What Buffalo curse? The Maple Leafs got off to a dream start en route to a 4-2 victory over the Sabres on Monday night and now stand alone in second place in the Atlantic Division with four games remaining.
Your game in ten:
1. Coming into a rink that got the better of the Leafs early in the game last Saturday, Mike Babcock went with the approach of getting his team focused on the first 10 minutes as a “game within a game” based on Nazem Kadri’s comments beforehand. It had the desired effect; the Sabres had one dangerous shift in the first five minutes, but the Leafs absolutely took over the first period after that and essentially won the game inside 45 seconds. All three of their top-nine forward lines contributed in what was a perfect snapshot of this club’s enviable scoring depth.
The Leafs outshot the Sabres 18-2, carried 73% of possession, and held a 3-0 lead after their most dominant period of the season.
2. The five or six Leaf icings in the middle frame were frustrating, but the overall numbers when it came to defending the lead looked pretty good. There was that bit of a let-off in the second (outshot 10-5), but the Leafs more or less split the shot attempts in the final 40 minutes and outshot the Sabres 12-10 in the third. That’s an improvement over what we saw in the last few games, although it should be noted the Sabres were in a back-to-back situation.
Breakout execution like this (below) with the lead in the third period can go a long way toward closing out games better as we head toward the playoffs.
Puck support perfection.
3. In addition to the fantastic start, the Leafs did a good job of walking the line between not backing down and staying disciplined despite ample provocation from the Sabres. After getting burned on both kills last Saturday, they put Buffalo’s league-best power play to work just once.
You could see two good examples of how the Leafs PK units have adjusted to the ubiquitous power play drop pass in the forechecking of Brown and Komarov on that one kill.
It was also an excellent kill in general from Brown, as per usual; he forced an offside, won a battle on the half-wall and cleared the puck, and finished up with a shorthanded rush for a shot on goal late in the penalty.
4. The shot of Mike Babcock on the bench with 4.6 seconds left — fully engaged, changing lines and barking orders in a 4-2 game that was long since over — got me thinking: There’s one reason why this young Leafs team has learned to take care of details so much better after struggling with the “little things” so often earlier in the season.
It’s funny to think back to all of the concerns about Babcock’s lack of experience coaching rebuilding teams and developing young players coming off of his many years coaching a strong veteran core in Detroit. After a year coaching the veterans on the roster in 2015-16, and 50 or games with the seven/eight/nine rookies this season, the Leafs have performed like a top-five team for the final two months down the stretch (16-7-0, fifth in the NHL since Feb. 4).
They’re now in sole possession of second place in the division/home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
5. Matthews’ goal, set up by Nylander’s ingenuity, was accompanied by the perfect cherry on top:
That is Josh Gorges – best known for turning down a trade to Toronto and ending up in Buffalo — getting run over as Matthews finishes his follow through for his 39th of the season.
It looked like we were getting #40 from Matthews tonight. Matthews now has 24 shots on goal during his five-game goal streak after putting six on the net tonight. That’s just shy of five per game during this hot streak.
6. Without much fanfare – mostly due to the rookies breaking records every game — Jake Gardiner just hit 40 points for the first time in his career with an assist on Matthews’ goal. He’s always been capable of it, but all the ingredients came together this year: He’s playing on the most offensively-talented Leaf team of his career, he’s in the right role, he’s part of a system with a very active defence, and he leads Leafs defencemen in power play time on one of the best PPs in the league.
7. File this under areas for improvement: One repeat issue with Gardiner this season is an odd tendency of pivoting in the wrong direction while defending off of the rush. Typically a defenceman pivots towards the same side the opposition player is attempting to beat him on, allowing himself to get a stick inside, gain body position, and separate the attacking player from the puck. With some frequency, Gardiner has been turning away from the puck, allowing unfettered access to the opposing player with no stick on the inside and no way to establish body position.
It can be beneficial to turn away from an opposing player and pivot in the other direction in certain circumstances. If the attacker already has a step on the defenceman, pivoting inward and attempting to get a stick inside on the opponent might be too slow and too late. In cases where a defenceman is “caught,” it can make sense to spin around the other way and use the momentum of the pivot to attempt a desperation sweep check. However, those aren’t the situations Gardiner has found himself in when we’ve seen it happen this year.
8. The Evander Kane cheap shot was in a category of its own, but it seems to me that Frederik Andersen has taken a lot of bumps throughout games this season (there were three or four other instances of it tonight alone). His year got off to an iffy start given his injury in the Olympic qualifier in September, and he was given the one game off for precautionary reasons after Will Carrier bumped him under the helmet in the meeting against the Sabres last Saturday, but he’s shaken off a lot of abuse this year.
9. If you were to guess which Maple Leaf is top 10 among NHL defencemen in plus/minus since the start of February, who would it be?
The correct answer is Roman Polak at +12, with Matt Hunwick not far behind at +8. The two are tops of the Leafs defence in that time in shots-against-per-60 and Goals For Percentage, with Polak all the way up at a 70.0 GF%.
Their possession stats since Feb. 1: Hunwick- 50.9 CF%, and Roman Polak – 48.3%. Polak has started nearly 42% of his shifts in the defensive zone in the last two months, the highest among Leafs defencemen.
This would’ve worked, too:
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) April 4, 2017