The rest of the regular season can’t end soon enough, but there were two important events in the past week: clinching home ice, and the return of Ryan O’Reilly.
Upon ROR’s return, we saw his immediate impact on the lineup and the home/away splits.
Against Boston, he anchored the third line between Noel Acciari and Alex Kerfoot. The Leafs only gave up one goal through regulation and made it difficult for Boston to create much of anything. There wasn’t a single Bruins line that was hopping over the boards and making you hold your breath, which is what you want on the road: the ability to roll your lines.
Ahead of the deadline, we frequently discussed the need for an impact player on the third line. If they were to spread out the top-four forwards across three lines, it would spread the team too thin as a whole. With ROR in the fold, the possibilities really open up. The Kerfoot – ROR – Acciari was solid if unspectacular.
In the next game at home, the Leafs loaded up with all five playing in the top six. At home, they can dictate the matchups and overwhelm opponents. On the road, they can make sure they aren’t caught in a vulnerable line matchup.
Last playoff, the Leafs tried stretching William Nylander to the third line early on, and it wasn’t successful. David Kampf is a nice player, but he can’t center Nylander. They also ran the tough guys on the fourth line early on with Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford.
When the series shifted to the road, Jason Spezza was inserted into the lineup, and Pierre Engvall was dropped down to the fourth line. Keefe noted that he wanted to make sure he had a fourth line that he was comfortable rolling out there on the road.
With ROR in the 3C slot and Kampf in the 4C slot, the Leafs head coach has depth lines he can trust. With home-ice advantage in his pocket, he can also load up in the top six to start the series and try to blitz Tampa Bay right out of the gate.
The Leafs‘ improved depth from last season comes at a time when Tampa’s depth is getting worse. We discussed the Lightning’s defense last week. Let’s take a look at their forward group now.
This was the Tampa forward group in Game 7 last playoffs:
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn – Brayden Point – Anthony Cirelli
Brandon Hagel – Ross Colton – Nick Paul
Patrick Maroon – Pierre-Edouard Bellmare – Corey Perry
This is their lineup as of their most recent game:
Hagel – Point – Kucherov
Stamkos – Cirelli – Killorn
Eyssimont – Paul – Colton
Maroon – Bellemare – Perry
While it is generally a similar group, it’s important to note a few things here.
The first is Tampa’s loss of Ondrej Palat. He scored five points in seven games against the Leafs playing on their top line. He was a difference maker, and while Hagel is closing in on a 30-goal season, losing Palat, bumping up Hagel, and backfilling with Tanner Jeannot (as long as he returns from injury, which sounds likely at the moment) is a downgrade.
The second note is that the forward group is showing some age and the effects of reaching three straight Stanley Cup Finals. Patrick Maroon is in the midst of the least productive season of his career. Corey Perry posted 40 points last season, but he has just 25 in 2022-23.
Tampa is still a top-10 team in goals per game, but their goal differential has been cut in half. They were +54 (eighth) as a team last season and are +25 this season (11th).
Their top players are still excellent – Kucherov has 111 points, Brayden Point has 49 goals, and Stamkos is over a point per game – but as a team, the Lightning have been inconsistent down the stretch, which is usually a sign of poor depth.
Last playoff, Tampa used the Killorn – Point – Cirelli line against the Matthews line, but they may not have the depth to run it again. If that’s the case, the Matthews line – whoever is on it – has to make them pay.
Similarly, Tavares frequently matched up against the Stamkos line in last year’s series. With ROR in the fold, the coaching staff should feel good about matching them against the Stamkos line, which should free up Tavares to eat.
Last playoff, a third-line matchup of Engvall – Kampf – Mikheyev was an advantage to Tampa, especially with Engvall and Mikheyev’s play in the playoffs. With no Hagel on the third line for Tampa now, and with either ROR alongside Kerfoot and Acciari or the Tavares line, it should be an advantage for Toronto.
I would still expect Tampa’s fourth line to figure out a way to make an impact – it’s a collective group of greasy playoff veterans – but the Leafs have energetic legs on their fourth line. They can skate them into the ground and bring some jam to boot. If the top players cancel each other out at 5v5, it will likely come down to special teams producing and who can squeeze more out of their bottom six, just as it did last playoffs.
The power play is a whole story in and of itself, but adding a needle mover at forward (ROR) while Tampa lost one (Palat) and maintaining home-ice advantage gives the Leafs control over matchups.
When we start to break it down, there are definite opportunities the Leafs can create for themselves in this upcoming series. It’s up to them to take advantage and make Tampa Bay pay.
