November 27 2013 11:15AM
As an early Christmas present, the Maple Leafs get to hit the hardest part of the schedule. Between now and the time Santa comes around, Toronto gets to play 15 games in 27 days, including four back-to-backs, five against current Western Conference playoff teams, and every other Eastern Conference playoff team except for Washington. If the margin for error was thin before, it's even thinner now. The Leafs have been banking points in November for precisely this purpose, this three-week stretch that could make or break the team's playoff fortunes.
It all starts tonight in Pittsburgh. After conceding six against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, James Reimer won't get a chance against a team he's done pretty well against. Don't sweat it. Like I've said many, many times before, don't pay too much attention to a goalie's numbers in a small sample of games against a particular team.
But the grind begins tonight, and this is the type of stretch where Randy Carlyle is going to be glad he has two goalies. Both will get an ample chance to prove themselves in the next three weeks.
|Corsi Close %||52.8% (8th)||43.2% (29th)|
|5v5 GF/60||2.29 (12th)||1.99 (19th)|
|5v5 GA/60||2.09 (13th)||1.99 (11th)|
|PDO||99.0 (20th)||102.2 (4th)|
|5v4 GF/60||8.21 (5th)||8.41 (4th)|
|5v4 SF/60||61.8 (4th)||59.9 (7th)|
|4v5 GA/60||4.32 (4th)||5.81 (13th)|
|4v5 SA/60||54.5 (21st)||63.5 (27th)|
|Penalty Differential||+12 (2nd)||-18 (29th)|
The most concerning number of all in my view, isn't the Corsi Close %, the Leafs lack of goals, or the dwindling save percentage on the penalty kill, it's the discrepancy between Pittsburgh's +12 penalty differential and Toronto's -18. That's more than one penalty per game difference between the two clubs, and frankly, too much has been off lately for the Leafs to continue taking minors.
Against Columbus, Jake Gardiner, Mark Fraser, Dion Phaneuf and James van Riemsdyk were the offenders, with the Leafs getting one powerplay to the Jackets' four. Washington got three powerplays to Toronto's one, with Mason Raymond, Dion Phaneuf and David Clarkson taking minors. Even at home to Nashville, Toronto conceded a 3-2 penalty discrepancy, with Kadri, Raymond and JvR receiving holding, hi-sticking and boarding minors.
Last season, Nazem Kadri was the top player in the NHL in terms of penalty differential, at +30. While he's led the team in penalties drawn, with 12, he's also taken 12 minor penalties, two more than last season. Joffrey Lupul, who leads the Leafs with a +5 penalties drawn/taken differential, is now out of the lineup.
I get the Leafs want to play with an edge, but I'm not sure this is what makes teams more effective. You need a penalty kill that's nails to kill off this many minors, and right now the Leafs don't have that. Last season, the Leafs allowed 19 powerplay goals against in 48 games, and this season, they're already at 17 in 24 games played.
As mentioned, Joffrey Lupul looks to be out for a couple of weeks with a groin issue. Just going through Jonas Siegel's Twitter timeline (check it every morning for skate updates, as he's by far the best) it looks like Peter Holland is back in, while Jake Gardiner (?) is out (??):
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Mason Raymond - Nazem Kadri - David Clarkson
Jay McClement - Peter Holland - Nik Kulemin
Frazer McLaren - Jerred Smithson - Colt Knorr
Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
Mark Fraser - Cody Franson
Morgan Rielly - Paul Ranger
Reminder that a couple games ago, it looked like Morgan Rielly might be a scratch but he wound up going as a seventh defenceman. That's still a plausibility for tonight. I don't like that Carlyle has capitulated and put Fraser and Franson back together. Franson and Gardiner are an excellent pairing and complement each other's games well, and this looks to be an effort from Carlyle to try to rekindle the "magic" from that pairing last season that had a lot of hollow success.
A side note: Mark Fraser led the team with +18 last year but is a minus-2 so far this season. You know what we say about +/- being notoriously unpredictable?
As for the forwards, I like that Holland is coming back into the lineup, but I still think he should be on the top line. Nobody's really tried Bozak with Kulemin as a checking unit.
With Gardiner sitting, well, Chemmy from PPP had a pretty good rant on Twitter a little after 12:30, if you want to go back and check that during your lunch break. Turnovers do not indicate a bad defencemen, just as a high number of strikeouts does not make a poor hitter in baseball.
Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Pascal Dupuis
Jussi Jokinen - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Chris Conner - Brandon Sutter - Andrew Ebbett
Jayson Megna - Joe Vitale - Craig Adams
Kris Letang - Brooks Orpik
Olli Maatta - Deryk Engelland
Simon Despres - Matt Niskanen
You may have even heard of a couple of those guys.
The Penguins top line is the Penguins top line, and Crosby is such a dangerous player that he's turned Chris Kunitz into a potential Olympian (please please please no) as if Kunitz is the only player that could possibly do well with Sid.
James Neal's been back for nine games now, and that appears to have helped Evgeni Malkin's puck possession rates, far more than I'd have expected. Playing with some of the numbers on Malkin's page on ExtraSkater tells me that he's a 52.9% Corsi in games Neal has played, and 49.5% in games Neal hasn't. His WOWY (with or without you) page bears that out. That's somewhat surprising, since for the previous two seasons Malkin appears to be the major play driver on that line, at 2.4% Corsi points better without Neal than Neal was without him.
So some strange things in the water in Pittsburgh. Perhaps there's a slight effect because of deployment: Neal has a few more offensive zone starts than Malkin, and slightly lower quality of competition, but ultimately the discrepancy isn't enough to make me question why Malkin has been a relatively poor possession player without Neal this season. He's still got over 50% offensive zone starts, and faces weaker competition than Sid does. Fun. Still, these discrepancies sometimes don't need reasons, and maybe a larger sample of games will conceal the effect. Caught me by surprise when I was looking through Penguins numbers this morning, though.
As for the defence, Paul Martin, who played on the top shutdown pair with Brooks Orpik for last season and so far this, appears to be out 4-6 weeks. That bumps Letang up to shutdown duties.
Now, the danger with Pittsburgh against the Leafs top line is that Toronto's success comes from transition plays, but the Penguins skaters are the best in the league at keeping plays alive and wearing down opposing defences. Last time around, Crosby went up head to head against Dave Bolland, and Bolland isn't an option today for the Leafs, and I doubt Dan Bylsma will be a dear and let Carlyle control the matchup and get Holland out against Crosby all night.
(And a paragraph as useful as most goalie stats)
Jonathan Bernier and Marc-Andre Fleury. For a couple of years now, I've been a big craft beer drinker, which has led to some adverse effects: the first is that I can barely taste beer that isn't real well-made, or super strong anymore. While I used to be content with any sort of IPA, now I need to drink one loaded with hops to enjoy it. I've also moved onto stronger porters and stouts, beers I didn't at all enjoy when I first got into it. The worry is that's also seemed to happen with coffee. I've examined some of the fancier coffee joints around my neighbourhood, with lots of good fair trade dark blends (//Vancouver), and now when I toss my cheap, store-brand coffee into the machine each morning, it tastes like hot water and food colouring. I guess the moral of the story is don't get too comfortable with great goaltending.
The Leafs and the Penguins drop the puck at 7:30 Eastern, on TSN. Yes, the NHL still has games on TSN for the rest of this season and playoffs. Don't forget to Streakcred.