there was a negative in the game, it would’ve been some of our execution on our high-quality chances — our 2-on-1s, 3-on-1s, 3-on-2s. I really felt we had a great opportunity to put the game away. Murray made an unbelievable save on Jack to keep the game at 2-1. He probably made four or five high-quality saves.”
The Devils controlled over 70% of the expected goals in the 25 minutes of 5v5 time when they were leading in the game. This was Murray’s best performance of the three starts to date. The bounce William Nylander got late in the third to tie the game up and force OT was lucky, but it was largely thanks to Murray’s really solid play in net — including a 10-bell save on Hughes late in the second period — that created the situation where a lucky bounce could tie the game.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 18, 2022
The Leafs’ goaltending was at the top of everyone’s list of question marks entering the new season, and yet it’s been one of the team’s most consistent strengths, with a 5v5 save percentage that’s currently seventh in the NHL despite significant injury troubles at the position. The netminding so far is a really positive indicator if the Leafs could get their 5v5 offense going at some point.
8. With the team struggling to create much of anything in the third period, we saw Sheldon Keefe trot out the four-forwards-at-5v5 look with Mitch Marner on defense with around six minutes remaining, which was discussed back in training camp after reporters spotted the team practicing it (and is something we briefly saw earlier this season in the loss in Vegas).
It went about how you would expect, realistically. Marner looked good with the puck leading a breakout, and he took a one-timer from the point looking for a tip from Bunting. He then got his ankles broken by Nico Hischier leading to a grade-A chance against.
Mitch Marner playing defense tonight. Looks pretty good! pic.twitter.com/g8KR8lBjMq
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) November 18, 2022
Defending elite NHL forwards off the rush is not a skill even the most talented NHL forwards can simply whip out of their back pockets.
It will be interesting to monitor if Keefe goes back to this again when chasing a game. It’s probably not exclusively about Keefe trying to reinvent the wheel and likely does have a personnel consideration to it; the Leafs don’t really have anyone outside of Rielly who can truly drive offense off the backend.
9. The coaching staff must’ve been aware of the damning statistic about Rielly-Matthews-Marner’s track record at three-on-three OT over the past three seasons (outscored 8-1); they went with John Tavares and Mitch Marner to start OT tonight instead. The Leafs lost the opening draw, didn’t touch the puck for a while, and when they did, Tavares turned it right over inside his own blue line, leading to the game-winner.
It was interesting that Keefe called it a gut-feel call to go with Tavares-Marner after the game; if it was a gut-feel based on the game that was just played, it seems like William Nylander probably should’ve been out there, perhaps alongside Auston Matthews. It was worth switching it up, though, regardless of the result.
The Leafs’ numbers at three-on-three OT are hard to believe (now 1-4 this season). In goals against at three-on-three over the last three seasons, three of the bottom four players in the NHL — and four of the bottom 10 — are Leafs; Morgan Rielly has been on for 11 against and six for; Matthews has been on for 10 goals against and nine for; Marner has been on for nine goals against and four goals for; Tavares has been on for eight goals against and four goals for.
Possession is everything at three-on-three, and they don’t seem to take care of the puck well at all in OT situations.
10. Even though this was by no means a strong game for the Leafs at 5v5, this statistic still feels kind of misleading, but it is accurate based on Natural Stat Trick’s records: This was the Leafs’ worst game by 5v5 expected goals (32%) in the Sheldon Keefe era. We have to go back over three years — dating back to one of Mike Babcock’s final games as Leafs head coach in an October 2019 loss to Boston — to find a worse single-game xGF% figure.
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts