Game #31 Review: Toronto Maple Leafs 1 vs. Edmonton Oilers 0

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Curtis McElhinney of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs got out to a very early lead for the second consecutive night before leaning on a first-star performance from Curtis McElhinney the rest of the way, marking just the tenth time in NHL history that a team has scored in the first minute of the game and won 1-0.

Your game in ten:

1.  The Leafs entered the year with what was perceived as among the thinnest organizational goaltending depth in the league as far as their second-third-fourth strings. Yet here we are in early December, and they’re getting the best goaltending in the AHL via the tandem of Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard, and the best goaltending in the NHL since November 1st thanks to Frederik Andersen and some good backup starts by Curtis McElhinney (versus Boston on Nov. 11 and tonight against Edmonton, specifically).

Bad goaltending was a disease that plagued all of the JFJ, Fletcher 2.0, Burke and Nonis era Leafs. No more. Combined with his track record in New Jersey, it’s safe to say Lou Lamoriello knows what he’s doing at the goaltending position.

2.  Kudos to Curtis McElhinney. A good deal of fans and media were laying out their predictions for when Calvin Pickard would overtake him on the depth chart after the early-October waiver claim. It rarely looks pretty with McElhinney, but he battles like hell and never says die on a play. He owed his post and cross-bar a tap (or two) in this game, but he was huge on a couple of McDavid breakaways, the 5-on-3 kill, and a number of scramble plays right on the doorstep that required second or third saves. 41 stops are the most he’s made in a Leaf uniform.

3.  It was a very difficult couple of games this weekend to assess from a stats/possession/shots point of view. Early goals – especially very early multi-goal leads like in Pittsburgh – dramatically change the complexion of games in a league as tightly-contested as the NHL. There’s a lot to be said for simply finding ways to win and getting the job done in a variety of fashions. The Leafs definitely leaned on their luck and McElhinney more than they did on Frederik Andersen on Saturday as far as the high-quality chances they gave up. That said, 11 shots came on the Edmonton power plays alone.

This was the 10th time the Leafs have allowed 35+ shots in their 11-3-1 stretch, but they opened the scoring in eight of those games.

4.  Further, the Leafs are averaging more shots against per 60 at even strength than any other team outside of Randy Carlyle’s Ducks over that span (34.8/60). What’s interesting, though: They’re giving up the 11th fewest high-danger scoring chances. As mentioned, they also scored first in eight of those ten 35-plus shots against games.

Shots against are up and the goaltending has been great, but they’re also scoring first and limiting scoring chances a little bit better with the lead. This win over Edmonton wasn’t a great example of that, though.

5.  Part of it is that the Leafs have been safer with the puck through the neutral zone – as of December 8th, Mike Kelly tracked them as dumping the puck in the second most in the league post-October, and improving from 29th to 9th in neutral-zone turnovers — and that is reducing the amount of odd-man and overall rush chances against they’ve been giving up during the hot streak.

Playing with the lead and protecting the house better/limiting shots to the outside can also go a long way in helping a goalie get into a groove. But they’re not generating enough sustained offensive zone shifts when in possession of the lead. In this game, they retreated into a shell with a light forecheck pretty quickly and the Oilers were breaking the puck out and coming through the neutral zone with relative ease.

In the second and third periods, we were allowing them to come through the neutral zone with too much speed and [McElhinney] had to make a bunch of great saves because of that.

– Ron Hainsey

This is part of the process of finding balance over an 82-game season; despite the positive results early in the year, the Leafs were very shoddy in their own end and turning pucks over routinely through the neutral zone.

6.  Liked the decision to go with William Nylander at center after he played just the one shift in the third period versus Pittsburgh due to the shortened benches/matchup games with Mike Sullivan rolling Crosby-Malkin-Crosby-Malkin over the boards. Babcock trusts Patrick Marleau at center and has shifted him over in Matthews’ absence this season, but he called a good audible there by asking Nylander where he wanted to play and giving him the opening shift of the game. It paid off right away with the goal, and Nylander showed good jump early. The other factor is that Kadri’s line had a good night up against Evgeni Malkin’s line in Pittsburgh and Babcock no doubt preferred to keep Marleau – Kadri – Komarov intact for the McDavid matchup.

7. Through 31 games, the Leafs have now won three of five games with their backup in net and six of seven games that have gone to OT/shootout. At this date last season, they were 1-6 in extra time and 0-5-1 in backup starts. That’s a huge swing, to say the least. The Leafs have collected 19 points of a possible 24 in those games versus nine out of a possible 26 last season.

There was a lot of talk about whether the team could stay healthy or score at the same rate as last year, but probably not enough attention given to just how much they were hurt by (and were likely to improve in going forward) backup starts/extra-time games.

8. This is an interesting stat: According to Corsica, since the start of 2016-17, the Leafs have allowed just one 5-on-3 goal against. With their full two-minute kill in this game, they’ve now allowed just the one in around 15 and a half minutes of 3-on-5 time dating back to October 2016, and haven’t conceded one yet this season. As far as a goals-against-per-60 rate on 5-on-3 kills, that’s the best in the NHL over that time frame.

How meaningful that stat is, I’m not sure, because there is a good deal of luck that goes into it, such as the post Leon Draisaitl hit that bounced off of the back of McElhinney and stayed out. Despite spending almost the entirety in the d-zone after one initial clear off the faceoff, the Leafs survived. 5-on-3s are about taking away the automatic goal on the backdoor play, putting bodies in shot lanes and getting goaltending + luck, and the Leafs managed to pull it off on a huge full-two minute kill late in the second period of this game.

9. As far as 20+ minute games by Leaf forwards this season, Auston Matthews leads the team (as he should) with five, but there’s actually someone tied with him: Zach Hyman, who played 20+ minutes just twice in 82 games last season and is already up to five this year. He’s playing about the same minutes on the PK and nearly a minute more per game at even strength. Most forwards that are second on their team in ice time are playing the power play and Hyman isn’t; that said, as the second-most played forward on the team (all situations as well as even strength) and permanent linemate of Matthews, 40 points should be the bare minimum ask for a player in that kind of role, especially on a team with the offensive weapons and overall depth of the Leafs up front. With his game-winning goal in this game, Hyman is just a shade below a 40-point pace (assuming a full 82) with 15 through 31.

10. Last but not least, as a long-time season ticket holder, congrats to all of the fellow TFC fans out there. It really does feel like the tide is finally turning in the sports scene in the city.


Game Flow: Shot Attempts


Game In Six


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