– I have been monitoring the power play late in the season and have noted that it has generally been in good form and kept up its production, which it has. If there’s one game recently that stood out for the usual problems, it was the OT loss in Boston.
They went 0/3 on the night and hardly created anything of consequence. In the first period, they had two opportunities and had a couple of shots to show for it, along with a series of high-risk passes that were picked off and cleared.
One example: After a faceoff win in the offensive zone, Morgan Rielly walked the line and tried a behind-the-back pass that was off the mark and led to a clearance. Later, when the Leafs gained the zone, William Nylander tried ripping a backdoor pass through a number of bodies that didn’t connect.
In the third period, the Leafs went to a power play up 1-0, and if they scored there, it wouldn’t have iced the game, but they would have been in a really good spot. Mitch Marner took a shot that hit the side of the net, and then Nylander tried to float a saucer pass up the middle to Rielly at the point. Marner had a one-timer blocked on the next zone entry, and they never set it up or created anything else afterward.
With an extra skater out there, there is no need to force anything, especially against good teams. There are no more layups against the Habs the rest of the way here.
– On the flip side, the penalty kill was full marks. The top unit of David Kampf – Mitch Marner and TJ Brodie – Justin Holl was excellent. Kampf-Marner were at their best in terms of puck pressure and angling to get pucks out. Kampf has really developed some confidence over the season to actually skate with the puck and effectively kill time (even pulling a puck through his own legs at one point on the penalty kill).
Holl takes a lot of heat, but he has the toughest job of anyone monitoring the one-timer side (Pastrnak, Stamkos, Ovechkin, etc.) and did well to challenge plays, get in the lane, and disrupt plays. Holl and Brodie each played 5:21 on the penalty kill vs. Boston.
– The main difference I noticed with Ryan O’Reilly on the top power-play unit was his ability to keep plays alive by winning battles, retrieving pucks, and teaming up with John Tavares in front of the net to cause chaos. When the team needs to simplify their power play (i.e. stop doing what they did against Boston), he will give them a fresh look in that spot. These are good problems to have.
– Since March 1, William Nylander has 10 points in 19 games. Against Boston, he didn’t even play 14 minutes. In fact, his 13:32 was his lowest time-on-ice figure of the season.
Yes, the Habs are terrible, but a goal and 10 shots on net was important. He has to start feeling it again, and he has a week to do it now. Hopefully, it’s the type of game that will get him going again. For over a month now, he hasn’t looked like the player that clearly took a step forward through the first half of the season.
“Those are two players in John and Will that are quiet. They are guys who do their talking on the ice with how they play. Sometimes, especially when you are starting to get in your head when things aren’t going great, [it’s good] to have someone that can get you going.
“I don’t think we like those guys. They don’t like us.”
– Zach Aston-Reese on the Boston Bruins
For years, we’ve been begging for these fourth-line professional role players, and while they look mediocre when the hockey is more free-flowing earlier in the season, as the games tighten and the playoffs inch closer, they suddenly become much more effective.
They started the opening faceoff for every period against the Bruins, and when the Leafs had a defensive-zone faceoff in the final minute of the first, they were out there again. They were on in the final minute of the third with the game 1-1, too.
Those are important shifts. They also scored and laid some big hits. Their fingerprints were all over the game in a good way.
“I haven’t played a ton. One of the good things about being out is that it gives you the ability to take a step back, watch everybody — see their details, how they play — and understand their game more. That kind of helps going forward here.”
– ROR on finding a rhythm with new teammates despite suffering an injury early on
Ultimately, I think we’ll look back on this injury as a good thing. It has allowed an older player to rest up and settle in after the trade; plus, as Ryan O’Reilly notes here, it allowed him to watch the team and feel things out.
ROR is a Stanley Cup champion and a former captain, and Sheldon Keefe has already noted he is the most vocal player on the bench during games. He is not shy in terms of fitting in. Now he’s healthy with a few games to get his legs underneath him.
“Tonight is a big point on the road for us against a very good team in a building where it is extremely difficult to come away with anything.
It is a good night for us.”
– Sheldon Keefe on clinching home-ice advantage after an overtime loss against the Bruins
I totally understand what Keefe is saying, and I don’t think he should admonish the team publicly or anything; they did play reasonably well, and it was a good game in general. 3v3 overtime is irrelevant to me at this point; it’s a fun regular-season thing, but it’s not real hockey, and it’s certainly miles away from playoff hockey.
However, there was no David Krejci or Taylor Hall in the Bruins’ lineup, their backup goalie was in the net, and Charlie McAvoy left the game. The Leafs dressed their full lineup, their stars didn’t produce any offense, and their power play went 0/3. They blew the lead late on a series of self-inflicted mistakes.
