Maple Leafs Thoughts after Game 2: Power plays have been the difference

Victor Hedman led the way had a goal and three assists and Nikita Kucherov added a goal and two assists as the Tampa Bay Lightning rebounded to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 to even up their first-round playoff series 1-1.

When the puck goes to Nikita Kucherov on the half-wall on the power play, in theory he doesn’t have that many options. In theory, he can only: A) shoot it, or B) pass it. In theory. But when he’s on, it feels like he’s got 100 options. I’m of the belief he’s the best half-wall player in the NHL.

He can hit the one-timer, particularly a little cutter version that allows him to get slappers up high from in tight. He’s deceptive with his shot fakes, and he has among the game’s best vision, using all of the other four options to him on the rink. It seems we claim everyone who shoots the puck these days has a good release, which robs Kucherov of the credit he deserves. I’m not sure anyone can go from “there’s no chance he’s shooting it” to “uh-oh he shot it” faster than Tampa’s No. 86.

In Wednesday night’s Leafs/Lightning game, in which Tampa evened up the series, Kucherov’s play on the power play was a fundamental reason for the outcome. He had a goal and two assists for three points, two of which came with Tampa Bay up a man, as he helped the Lightning to a 3-for-7 outing, which was more in the line with their 40 per cent success rate in the final 10 games of the season.

Early on I thought Kucherov was hesitant to shoot the puck, but once he started shooting, everything opened up for him. These touches aren’t perfect (particularly the first), but just look at the different choices he makes, and what he forces a PK to contend with.

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Everything Tampa wants to do on the power play runs through him (which makes shooters like Steven Stamkos more dangerous), and so the Leafs have to figure out what to do about Kucherov after the Lightning get set up. The Leafs PK was so effective in Game 1 because it never let Tampa get to that point of their power play.

That will continue to be a big part of Toronto’s PK plan – making breakouts and zone entries difficult – but once they’re in-zone, I think their best bet is to not overcommit to the shot, and when it goes to Kucherov, find Tampa’s other forwards. I said he has a good one-timer, but he’s not Alex Ovechkin. If Kucherov kills the Leafs from there over seven games, the bulk of it is likely to be from sliding it in to Brayden Point, or across to Steven Stamkos, not smashing in a bunch of bombs. Let Jack Campbell know to commit to Kucherov shooting it, and to trust the Leafs’ PK to find the other available bodies.

11 other thoughts…

Toronto puts Tampa on the PP 12 times through two games

The easiest thing to do to help the kill would be, y’know, not having a parade to the penalty box. In the regular season the Leafs were 17th in penalties taken, averaging about 3.5 per game. Nearly doubling that against the skill of the Lightning isn’t awesome.

On the flip side, the Lightning were the second-most penalized team in the NHL this season, so this should draw the Leafs’ attention:

Toronto goes 0-for-4 on the power play after going 1-for-6 in Game 1. They’re now 1-for-10 total, and 0-for-9 at 5-on-4

The Leafs’ power play in their final 10 games was about 14.4 per cent, a steep drop for a team that finished first in the NHL with a 27.3 power play percentage on the season. They generated a TON on their power plays in the early part of the game, and so a wise and thoughtful stat-knower would tell you: the puck will go in at some point. They’re generating good shots from good spots and the other team’s goalie just did good goalie-ing, so be patient.

But at some point a couple need to go in, right? The Leafs have had too many “the numbers say the puck should’ve gone in more” moments in their recent playoff past.

Speaking of “the goalie”…

The Lightning’s three most important players were unbelievable

Andrei Vasilevskiy may have got scored on three times, but he was unreal in the first and on the PK, including robbing Timothy Liljegren with a desperation road hockey-style glove save. Victor Hedman tossed up a goal and three assists for four points, and was all-around awesome moving the puck up and out of Tampa’s end. I already mentioned Kucherov’s showing, and this is where the difference was made. These three guys on Tampa controlled a lot of the game. For the Leafs, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were good, William Nylander played well, but there’s more to give there.

Partially because…

Paging John Tavares

He wasn’t impactful, and they could sure use him to be.

Not everyone on Tampa Bay was great either though, even among their better players.

