Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are probably feeling a little nervous right now.
Can you blame them? The last time the Maple Leafs won a playoff series, Tie Domi was on their roster. His son Max just wrapped up his sixth NHL season.
In the years since the Maple Leafs' last post-season series win there have been epic collapses and a run of winner-take-all games that have gone against them. Now, after the Habs and Leafs have sent their fans on an emotional rollercoaster over the past 10 days, the time has come to see what drama awaits in Game 7. After jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, Toronto spectacularly lost Games 5 and 6. The Leafs erased multi-goal deficits in the third period of both games only to lose both in overtime.
So now, Leafs fans are left asking themselves, can this team put the ghosts of playoffs past behind them and come out on the right side of an elimination game for once? Three years in a row, Toronto has dropped a winner-take-all game in the first round, but fear not Leafs fans, there’s reason for optimism this time around. Much of what hurt Toronto in its three straight do-or-die losses shouldn’t be an issue for them in tonight’s Game 7.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some statistical trends from the Maple Leafs' recent failed bids to advance to the second round and why this team is better positioned to do it than the previous three iterations.
Low shooting percentage and low save percentage. One is trouble in a single-elimination game, both are deadly. Toronto scored on just under four per cent of its shot attempts in non-elimination games in the playoffs from 2018-2020, but that number dropped to just over 2.5 per cent in the two Game 7s against Boston and the Game 5 against Columbus last season.
Auston Matthews is stuck on one goal in this series despite having a playoff-high 34 scoring chances. The next closest player in this series is teammate Mitch Marner, who is stuck on zero goals, with 21 scoring chances. Matthews scored on 13 per cent of his scoring chances in the regular season, but is sitting on 2.9 per cent right now. To say this duo is due would be an understatement. Whether they find the back of the net tonight remains to be seen, but the process has been solid. If you believe in the law of averages you should be optimistic, especially about Matthews' chances of lighting the lamp in this game.
As for Toronto’s goaltending, it performed well enough in those non-winner-take-all games over the past three playoffs, posting a .921 save percentage. In the three do-or-die games, it's been .876. Frederik Andersen’s performance in those games left a lot to be desired, but Andersen won’t be in the Maple Leafs' net tonight -- Jack Campbell will and he has shown no signs of imploding under pressure.
Campbell has allowed fewer than two goals per game in the series against Montreal and has a .937 save percentage. If not for his stellar play in the first period of Game 6, stopping all 15 shots he faced, the Maple Leafs might not have even reached overtime. While there is no sample to draw on for how Campbell will fare in the highest pressure game of his career, there is also no history of poor performance either. Goaltending should not be an issue for the Maple Leafs in this game.
Plays Under Pressure
The deeper teams get in the playoffs, the less available ice there is to make plays. Teams dump pucks in more often as a result. The data shows this year-over-year.
The same thing has happened in the Maple Leafs' recent single-elimination games. The Maple Leafs were not built to play this style of game from 2018-2020 and while they still thrive playing a puck possession game, this iteration is better equipped to handle a tighter checking game.
In the Leafs' winner-take-all games against Boston and Columbus, they saw their dump-in rate -- how often they dumped the puck in while entering the offensive zone -- climb from 48 per cent to 52 per cent. A modest increase, but an increase nonetheless. More concerning, the Maple Leafs only recovered 34 per cent of those dump-ins and failed to produce a single scoring chance as a result of a successful forecheck play. Their opponents had no problem playing a heavy game against them, as Boston and Columbus combined for 11 forecheck chances.
Last season, the eventual series-winner by Columbus came from a successful Blue Jackets forecheck that caused a turnover, leading to a Zach Werenski goal from the blue line.
In 2019, Boston scored twice in Game 7 by pressuring Toronto low and forcing turnovers in the offensive zone. In 2018 Boston scored three times off the forecheck capped by David Pastrnak’s goal that gave the Bruins a late 6-4 lead.
This Maple Leafs team should be better able to handle dump-ins at both ends of the ice. While the Leafs are by no means a dump-and-chase team, when they did dump the puck in this season they recovered just over 41 per cent of them, which ranked first in the NHL. Toronto finished the regular season second in goals scored off the forecheck. A prime example of their ability to generate offence this way came on Jason Spezza’s goal in Game 6 as William Nylander forced a turnover off the stick of Joel Edmundson.
Defensively, Toronto is one of only four playoff teams to have not allowed a forecheck goal off a dump-in to this point.
While Nick Foligno, who coincidentally scored the empty-net goal to clinch Columbus’ 3-0 win in Game 5 against Toronto last season, said after Game 6, “it’s time to stop with the cliches,” we’ll offer one up.
The first goal tonight is going to be important. Historically, scoring the first goal in a hockey game proves no more important than scoring the second. The scoring team has a roughly 66.7 per cent chance of winning the game whether it’s the first goal of the game or the second. However, in Game 7’s that win percentage jumps to .787 since 1990. Scoring first in a Game 7 proves to have more of an effect on the outcome of the game than it does in other games.
What makes getting off to a good start even more interesting is the lopsided stat lines we’ve seen in this series from the first period to the second. Montreal has outscored Toronto 4-1 in the first period while the Leafs have outscored the Habs 9-2 in the second. In Game 6, the Canadiens were by far the better team in the opening frame despite neither team scoring. It’s hard to say why each team has dominated these periods, but the numbers tell an interesting story.
The Canadiens have the advantage in the first period and the Maple Leafs have dominated in the second period. After the Game 6 loss, Mitch Marner said the Leafs didn’t come ready to play at the start of the game. It’s hard to say why or how that can happen in such a pivotal game but, thanks largely to Campbell's play, Toronto escaped the opening frame with the score tied.
If the series trend continues and the Canadiens get the better of the Maple Leafs in the first period, they will likely need to head to the dressing room with a lead. If not, given how dominant Toronto has been in the middle frame and how dominant it was in overtime in Game 6, Montreal might be tempting fate one too many times. Toronto is far better suited to come from behind, as we’ve seen in the past couple of games, than Montreal is.
It’s a cliche, but at least there’s statistical evidence to support it -- the first goal matters tonight, which is why starting on time will be of the utmost importance for both teams. The Canadiens have had no problem doing so in this series, the Maple Leafs will need to raise their game in this respect or risk suffering yet another humiliating playoff defeat.
So, for all the Maple Leafs fans out there scrolling with one hand and chomping their fingernails on the other, know this: The poor goaltending, lack of a forecheck, and propensity to panic in the defensive zone that has cost this team in previous winner-take-all games shouldn’t be an issue tonight. Does that guarantee the Leafs will win? Of course not.
After all, there’s a good chance this franchise may be cursed.