December 17 2013 12:29PM
For the first time, the Leafs will play against the division rival Florida Panthers, which acts as the first break in the schedule since the start of the month. After facing San Jose, Dallas, Ottawa, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh sequentially, the Leafs go up against the weakest link in that chain, despite the Panthers having won five of six.
Basically, the breaks in the schedule are not really breaks. The Leafs are playing their third game in four nights, and against a team that is arguably better than the record indicates. Toronto are still nursing their final playoff spot, three points up on the Ottawa Senators and four up on the New York Rangers, also teams that have turned it around after a slow start.
Still, with five of the next six games at home for the Leafs, they're in a position to take back some points. The worst part of the schedule is over, and the Leafs are still in a playoff position. Hey, positives.
|Corsi Close %||50.8% (13th)||43.1% (29th)|
|5v5 GF/60||2.13 (17th)||2.13 (17th)|
|5v5 GA/60||2.58 (26th)||2.17 (15th)|
|PDO||98.1 (25th)||102.0 (3rd)|
|5v4 GF/60||2.82 (30th)||8.24 (5th)|
|5v4 SF/60||39.5 (29th)||56.4 (6th)|
|4v5 GA/60||9.22 (28th)||7.11 (24th)|
|4v5 SA/60||56.1 (20th)||61.1 (26th)|
|Penalty Differential||+9 (4th)||-18 (30th)|
The Panthers are sneaky good at even strength, even if their wins and losses record doesn't show it. Part of their problem is that the more we're getting to know about former hotshot prospect Jakob Markstrom, the less he looks like an NHL-calibre goaltender. Per ExtraSkater (scroll down to on-ice stats) Markstrom put up a 5-on-5 save percentage of .881, while former Vezina winner Tim Thomas has managed a respectable .921 despite a slew of injuries. (Thankfully, the Leafs will not be facing Thomas tonight)
But still, if you were to count just even strength goals, despite the brutal goaltending, Florida would be a respectable 13-14-7. They should be hovering around the .500 mark, but they have a league-worst minus-17 goal differential in special teams situations. Not only are they bottom three in both 5-on-4 and 4-on-5 goals and goals against, respectively, but they're bottom third in the league in shots. They've made their own bed.
It's going to take a while for us to declare whether the new coaching regime has had much of an effect on the special teams, but despite winning five of their last six, they've scored no powerplay goals and have allowed six powerplay goals against in that stretch. That's the main concern for the Panthers going forward, even if they're perfectly fine at evens.
Some people have talked about the Panthers improvement in Corsi since the coaching change. Their score-close Corsi has been 53.4% since Peter Horachek came aboard and was 48.1% under Kevin Dineen, but by checking out the rolling possession graph (the graph excludes blocked shots from shot attempts, but it fits our purpose) the Panthers really came on towards the end of October:
They're an interesting case from a statistical perspective, and like New Jersey, ground zero for the shot quality debate. Their goaltending was plain brutal last season, but I thought they could compete for a playoff spot if they rode a healthy Tim Thomas all year. He's getting his opportunities now with Markstrom (deservedly) in the American Hockey League.
MAPLE LEAFS LINEUP
Second end of a back-to-back, so no morning skate. Last night's game was a shame. Sure, you're on the road against Pittsburgh, but they had six above replacement NHLers dressed and that's a game the Leafs frankly, ought to have out-shot. Based on that I wouldn't be surprised to see a few changes to the lineup, but as always, we'll know those close to game time. David Clarkson's suspension is over so he'll draw back into the lineup somewhere.
Here's what I expect in the way of forwards:
James van Riemsdyk - Nazem Kadri - Phil Kessel
Mason Raymond - Trevor Smith - David Clarkson
Joffrey Lupul - Peter Holland - Nik Kulemin
Frazer McLaren - Jay McClement - Jerry D'Amigo
Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
Jake Gardiner - Cody Franson
Morgan Rielly - John-Michael Liles
The extras are Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger and Troy Bodie in this lineup. D'Amigo had an excellent game a night ago and I'd hate to see him sit in favour of Bodie or Frazer McLaren, but we'll see. Carlyle always likes to get one soup can in the lineup, but obviously I'd prefer the D'Amigo - McClement - Bodie fourth line. Bodie can be a soup can like the rest of them, but he can also skate.
Trevor Smith played on the fourth line in Pittsburgh, but he's been with Clarkson and Raymond and they've played well and I wouldn't expect Carlyle to deviate from that. I'm still wondering where Peter Holland's place in the lineup is. For some reason I want to go back to Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson and get Holland back on the top line. I think he's the low-key, pretty-good-defensively centreman Kessel and JvR need. They don't need the extra offensive push Kadri gives them.
Today is also decision day for Morgan Rielly. The Leafs can decide to release him to Hockey Canada for the World Juniors. I think they'd be wise to keep him. He's probably been one of the team's best players over the last four games now that he's getting back into the lineup. One of my favourites, Hope Smoke, has a good post up today on the shift to a more possessive breakout, and Rielly's been a big part of that.
Tomas Flesichmann - Nick Bjugstad - Scottie Upshall
Sean Bergenheim - Aleksander Barkov - Brad Boyes
Tomas Kopecky - Marcel Goc - Jesse Winchester
Jimmy Hayes - Shawn Matthias - Krys Barch
Brian Campbell - Tom Gilbert
Erik Gudbranson - Dylan Olsen
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver
That Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert pairing is one of the best in the NHL, for my money. Gilbert was essentially chased out of Edmonton and bought out of Minnesota because he doesn't have a lot of obvious tools, with the important exception of "his teams are better when he's on the ice than when he's not". Campbell is one of the league's underrated gems.
Defensively though, it's that Gudbranson and Olsen pairing that handle the defensive zone minutes, even though Campbell winds up facing higher-level competition. I think it's still too early to dig back through game logs to figure out how Horachek is using his bench. I figure most of the top players in Florida are self-evident, so I'd suggest that their changes are mostly the system and not so much usage.
(and a paragraph as useful as most goalie statistics)
Scott Clemmensen versus… my guess is James Reimer. He was the only goalie at the optional skate, which is usually an indication that the absent goalie is playing that night. I'd be very surprised if the starting goalie was announced and it turned out to be Jonathan Bernier to play both halves of a back-to-back. I could only see that happening if there was some injury concern with Reimer.
I'm three hours behind so the hockey world is usually up and outraged about something by the time I've finished my morning routine. Today it was about the possibility that the Leafs might start the goalie with the 11th highest save percentage tonight rather than the 8th highest, which leads to the question: what sort of coffee is best to fuel outrage? I want to be caught up right away as soon as I wake up.
Tonight's game starts at 7:00 Eastern, and is on Leafs TV.