In a battle of the goaltenders on Thursday night versus New York, the Maple Leafs were largely outplayed but hung onto a one-goal lead long enough to grab the loser point.
With the results elsewhere going against them tonight, the Leafs are now tied with the Islanders and Bruins with 68 points at the 60-game mark but hold onto the third divisional playoff spot thanks to their game in hand on Boston.
Your game in ten:
1. After their best possession game of the year versus Winnipeg, this game was in the bottom-five performances this season by the possession count (41.88 CF%). While they did manage to manufacture a late push inside the final 5-10 minutes, the Leafs’ forward group in particular didn’t seem to have their legs and there were some long shifts spent sluggishly chasing pucks around in the d-zone. That said, the Rangers entered the game 7-1-1 in their last nine, we’re breaking into the final 20 games of the season now, and the Leafs are in the midst of their busiest stretch of schedule. Take the point and run.
2. And thank Frederik Andersen on the way out the door for what was his best performance of the season. Andersen’s performance in the Leafs‘ visit to Boston in December — a 4-1 win despite their worst possession game of the season (33 CF%) — was in a similar class, but this one probably edged it in terms of the quality of scoring chances faced. Before that December 10th game in Boston, Andersen was coming off of a three-goals-on-20-shots night against Minnesota. With the momentum of that Bruins game, he rattled off a 5-1-2 stretch during which he posted a .958 SV% — his best five-plus game segment of the season. If this is the start of another hot streak, it would obviously be massive as far as the Leafs’ playoff chase is concerned.
3. The Leafs have now fallen to 1-7 in the shootout, which is the worst in the league (no other team has more than five losses). There is the difference between the Leafs and the Sens (4-1 in the shootout), who are currently two points behind Montreal for the division lead with three games in hand. Give the Leafs just a 3-4 record in the shootout and they would be one point behind Montreal for the division lead with a game in hand.
The Leafs’ save percentage in the shootout is 25th in the NHL and their shooting percentage is even worse at 28th (they’re the sixth-best offense in the hockey-playing part of the game). Just to further hammer home the point about the randomness of it all: Arizona, the 27th-best offense in the NHL, leads the league in shooting efficiency at 64.3%
4. Zach Hyman’s last nine games: zero points, 12 shots on goal, 17:20 average time on ice, with the last four games spent alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander. During Hyman’s 12-game pointless streak in October that caught a lot of heat when it coincided with Auston Matthews’ 13-game goal drought, Hyman was at least putting a fair amount of pucks on net with 29 shots on goal over that span. This is one case where the rookie wall might be coming into play; he had a couple of good shifts in the third period in Carolina, but he appears to have a little less jump to his game — which is predicated on playing flat out and outworking everyone on the ice — in the last little while.
Hyman is always going to get first-unit PK minutes because he’s excellent there, so — when Mitch Marner returns — dropping him down to L4 at even strength and keeping Josh Leivo and Connor Brown in the top nine makes sense. Whether we actually see that happen is a different matter altogether.
5. A decent debut performance from Alexey Marchenko. His good read/well-timed pinched in first period set up Matt Martin for a point-blank chance in front of Henrik Lundqvist, which was followed by the team’s best o-zone shift of the period by the fourth line. He played a role in the lone Leaf goal, even if he didn’t collect an assist. Babcock mentioned the turnover off of a d-zone faceoff after the game, and he didn’t appear to play as much after that as the game reached its final stages. He finished with 13:52 time on ice, all at evens. Babcock seemed to like his overall game, so we’ll see if it was just a case of easing him in.
6. Another point for Jake Gardiner — a good shot-for-tip with Tyler Bozak showing for a tip in the high slot — ties a career-high (31) at the 60-game mark. This was another good game overall from Gardiner tonight — with some high-skill plays to keep pucks alive at the offensive blue line — but this blooper of a shift in overtime was too ridiculous not to show again (freeze frames added for emphasis):
7. Two examples of Frederik Gauthier’s heightened confidence with the puck and improved skating tonight on successive shifts in the second period: 1) Picking the puck up off the halfwall and skating three zones before setting up Soshnikov with a grade A chance on a platter on a 2v1, 2) Picking up the puck on his backhand and charging through the neutral zone, kicking his leg out and driving hard to the net. That said, Goat played 9:12 overall — no penalty killing time — and went 17% on the faceoff dot. He’s the superior option to Ben Smith at 5v5, but he’ll need a bounce back performance in the circle if he’s to stick at 4C knowing he also doesn’t have Babcock’s trust yet shorthanded. Babcock was none too pleased with the overall faceoff results tonight (67% in favour of New York, a weak faceoff team generally).
8. The Matthews’ line was the Leafs’ best tonight. While they had some tough shifts and were held pointless, they were able to create plays seemingly out of nothing. Shots went just wide, a few tips came close, and a couple of grade-A scoring chances were blocked at the last second. The line is the definition of “quick strike”; it can make the opposition pay in a heartbeat. Matthews had a number of head-shaking shifts picking pucks out of opposing players’ feet and making moves through traffic to get shots off (three SOG), in addition to his chance to win the game in OT off of a great stretch pass from Rielly. Babcock singled out Nylander’s game as a positive after the game; when the puck was on his stick, he was creating all over the ice. The line was more unlucky than anything else due to a number of great saves by Lundqvist.
9. The Leafs’ powerplay struggled tonight, going 0 for 3 and getting outshot 4-1 over those six minutes. As Anthony mentioned in his most recent Notebook, the opposition is foregoing the primary puck carrier and anticipating the drop pass before it happens, creating some havoc for the powerplay unit through the neutral zone. The Rangers used a 2-2 formation on the PK and wedged the Leaf puck carriers to the walls, where they outmanned them and ran them out of road. On top of that, New York’s fast and aggressive forecheckers hurried the Leafs into turnovers galore. It was a cacophony of errors at points, but mostly it was down to a well-executed game plan by the Rangers. They created outmanned situations all over the ice with 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s, specifically on the half-walls.
10. A 15th goal of the season for Connor Brown tonight, meaning a 20-goal rookie season is within his sights. In a “normal year,” that would be getting quite a bit of attention in this market. Brown did the hard work — recovering the puck down low, getting it to the point, and going to the net — on his goal and also drew a penalty after beating a Ranger with a good change of pace in the neutral zone. He’s been a plug-and-play piece for Mike Babcock, reliably bringing the same game regardless of line situation while chipping in on both sides of special teams. As a rookie, he’s played up against the best players 5v5 — either on the Matthews line or the Kadri line — and he is now taking spot duty in Marner’s place on the Bozak line to good effect. Babcock also uses him at 3-on-3 and to close out games; all impressive accolades for the fast-becoming fan favourite.
Here is the updated list of on-pace goal stats that shows the Leafs with seven potential 20-goal scorers on the roster this season: Matthews (38), Kadri (34), JVR (26), Nylander (23), Marner (21), Brown (21), Bozak (19).