At even-strength the line of Palat-Kucherov-Stamkos got stuffed in a locker

In eight minutes of 5-on-5 ice heavily against the Matthews line, this Lightning trio were on for five shot attempts for, and 11 against, but more importantly, they had an expected goals percentage of 11.5 per cent. The Matthews group forechecked the heck out of the puck in Game 2, resulting in a lot of time where the Bolts’ best offensive line was left to stand around playing D on the un-fun half of the rink for them.

About that top line…

Game 2 was a reminder of why Michael Bunting has value on the top line

Not that I thought Bunting was good, in fact, I barely noticed him. But that he’s able to finish the sequence so perfectly embodied the best of that group – Matthews using his body for a takeaway and poking the puck to Marner, who makes a great set-up – and that line just needs a guy who can convert there. I expect better from No. 58 overall, but his goal proved his worth even in a ho-hum showing.

Not ho-hum? The Lightning’s pesky fourth line, even though they barely played.

Pat Maroon/Pierre-Édouard Bellemare/Corey Perry

They combined to draw three penalties (one by Perry and two by Bellemare), they scored once, and the shot attempts were 7-2 for Tampa Bay when they were on the ice. Perry also got to fall on Campbell, which I’m sure delighted him. They were way too relevant a group considering Maroon’s total time-on-ice was 5:30, Perry was over 11 minutes, and Bellemare was in the middle.

Somehow they find a way to contribute positively while barely playing:

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Not as impactful? The Leafs’ fourth line

The Leafs lines were in an absolute blender for most of the night, partially because the fourth line they started with — Kase/Blackwell/Simmonds — was an abomination statistically, with the numbers you see below being their ice time, then the shot attempts for while they were on the ice, the shot attempts against while they were on the ice, and that expressed as a percentage:

PLAYER

TOI

CF

CA

CF%

Blackwell

6:10

4

11

26.67

Kase

7:49

4

12

25.00

Simmonds

5:25

2

8

20.00

So that wasn’t great. What’s weird about the numbers though, is that I didn’t dislike Kase or Blackwell. I thought both played perfectly fine (and quite physically). In 5:25 of ice, Simmonds managed to take two bad penalties, including one which gave a notorious cheap shot artist (Corey Perry) a chance to fall on his goalie. The second came after Campbell stopped Kucherov on a breakaway to keep the score at 4-1 with 15 minutes to play, which all but ended the game when Tampa added another. There’s no way Simmonds is in Game 3 with Jason Spezza (and Kyle Clifford) sitting on the outside trying to get in. I like Simmonds and he’ll get back in. The rest will only help him.

Another guy the numbers sell short?

Jack Campbell was good

Despite giving up five, and not loving the Hedman goal with a second left in the first, Campbell made a lot of important saves to keep the Leafs relevant late. I thought he made at least a half-dozen stops he wouldn’t have made when he was struggling in the middle of the season, and he gave the Leafs a chance.

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On defence, one fringe Leafs defender stood out:

Ilya Lyubushkin did not look fun to play against

Loved Ilya Lyubushkin’s game. If he’s going to play like that the Leafs can’t take him out of the lineup. He was just so physical, battling for every inch, never backing down, and being miserable to play against. By the end of Game 2 Alex Killorn would probably have rather got a tattoo over road rash on his rib cage than have to play another shift after Lyubushkin the big D-man hit him so many times. Rielly was also up the ice on the rush a ton, which he’s obviously comfortable doing know since Lyubushkin sure won’t be doing the same on the other side.

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So big takeaway after two games?

The Leafs should feel good about how they stack up so far

If you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs, splitting at home isn’t a win, but it’s not some huge loss either, and the run of play should be encouraging. I thought they’ve been able to do the things they’re going to need to be able to do to have success, like getting hard forechecking, and good even strength play from the Matthews line. The Leafs D aren’t quick, but at 5-on-5 the Lightning forwards don’t seem like too much for them to handle. And hey, they’ve been able to get to Vasilevskiy.

It’s reasonable to call the Leafs underdogs now, with maximum five games left in the series, three of which could be in Florida. But it’s not like they’ve just been hanging on so far, worried about the game getting away from them. Special teams dictated the outcome in Game 2. If the Leafs can play with the same tenacity and energy they have through 120 minutes, where they’ve been the marginally better team, they’re on track to push the defending champs to their limits. That’s all you can do, and see if that group will just bend, or eventually break.

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