The Toronto Maple Leafs swept the season series against the Boston Bruins for the first time since 1924 with a huge four-point win on Monday night.
Your game in ten:
1. We’ve seen three of the league’s elite ‘small guys’ feature in these last two games in Mitch Marner, Brad Marchand and Patrick Kane. The ways in which the three turn a lack of size into a competitive advantage — turning on a dime, jumping into holes that bigger players cannot, utilizing incredible edgework to fend off challengers — was great fun to watch.
Ray Ferraro did a good job on the broadcast of highlighting a couple of plays involving Marner and Chara; one where Marner got in and out the corner with the puck before Chara could get a sniff, the other where Marner kept his feet moving around the net with Chara attempting to tie him up. That’s to say nothing of the assist on Rielly’s goal, which was the sort of “Marner being Marner” play we’ve come to expect (as Reilly said, “I never had any doubt he was going to get it to me”).
There are no limits to the heights Marner can reach as he figures out the league, improves his shot and adds core strength, like Marchand and Kane have over the years.
2. The Leafs just collected three of four points against two of the league’s best teams and hottest offenses since the All-Star break, giving up a combined three goals in regulation (one of which was the garbage-time Dominic Moore goal). What’s most impressive about it is how different natured the two games were. The Blackhawks game was tame as far as the rough stuff, but it was highly-competitive, structured, and played at a high pace. The pace of the Bruins game was also high, but Boston dumps the puck in more to establish their forecheck, they drive the net with more ferocity, and they’re eager to engage in post-whistle scrums. The Leafs, to their credit, didn’t shy away.
They’ve also now allowed two goals or fewer in five of their last six.
3. A number of the high-end power plays from the start of the year have cooled off significantly since January 1. All of the Blue Jackets, the Rangers and Ducks were in the top five of the league after 37 or 38 games, and all three have had a bottom-five success rate since then. The Leafs’ PP, meanwhile, keeps chugging along with a 27.7% since Jan. 1, including a huge game-winning goal late in the third last night.
Jim Hiller ran one of the best if not the best PP in the league in Detroit for years. While last season was down year – entirely personnel-related, not due to system or shot volume – it is now the best in the league and is continuing to get it done at the most important time of the season.
4. One reason for the continued success, in addition to a big increase in the units’ skill level since last season, is that Hiller designs the units to be dynamic and modular; it’s tough to get a handle on what the Leafs are doing and where players are going to be situated because it can change in a hurry. Here was the set up when the Leafs scored their game-winning goal:
The four forwards are well-drilled here and plug into each other’s roles seamlessly. In this case, Marner retrieves the puck deep in the zone to beat out an icing and goes to the front of the net, while JVR set the goal up with a pass from the half wall.
When in its most common formation with the half-wall forwards stationed on their strong sides, the Leafs PP is predicated on creating outnumbered situations in the low slot, where skilled finishers in tight like JVR, Bozak and Kadri have thrived this season. Placing the half-wall QB on his strong side opens up the side-door pass option for either a jam play (resulting in goals or rebounds) or a bang-bang passing play into the slot/backdoor. It also means the half-wall QB can smoothly pull the puck off the wall versus shovelling it off of his backhand. That makes it more difficult to pressure the half-wall guy into a turnover.
Power play unit #2, meanwhile, will occasionally switch its flanks and place Matthews and Nylander on their one-time sides rather than their strong sides. Both are threatening; Nylander has a big one-timer but, as Babcock points out, might be even better at catching and releasing while receiving the puck across his body.
Marner is an elite puck distributor on the first unit who can patiently pull apart PK units. Bozak – in addition to his ability to win draws more often than not — has always been sneaky good at roving the slot (he nearly scored seconds earlier after jumping on a loose puck). Kadri has developed a real nose for the hard areas of the ice, while JVR remains one of the most skilled net-front guys in the league in man-advantage situations. Nylander and Matthews bring the biggest shot threats on either unit, and they’re technically on PP #2.
There is a lot to deal with there for the opposition.
5. The time-on-ice figures are wonky due to the clock issues in the first two periods, but Connor Carrick made his return to the lineup, playing mostly alongside Morgan Rielly as well as a few shifts with Matt Hunwick, depending on the matchup situation. Carrick played well, especially for a player jumping off the sidelines into the fast lane; he commanded his share of the ice and moved the puck efficiently. With Carrick in the lineup, the Leafs have a third defenceman who plays with a discernible edge to his game in addition to Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev. It makes a difference. The timing of his return seemed apropos given this figured to be – and turned out to be – a rough game played at playoff intensity.
6. Morgan Rielly scored the 1-1 goal at 4 on 4, put three shots on net and picked up his third point in his last three games. The break from top matchup responsibilities is giving him a new lease on life.
7. In addition to owning the size and technical abilities of a long-term starter, Frederik Andersen’s mental game has been impressive of late. His response after a bad outing versus Florida was a shutout performance versus Tampa Bay. In-game, he’s also shaken off early goals against Carolina and Boston, both of which were short-side goals he maybe should’ve had.
Since the start of the California road trip, Andersen has picked up points in seven of nine games (5-2-2), he’s posted a .941 SV%, and he’s faced 32 shots per game over that stretch. There are more tests to come, but — amid all the question marks about Andersen’s ability to hold steady under his first number-one workload — the big Dane seems to only be getting better as he approaches start #60.
8. Wiilliam Nylander tied a season-high for points streak by a Leaf with his right-down-the-middle empty-net goal. He’s now collected a point in eight consecutive, tying Auston Matthews’ streak from December 19 to January 6.
That empty-netter came with Matthews and Nylander on the ice in the final 1:30 of a one-goal game. Typically, we’ve seen Babcock supplant Nylander with Boyle or Brown in those situations, but he gave Nylander a late shift and was rewarded with a skilled empty-net goal (as far as empty-net goals go) to seal the win.
With the team looking more playoff-bound by the day, it’s noteworthy that Babcock is looking after development first and exposing rookies to late-game situations in high-stakes contests down the stretch. That was a nice reward and a show of trust in Nylander, who is playing his best hockey at the right time of year.
8. Brad Marchand entered the game riding three consecutive multi-point performances (and four in his last five), with 12 shots on goal over those three games. The Leafs will happily take the one assist and zero shots on goal; the last time Marchand wasn’t credited with a shot on goal was 23 games ago in mid-January.
Jake Gardiner played opening goal poorly, pulling up on a chance to shoulder Marchand off the puck in the neutral zone, pivoting the wrong way, and twice turning his back to the puck. But Gardiner-Zaitsev did a good job overall against a different but equally tough challenge from what they faced in the Patrick Kane line on Saturday. While he got baited into a bad penalty early in the second, Zaitsev did an excellent job of getting into Marchand’s face every chance he got. Marchand wasn’t afforded much space as the game progressed and his frustration level grew accordingly.
10. Last but not least, Leo Komarov sure shows his value in these kinds of games (“he inspires me,” said Kadri). A player who can bring that level of intensity when the temperature spikes, flap his gums and bring teammates into the fight while staying between the lines seems particularly valuable on a young club experiencing games of this nature for the very first time. Komarov was disruptive on the forecheck, good defensively, and hard on pucks all game long.
Leo’s post-game performance was just as good, calling Marchand, “a good guy… we’re made for each other.”