Game #69 Review: Toronto Maple Leafs 5 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning 0

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 16: Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs makes a save against Braydon Coburn #55 of the Tampa Bay Lightning as James van Riemsdyk #25 defends during the first period at the Amalie Arena on March 16, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

The Maple Leafs put themselves back in control of their playoff destiny with a big bounce-back win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.

Your game in ten:

1. After Tuesday’s debacle, who had the Leafs shutting the Lightning out with the defence contributing two goals and five points in the process? In the words of Mike Babcock, “the truth today isn’t the truth tomorrow.” All of a sudden, the Leafs have now won four of their last five. Combined with all of the other results going their way last night, the Leafs’ playoff odds jumped from 36% to 61.6% over the course of a single evening.

2. A 33-save shutout for Frederik Andersen and it looked like he never broke a sweat. A few key early saves went a long way in settling down a fragile team coming off of the Florida disaster; the first ten minutes were scrambly and wide open with good scoring opportunities at both ends, including three or four good looks for the Lightning.

Andersen made timely saves early and got better as the game progressed while the Leafs sat on a big lead and the refs made a run of even-up calls (the Lightning had five straight power plays starting around the middle of the 2nd period). Andersen’s anticipation was razor sharp, particularly in reading the right-circle one-time play on the Lightning power play. He squared up perfectly against that play three or four times, giving Nikita Kucherov (and Ondrej Palat once) very little net to shoot at. He made 13 saves on the Lightning power plays alone.

Now at 57 starts through 69 games, Andersen continues to show he possesses the starter’s quality of not letting one bad start bleed into the next.

3. At the other end, the Leafs scored four goals on their first 15 shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy, who entered the game as the league’s hottest goaltender in the month of March. There was nothing overly complicated about it; simply a case of winning more draws (54%), funnelling pucks to the net with traffic, and winning battles in front.  Depth scoring was the story (Polak, Rielly, Brown and Martin) in the Leafs’ first four-goal game at even strength since one month ago in Carolina.

4. Right from the outset, Mike Babcock wasn’t hesitant about throwing his fourth line over the boards for the matchup against the Nikita Kucherov line. Babcock gave Nazem Kadri a breather – it was his lowest TOI total of the season (13:01) and he mainly matched up with Byron Froese – while leaning more on Brian Boyle to get the job done against his former team. It worked to good effect: in over six even-strength minutes with both Boyle and Kucherov on the ice, there was only five shot attempts between the two teams and a total of one shot on goal for the Lightning. Especially on the road, it’s a luxury to have a fourth line that can be trusted against scoring lines. It hasn’t taken long at all to appreciate Boyle’s value; he’s totally transformed the fourth line while serving as a security blanket for Babcock.

5. Just what the doctor ordered: Morgan Rielly with a goal, an assist, a plus-three and a team-leading 63% Corsi For, including a 62.5% CF against the Kucherov line. Rielly split his even-strength minutes playing with Polak and Marchenko; Rielly-Marchenko played a pretty clean game breaking the puck out, while Rielly was a 73% CF in his time with Polak. It shows character to make no excuses (despite having a valid one in his injury) and bounce back from probably his worst game of the year with one of his better efforts in the biggest game of the season to date.

6. This was Roman Polak’s best game of the season: a goal, a plus-three, a team-leading 23:59 TOI, a 59% CF, four blocked shots, and a devastating hit on Nikita Kucherov. The absence of Connor Carrick and Babcock’s lack of trust in Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko means that Polak is, in effect, a top-four guy for this team at the moment. He is playing a leading role on the PK and Babcock often mixes him onto the other pairings at evens in addition to a regular shift with Hunwick, be it with Rielly in Marchenko’s place or with Gardiner in Marincin’s place. He’s averaged 21:44 TOI/game over his last four games. It’s far from a proper long-term solution, but Polak has been playing some of his best hockey of the year at a time the Leafs badly needed someone to step up on the right side of the defence.

7.  Overall, this was a really good response from many of the veterans that were absent in Sunrise. JVR chipped in a goal (a great shot), an assist, and capped his night by instantly defending Mitch Marner when Luke Witkowski took a late whack at his rookie linemate.

In addition to his faceoff-win assist on Polak’s goal, Tyler Bozak won 78% of his draws and was engaged in a couple of spirited shifts where he traded hits with Alex Killorn.

Leo Komarov chipped in an assist and won a couple of shorthanded draws, an area the Leafs have struggled in immensely in the last couple of months. The Leafs PK went five for five and won six of nine faceoffs.

Nazem Kadri also chipped in an assist and mixed it up with Yanni Gourde in the third after Gourde got feisty around Andersen’s crease.

A nice response overall from the veteran members on the roster.

8. With his 23rd power play point of the season (t-10th in the NHL) on Connor Brown’s goal, William Nylander became the third Leaf rookie to break the 50-point barrier this year. This deserves a point on its own:

9. Here’s something worth discussing with Nikita Soshnikov (who now has points in two consecutive):

To expand on Quinn’s point: among players with a minimum of 50 shorthanded minutes played, Nikita Soshnikov’s 0.95 Goals Against Per 60 is lowest in the NHL (the Teuvo Teravainen goal in Carolina was the only power play goal against that Soshnikov has been on the ice for).

It should be pointed out that Soshnikov is used lightly on the penalty kill (1:11 per game, sixth among forwards including Ben Smith) and he’s benefited from the highest on-ice save percentage in the NHL at 4v5 (.977). He changed at a bad time during a penalty kill last night and it led to a partial breakaway that Andersen turned aside, but overall he covers ice really well, he’s fearless and he wins battles, making him a useful penalty killer.

While a league-wide comparison of his shots against per 60 ranking at 4v5 (72nd in the NHL) versus his on-ice 4v5 save percentage (1st in the NHL) suggests there is a measure of luck involved, he does allow the fewest shots per 60 on the team in shorthanded situations. I’d be curious to see how Soshnikov would perform in an expanded PK role.

There is also this:

At a time when Matthews just hit a season-high six games without a point, it’s probably fair to state that either Josh Leivo or Nikita Soshnikov playing as much as Hyman has this season nets out to around a five-goal, ten-point improvement over what Hyman’s produced this season (and therefore Matthews is probably closer to 60 points than his current 55 as well).

10. The Leafs will now play the Blackhawks (8-2-0 in last 10), the Bruins (7-3-0 in L10) and the Blue Jackets (7-2-1 in L10) in succession. The Columbus away game is the first of a back-to-back, with the Leafs travelling back to Toronto to host New Jersey on Wednesday. They’ll then pay a visit to Buffalo (for some reason, always a tough game for the Leafs) to close out a five-games-in-eight-days stretch. Needless to say, this win versus Tampa was a must-have.

What a wild finish this is going to be.

Game Flow

Shot Attempts Heat Map

Game In Six

Post-Game: Mike Babcock