Not sure if you knew this or not, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have A Past. A vast one, sure, but they have a more recent past over the past decade or so, where they’ve developed the reputation you don’t need me to lay out in detail. In sum, they haven’t gotten it done in the biggest moments. More specifically, they’ve seemed to find their way to those moments with an impressive frequency, only to squander said opportunities at a rate of about 1-to-1.
More often than not, that past has contributed to creating more of the same, an ouroboros of self-consuming failure. Their history has led to vibes of “Oh no not this again,” and tightness rather than optimal play, and the team has found themselves adding to the pile of disappointment.
That reputation should, for once, help them in Game 6. Over the past two playoffs – the ones you would legitimately say they’ve blown it – the pressure has been solely on them. Of course they should’ve beaten Columbus and Montreal. Their opponent was playing with house money, and didn’t have to create, they were just happy to hang around and see if the hockey gods would deal them a break or two.
That won’t be the case Thursday night. By all accounts, the Lightning should win Game 6. They’re the two-time defending Cup champs. They’ve staked it all on being able to “flip the switch” when it matters most. They’re at home, with last change. Their coach has mostly avoided the Leafs credit, saying it’s on his team for giving away games. With all that, then, the onus is on them to perform.
So with the Leafs not bearing all the pressure in Game 6, and the reminders of their recent past there to provide them a kick in the ass, the table is set for the Leafs to at least push the Champs to the brink. The Lightning are expecting things to go well. For once then, the longer the game just stays close and they’re hanging around, the more Toronto can feel they’re having success, as opposed to seeing the chance to win getting away from them.
I expect another close hockey game.
Let’s look back at some Game 5 takeaways, as we set the stage for Game 6.
Explaining the start
I didn’t think the Leafs' first period was as bad as some other people (Nick Kypreos was not a fan of it on today’s podcast). Still, I did have a number of negative notes about their play, and their inability to handle the puck, so it took me awhile to figure out what I was seeing.
If you’re full of nervous energy, your legs work like crazy, but it’s harder to use your scalpel in all its intricate detail. The Leafs were getting touches and chances but couldn’t make a play, which makes sense in the context of nervous energy.
So while I had “down arrow” notes for William Nylander and Auston Matthews in the first period, over and over with the words “bobbled pucks” by their numbers, I should’ve seen it as a good sign they were around the puck and involved in the action over and over.
When the Leafs have failed in the past, the problem hasn’t been poor offensive touches, it’s been … not getting them at all. They’ve just quietly disappeared into the night. Those guys were involved from the jump (as much as possible with all the penalties), and it turns out that was a positive.
Jack Campbell’s Grade-A showing
As humans, we’re not great at changing our minds, so when Jack Campbell let in a couple goals in the first 10 minutes, most of us decided he was off, and that was bad news for the Leafs.
But, from when that second goal went in until the final buzzer, that may have been Jack Campbell’s best performance as a Leaf. On several occasions he just got a piece of brilliantly placed shots, namely a Nikita Kucherov wrister that he stayed up on (where many goalies would go down) catching it in the upper shoulder. None of what the Leafs had built this season was going to matter if they didn’t get goaltending in the post-season. The one thing that had to go right for them to have a chance, at least so far, has.
Physical play from less physical players
In the 2018 NHL season, 392 forwards skated in at least half their team’s regular season games. Of that group, Matthews finished tied for 377th in hits thrown per game, with a total under 0.3 per game. In his early seasons, nobody would’ve accused him of being a banger.
In Game 5 he logged seven hits, almost to the halfway mark of his total that full season. I thought about saying “the kid’s game has evolved,” but I’m gonna go with “the man’s game has evolved” for this one.
