Game #73 Review: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 vs. New Jersey Devils 2

Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business in the second leg of a back-to-back against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.

With Boston’s loss to the Lightning last night, the Leafs are now three points ahead of the Bruins with a game in hand.

Your game in ten:

1. The Leafs are officially showing “good team” characteristics. Coming off of two emotional wins over Boston and Columbus, they heavily out-possessed a rested Devils team (60% share of the shot attempts) after travelling home for a back-to-back. They won a game with their backup in despite a soft goal early, and they calmly closed out another game with an empty-netter. These are the type of wins the Leafs weren’t picking up earlier in the season (think back to the successive Stars and Blues blowouts, when early goals against snowballed on them).

The wins over Boston and Columbus were statement wins, but pretty impressive in its own right is beating a team “you should beat” in a game with major trap potential. This was a good 60-minute effort that was played with structure and detail. Good teams can “win boring,” and this game was certainly that — it featured a total of seven high-danger scoring chances between the two teams by Natural Stat Trick‘s count.

2.  Maybe it’s just me, but Mike Babcock’s tone seemed a bit different in last night’s post-game presser. He sounded like he wasn’t containing his excitement as much as he usually does. Babcock obviously relishes the “ugly wins” – like we’ve seen against Carolina and now New Jersey during the Leafs’ current run – as a sign that the team is for real.

The Leafs have now allowed two goals or fewer in eight of their last nine games.

3. The Leafs power play quickly got them out of an early hole last night, with Josh Leivo drawing the penalty and scoring the goal. Again, it’s the dynamism of the units that make the Leaf power play so good. It’s awfully hard to strategize against a unit that can just as easily run things through Marner/Willy on the right half wall, or switch Nylander and Matthews to their one-time sides and have them play catch with Gardiner at the top of the diamond (as they did preceding Leivo’s goal). The Leafs successfully create outmanned situations in both setups, allowing the abundant offensive skill on the units to take it from there.

Since the Leafs’ run started after returning from California, the Leafs are converting at 33.3% and now have power play goals in five of their last six games. Their overall special teams add up to 107.33% — that’s a stat Babcock looks at a lot — which is best in the league.

4. Mike Babcock mentioned after the game that Leivo gets “hosed” as a healthy scratch because of penalty killing considerations. Meaning, Nikita Soshnikov – who has great 4v5 results in his limited role (1:08/game) – is useful enough on the PK that it prevents Babcock from opting for a more active rotation that would see Leivo get into the lineup more often (this is all said within the context of Matt Martin being a permanent lineup fixture as of now).

Soshnikov is currently out hurt and Brian Boyle, one of the Leafs regular PK forwards, took a penalty in the first period. That meant that Babcock had to mix a different forward into the rotation. He went with Marner, who has seen PK spot duty on rare occasions this season:

5. When it comes to which skilled players make good PKers, it’s largely about the eagerness to embrace the role. Marner, a total gamer, clearly embraces the extra ice time and responsibility; he looks pumped to be out there. His anticipation skills are excellent, he covers ice extremely well, and we’ve seen that he’s willing to lay out and block shots a few times this season. It’s just a question of whether or not it’s worth the possible injury risk.

To me, mixing in Marner (or Kadri) in for the odd PK shift to get Leivo into the lineup more often isn’t the end of the world, and it might even lead to a few more shorthanded goals (the Leafs are currently in the middle of the pack in 4v5 goals with five).

6.  Speaking of Marner, his pass for his franchise record-tying 40th assist of the season was marvellous. He used Keith Kinkaid’s pad as a pinball bumper and laid it out there perfectly for JVR at the backdoor:

The Bozak line got the better of the Zajac line on that shift after Babcock sent them out as fresh legs for an offensive zone faceoff following a Devils icing, with JVR winning a couple of puck battles before finishing the play off.

7. Bozak broke the 50-point barrier for the first time on that same goal, and good for him. For a long time, through no fault of his own, he was an easy target for the fan base’s collective frustration about coaching decisions and the overall lack of quality center depth in the organization. Now correctly slotted as a sheltered scoring 3C — albeit with two very talented “third liners” on his wing — he’s hitting new heights offensively with great numbers for his role and ice time. Bozak will never win a Selke, but his defensive effort has been in much better shape after initially looking out of sorts coming back from injury. He has been digging in harder away from the puck and it rubs off on JVR, who — as we’ve seen over the years — can blend into his surroundings too often when Bozak’s defensive game slips. To say nothing of the impact it has on an impressionable 19-year-old.

Bozak’s faceoff numbers in his last seven games: 50%, 60%, 77.8%, 76.2%, 75%, 63.2% and 55.6%.

8. Leo Komarov passed up a clear look at an empty net to give Connor Brown his 17th of the season with 46 seconds left in the game. We’ve seen Komarov do this kind of thing twice in the past couple of months: Against Boston on Monday, he lifted Bergeron’s stick and left the puck untouched for Kadri’s 29th of the year; against Buffalo in early January, with a clear sight of goal, he killed the game off with a soft chip down the ice rather than risking an icing. I can’t seem to find the specific game (somebody fill in the blank for me), but he did something similar on a 2-on-0 with an empty net last year — and that was in a season where he was chasing his first career 20-goal season (he ended up with 19).

Such a team-first “glue guy.” Great work on the Devils’ 5-on-3 as well:

9. Auston Matthews was asked after the game what he thinks Nylander has been doing better since his franchise record-setting streak started and he said he thinks he’s been shooting the puck more. That’s true, although marginally so (2.7 shots per game in last 10 games vs. 2.5 before hand). He’s definitely playing with the puck more, though, and it’s because of an effort level away from the puck that seems to be improving by the game.

Often we hear him referred to as the “forgotten one” next to Matthews and Marner, but that narrative can stop any time now. Nylander is now firmly in the Calder conversation, just one point behind Marner and four behind Matthews.

10. The Leafs would do well to put themselves in a position where the final four games against tough opponents are more about jostling for playoff positioning than they are about clinching a playoff berth. The only way this could possibly go wrong now is if the Leafs leave points on the table in their next three – against Buffalo, Detroit and Buffalo again – and then totally hit a wall in the final four games against Washington (second game of a back-to-back), Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Columbus. Last night’s win is a great start; at least four of six points against Buffalo (x2) and Detroit would go a long way in making those final four games more comfortable.

Game Flow

Shot Attempts Heat Map

Game In Six

Post-Game: Mike Babcock