This is year four under Keefe. They went all-in at the deadline. The playoffs are a week away. The Leafs fancy themselves as a Stanley Cup contender, so it just feels like the bar should be higher than going into a tough building, scoring once against a team missing a number of top-end players, and not closing their lead out.
There are no moral victories at this point.
Tweets of the Week
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) April 7, 2023
I am not sure how sustainable this will be season-to-season, but for the one we are in right now, Ilya Samsonov has been excellent when called on to make big saves. There have been hardly any occasions when he genuinely lost the team the game, and more often than not, he’s given them a chance to win with some big saves.
Jake McCabe's last ten games by xGF%:
The Leafs are winning his 5v5 minutes 16-7 (69.6 GF%) since he joined the team.
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) April 9, 2023
Jake McCabe is a solid NHL defenseman who has fit in well. He can competently take shifts in tough matchups, has a little snarl, and he can move the puck around well enough. At $2M for the next two seasons, it’s great value.
It’s also fair to note that he has largely played beside the Leafs defenseman that everyone looks good next to. Without TJ Brodie, the numbers are all below 50, and in general, he hasn’t looked as sharp as he’s more of a complement to a good partner than a driver of a pairing.
McCabe has also taken a few questionable penalties – most notably, against Boston, with the team up one in the third, he took a shot from Charlie Coyle and retaliated. Whether Coyle should have gotten a penalty or not is irrelevant; he can’t do it late in a one-goal game. There is a time and a place to respond, and that isn’t it.
Against Columbus, he took a similar penalty where Josh Dunne gave him a shot and he retaliated. It can’t be that easy to draw a penalty against McCabe. He leads the team in penalty minutes since the trade deadline.
The Leaf: Blueprint Moment pic.twitter.com/NqBSJBTpyv
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 9, 2023
In what was most likely Wayne Simmonds’ last home game with the Maple Leafs, he had a ton of family in attendance, got into a fight (kudos to Michael Pezzetta for taking the fight), and got the player of the game belt. Simmonds was once one of the best power forwards in the league, and while he wasn’t that player in Toronto, he did bring energy and passion.
Before breaking his wrist in February 2021, he really looked like he was coming on as a Leaf. If this is it for him, it was a hell of a career. This was a great gesture from his Leafs’ teammates in recognition of that.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. When Matthew Knies gets into the lineup, I think they might as well give him a real opportunity to see what he can do. That means playing him with one of Tavares or ROR. I would not instantly put him on the top line with Matthews; that has to be earned.
He should also get some second-unit power play time. He wasn’t productive in the frozen four, and his coach alluded to him playing through some sort of injury. I would consider anything Knies might bring to be gravy, but otherwise, I have no real expectations. I am just curious to see what he can do.
2. I think I would rest players higher in the lineup to make room as well. The Zach Aston-Reese – David Kampf – Sam Lafferty line deserves to be in the lineup and should continue to gel. Ryan O’Reilly needs games. I would keep Noel Acciari in the lineup. I’d happily give anyone else a night off.
3. I think I would dress Wayne Simmonds against Tampa. I don’t know what the Lightning have planned, but they love to stir up nonsense, and I would stay ready for it.
To me, this means Simmonds, Luke Schenn, Noel Acciari, Zach Aston-Reese, Sam Lafferty, and Jake McCabe are all in the lineup. The Leafs can’t let Tampa run them all night a week before the playoffs.
4. With Ryan O’Reilly in the lineup, I think there is no reason not to play one of William Nylander or Mitch Marner alongside Auston Matthews. I’ve argued before about spreading out the depth, but ROR is the depth now. The Kerfoot – ROR – Acciari was legit. To not have Matthews with a star winger at that point is borderline malpractice.
It’s definitely not stacking the deck in the team’s favour. To me, the most balanced group they can run is the bottom six from the game against Boston with the Bunting – Matthews – Nylander and Jarnkrok – Tavares – Marner lines in the top six. The best matchup lines, especially at home, are achieved if you swap centers on those lines (you can run that Matthews line against anyone).
5. The Leafs play three tough opponents this week, and if they are playing their full lineups and getting after it, I think I would give Ilya Samsonov two of the three starts. He is not an established veteran. These are good games and atmospheres to play him in.
If Tampa and the Rangers are resting players and also coasting through to the end of the season, I would not play Samsonov. Those are the worst games; they lack structure and can often be a nightmare for a goalie. The game against the Habs was truly awful. But if these games are competitive, I’d have him in.