When he was bobbling pucks (and even hesitant to shoot, looking for perfect plays) in the early going, he stayed involved by being physical. He rammed Pat Maroon in the boards after the big Lightning fourth liner tried to treat Matthews as Ben Chiarot had the season before. He also ran Mikhail Sergachev (opinions on that hit vary, but that’s not the point here), and he caught Ryan McDonagh on the back-check with a solid bang moments before scoring the game winner. It was a huge step for a guy who struggled to find ways to be effective when he wasn’t scoring in the past.
Mitch Marner was second on the team in Game 5 with four hits, while the biggest hit of the night may have been thrown by Jason Spezza, who took a page from Corey Perry’s book of being effective as a former offensive juggernaut-turned-mucker.
Engagement in other areas outside scoring from scorers is huge for the Leafs.
The Leafs' “best pair”
However the season ends for the Leafs, Mark Giordano been a wildly impactful deadline acquisition. In Game 5 he was on in the dying minutes, protecting the lead, on top of being plus-two, and taking over PP1 (adding an assist there) when Morgan Rielly struggled to facilitate in the first period. They use Gio in all situations, and he’s had a steadying impact.
I also tweeted this thread on Justin Holl prior to Game 5, explaining why I believe the Leafs liked his Game 4 more than … well, everyone else who watched it.
The Leafs were rewarded for their belief in him, as he was huge protecting the lead, good on the PK, and even picked up a helper on the stretch pass to Ilya Mikheyev moments before William Nylander put Toronto up 3-2.
Out of the doghouse
Two goals in Game 4 weren’t enough to make everyone forget Nylander’s now-infamous pulled ‘chute on the forecheck, but Game 5 should sure do the trick. He took the puck across the net whenever he could – just about the best offensive play there is – and he took it there knowing he may get hit. He had the best chances of any Leaf, had great jump, and was elite on the entry preceding the Morgan Rielly goal.
Every time Leafs Nation is ready to break up with that guy, he reminds them why he’s so tough to quit.
One concern for the Leafs
One thing I’ve written down far more often that I’d like to in this series is “sniffing,” as in “sniffing for offence,” like a pig sniffs out a truffle. The Leafs LOVE offence, and sometimes it overwhelms their thought process.
I write that in my notebook when a Leafs player (almost always a forward) skates to the wrong side of a pile, hoping a bounce leaves them alone with the puck on the other side of it. It’s a “hope” play, looking for that offensive glory and it forgets the big picture. When it goes wrong, it can leave the opposition room – with the puck, mind you – going back the other way. In fact, that’s the more likely outcome of the two.
You don’t mind guys doing this when trailing by a few, because you need some bounces to come back in the NHL. But any time the game’s close, you’d like your guys staying on the right side of “maybe” plays.
The first half of this video is Leafs players in the D-zone seeing the play about to get going the other way, and flying out of the zone before being sure the thing is even going to get out of the zone. It’s hoping for a breakaway, while conceding numbers against.
The second half is more subjective, but a place I see a risk for the Leafs, as it’s burned them for quick strikes against in transition versus Columbus and Montreal.
When they start to get their opponent reeling, when they almost score over and over, it becomes at least four players up in the attack looking to finish the job, too far up for my liking, and sometimes five. It’s most concerning when up a goal or two, as in some of these clips. Nothing comes of it in these ones, there’s just a lack of thought about the play going the other way that could happen QUICK with a bad hop in some of these.
Again, some people may like the O-zone moments, I’d just like to see the D, or an F3, making sure there’s still two players up above it all in most instances. Anyway, starting with leaving the D-zone too early:
Jon Cooper mentioned that when they faced elimination en route to their last Stanley Cup, they stayed patient and gave up a whopping zero goals. They only scored one, and they’re content to do that.
Playing for that low percentage hop and chance against them means a high percentage of giving up something the other way, and the Leafs just can’t afford to be on the wrong side of the percentages in Game 6. It should be a lower scoring affair, and that’s OK. The Leafs have elite game breakers, they can finish, and they’ve got to be content that those opportunities will come, whether in the first period or fourth OT, rather than try to force them out of situations that put them at risk the other way