With a 4-1 victory on Saturday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs made it four wins in a row while also winning their fourth consecutive against the Boston Bruins.
Thoughts in note form:
– This back-to-back set made a pretty good case for more divisional home-and-homes in the regular season schedule. The Friday game was tight checking and a bit of a snore fest, and while this game was about as equally tight checking, it was played with a physical intensity akin to playoff time. Every check was getting finished and just about every net-front scramble brought about a scrum. The schedule makers should build more of these into the calendar.
– Make that 3-0-0 with Auston Matthews out of the lineup while scoring 11 goals over the three games (granted, two were empty-netters). It’s interesting that the Leafs and the Canadiens have both broken out of slumps and are now stringing together wins without their best player healthy. The context is different given Carey Price was struggling and Auston Matthews was excelling, but there’s something to be said for the psychology of not having the superstar present and waiting around for him to fix the issue. Prior to the injury, the Leafs were relying a lot on Matthews’ line to go out and steal back momentum in games with those dominant, ice-tilting shifts. The goal now is that, 1) Matthews comes back healthy with the injury fully behind him, and 2) The team has made some progress as far as its structure and has more lines rolling for when he does make his much-anticipated return.
– After the game, Mitch Marner mentioned that a point of emphasis in practice has been the forwards coming back to support the defence better on break outs. Some signs of progress were visible throughout the game:
Even in an instance such as the play where Connor Carrick flips the puck into the neutral zone, moving up the ice as a five-man unit with close support by the center in Patrick Marleau and the strong-side winger in Connor Brown – rather than taking off and creating the huge gaps we’ve often seen in the first quarter of the season – means the Leafs have numbers, leading to a won puck battle, a zone entry, some offensive-zone time, and a chance in the slot for Brown.
– The Leafs still turned the puck over too much against the Bruins forecheck and were out-possessed and out-shot, although the degree to which they were outshot seemed exaggerated on the shot clock. But there are some indications the team is starting to find some semblance of the structure that’s been lacking in its game. The last three contests have all been tight-checking affairs without much space to operate and very few rush chances, and the Leafs have found different ways to win games. There have been fewer of the grade-A opportunities against in the last few games. We’ll see how it translates after the break.
– Speaking of Mitch Marner, he’s certainly looking back in business with seven points in his last five games. Like many skilled and creative players, Marner’s confidence is tied to his touches and playing with the puck lots throughout the game. He’s done himself some favours lately in terms of how he’s taken care of the puck and it leads to him having it more often (less of the whacking it away and low-percentage stuff from his first 15 games). It helps when Brandon Carlo puts a pizza on your plate to gobble up, also. He’s stepped up nicely with Matthews on the shelf and should be feeling much better about himself going into this mini-break.
– The Marner line had a good night against the Bruins’ secondary lines — it was the only Leafs line above 50% possession on the night, with Marner leading the way at 69% CF.
– One of James van Riemsdyk‘s more endearing traits is how he seems to crank it up a couple of notches against the Bruins when he’s got a night of jostling with Zdeno Chara in front of the net ahead of him. That’s his fourth consecutive multi-point game against Boston. He’s also currently riding a seven-game points streak against them and has piled up 19 points in his last 14 games vs. the Bruins. Another player who has stepped up in Matthews’ absence.
– It’s probably no coincidence that Leo Komarov played his best game of the year in a playoff-hockey type of environment. It’s been a vanilla start to the year from Komarov – I’m not sure if he was pacing himself out of the gates, but we’ve seen less of the usual Leo and more games where he was just taking his shifts. That’s not to say he was playing poorly – he’s always responsible defensively, fulfilling his duties on the PK and playing tough minutes at 5v5 – but you had to make an effort to notice him most of the time, which isn’t typically the case with Komarov. Nine goals and 26 points — his current pace — is a little bit below the expected output given the players he’s playing with and where he’s slotted in the lineup.
That line got handily outpossessed by one of the best forward trios in hockey in this game, but they ultimately kept the sheet clean and dug in at important times in the game. They did owe Curtis McElhinney one for the stop on Marchand on a 2v1 late in the second period after the turnover in the neutral zone.
Komarov’s work on the third-period 5-on-3 and in closing out the game was herculean, and you’re happy to have him when the temperature dials up a few notches as it did in this game.
– Coming off of his performance against LA, there was some sense out there that a bad start from Curtis McElhinney here would’ve meant the team moves to pull the trigger on a backup change. The thing to keep in mind with Garret Sparks is that he is waiver eligible. That means if you’re bringing him up, you’re bringing him up for good, so the Leafs would have to be certain of his NHL readiness before pulling the trigger. Sparks is currently the best goaltender in the AHL statistically – and he’s responded admirably to the added competition from Calvin Pickard — but his issues in the past have centered on his health and ability to put full seasons together. Let’s see if he can string together a good 50+ start season on the farm (his career high is 31 GP). The good news is that McElhinney has now played well in two of three starts and looks like he can get the job done competently for now.
– Thought this was a good example of the kind of subtle, smart reads Ron Hainsey makes in the defensive zone. If he goes for the puck here, maybe he wins the race and the ensuing puck battle, but if he doesn’t, he’s in no-man’s land and Brad Marchand is all alone in front. He identifies the potential danger, backs off, and lives to fight another day.
Hainsey played over 25 minutes in the second game of a back-to-back after 23 minutes on Friday. He finished the weekend even despite playing a combined 19-20 5v5 minutes against Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.