Why the Maple Leafs are in a good spot heading to Game 3

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe praises his team's five-on-five defence through their first two games on the road against the Bruins due to their pressure on the puck at all areas on the ice but is now focusing on defending home ice.

After losing a lopsided playoff game, it can be tough to sell your team, and yourself, on the idea that you don’t need to vastly alter your game plan in reaction. But surely it’s how Sheldon Keefe must’ve felt after the Toronto Maple Leafs lost 5-1 in Game 1 against Boston. In that game, the Leafs controlled good stretches of the action, Boston’s goalie was spectacular, and basically every little thing that could go wrong did.

In Game 2 with the same lineup, the same game plan, and carrying a similar amount of the play, the Leafs got the result they were after. And suddenly, the coaching staff would’ve found themselves on the plane back to Toronto after getting the split in Boston thinking “Boy, this series is there for the taking.”

The Bruins have a few things going for them, in general. They’re responsible, and don’t give up many odd man rushes. They protect their net-front well, and they have two of the league’s 10-best goalies. But after David Pastrnak, they’re a little lighter on the high-octane offence — finishing 14th in goals for this season — which doesn’t quite allow them to take full advantage of Toronto’s weaker D-corps.

With that, the Leafs haven’t spent a ton of time in their own zone, and thanks in no small part to Auston Matthews, the numbers have bent their way. In Game 2, the Leafs led the slot-shot battle 20-9, the high danger scoring chance category 22-13, and led in expected goals 4.86 to 2.46. Again, they barely changed their plan, but the hockey gods were just a little less cruel and they managed to score just enough to come out of Boston with a split.

This is why the Leafs’ coaching staff must feel like the series is more winnable now than it may have been a few days ago. The context is that they earned the split without William Nylander, who is a crucial part of the Leafs’ offensive weaponry and is likely to suit up by at least Game 4. They’ve also done it without Mitch Marner recording a point and being a minus player, and with Morgan Rielly playing more like Clark Kent than Superman, a form he’s been known to adopt in the post-season. Jake McCabe doesn’t typically turn the puck over this often. 

Frankly, you can go through a lot of Toronto’s lineup and say “I know that guy’s a better player than this, he’s got more to give.” Think of their entire D-corps and ask yourself if anybody’s been noticeably great. I’m going to guess you’ll go 0-for-6 looking for a “yes” there. Certainly they’ve got some good players who can be better.

And I’d find this encouraging if I were a coach. It went well enough through two games, and there’s reason to think it should go better if a vast swath of their important players can find the better versions of themselves.

A few more thoughts:

1. Calle Jarnkrok is a weirdly important cog for the Leafs, in that he makes any unit he’s on more reliable. His line was good in Game 2 (poor Nick Robertson got robbed of a goal for them), but he was also great as part of a defence-only line Keefe has been using in key D-zone situations where Jarnkrok gets out there with David Kampf in the middle and Connor Dewar on the wing. You can see Keefe using that to protect leads throughout playoffs.

Jarnkrok is at roughly 60 per cent expected goals through two games, and that’s not apples to apples with the other Leafs forwards. He’s been playing with Robertson and Pontus Holmberg and Kampf and Dewar and has a team-low O-zone start percentage of 7.7 per cent. Jarnkrok makes their penalty kill better, he plays the F3 role perfectly, and he just generally matters for Toronto.

2. On that note, when mentioning Kampf and Dewar we should also mention Ryan Reaves, as the Leafs controlled the shot attempts 12-5 when that trio were on the ice Monday in about eight minutes of 5-on-5 action. All three are content to go north with the puck, get on the forecheck and stop the breakout, and just live in the offensive zone without forcing plays. It’s been a pleasant surprise for a line that, on paper, isn’t the sexiest combination.

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3. Marner’s play is the elephant in the room, in that he’s typically the one who jumpstarts other players, but I wonder if the Leafs need to find a way to get him going somehow. The problem is, I just don’t see how you take Max Domi away from Matthews the way those two have clicked the past month.

So, I think that means doing a lot more of what Keefe tried in Game 2. Find Marner more random, situational shifts with Matthews when you can, and if Nylander is playing in Game 3, include both those guys on the ice at the same time when it can work.

You’d love for Marner to be able to drive a line, and he absolutely can some nights. The Leafs won’t have a deep playoff run in them unless he excels, so it’s worth giving some attention to finding a way to get Marner going.

4. The Bruins have scored three power play goals in two games (partially due to some spectacularly dumb penalties), and I’ve already said there haven’t been any Leafs defencemen who have played great through two games. TJ Brodie has been a very important penalty killer for the Leafs — he led the blue line in PK time per game this year — and you’re going to need him in the post-season at some point.

Rest is OK, but you don’t want him to get rusty in the press box. It’s probably time to get Brodie back into a game, either for Ilya Lyubushkin or Timothy Liljegren (in this series the former has the best underlying numbers among Leafs defenders, Liljegren the worst). I don’t think they’ll do it in Game 3 — coaches are hesitant to change winning lineups — but at worst he should get in by Game 4. Brodie can be a helpful player when he’s on his game, and if the Leafs are going to have a longer playoff run I think it has to involve the guy who played a ton for them this season. When Brodie plays a lot, they tend to win.

5. This isn’t quantifiable, but from a mental standpoint the way Game 2 played out should help the Leafs. For one, their goaltender showed real bounce-back from a tough Game 1 outing, and made some massive saves. That in itself was a show of mental fortitude Ilya Samsonov didn’t seem to possess earlier in the season.

But also, that game should make the Leafs more annoying. They were behind twice, on the road, down in the series, and didn’t roll over. They just played patient, waited for Boston’s mistakes, and were validated when some actually showed up. That’s a lot of positive reinforcement for good habits.

A Leafs tendency in the past has been to get frustrated when goals don’t come. To push, to cheat, and to eventually give up rushes back the other way. Game 2’s result should inspire belief in the Leafs, that they aren’t out of it when they’re down, and that they come come back without cheating the game. That should serve them will in a series where I expect most games to be within a goal at some point in the third period.

Toronto left Boston with the series tied at one. They’ve held the territorial edge in play, and still haven’t gotten great showings from many of their best players. That’s not the worst situation to be in, heading back to Toronto.

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