The accidental juggernaut – Why the Leafs deserved a win in Game 4

Photo via Claus Anderson/Getty via NHL Interactive

The first step I’m sure is making sure Mark Fraser is okay. He took an ugly puck off the face and bled his way to the hospital, where he was being checked for broken bones in his forehead

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It was an ugly scene, but there was something lighthearted about the way that Hockey Night’s Craig Simpson suggested that the member of the ice crew who scraped the blood into James Reimer’s net was somehow in the wrong.

Either way, we were left with a Maple Leafs rotation of five defencemen: Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, Ryan O’Byrne, and Jake Gardiner, who played one hell of a game and filled Fraser’s shoes defensively while providing offence.

When Gardiner joined Franson’s pairing, they instantly became Toronto’s best two defencemen, helping the Leafs carry the play through to the end of regulation and overtime. I mentioned in the game recap last night that it was the team Brian Burke had envisioned building—fast and strong on the puck. There was a sequence where Gardiner out-muscled Jaromir Jagr, and another sequence where Milan Lucic tried to cut to the net against Franson and ended up being ridden into the corner boards. (Franson and Lucic played together on the Vancouver Giants’ 2007 Memorial Cup-winning team)

The reputation that Gardiner and Franson have as offensive defencemen may be tested in Game 5. Gardiner is the best skater the Leafs’ have on defence, Franson is a good passer within the offensive zone and has a good shot, but he’s also thrown his weight around. They could be called “the Doghouse Pair”. Franson never seemed to fit into Ron Wilson’s lineup, and Gardiner never fit into Randy Carlyle’s.

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For a while in the OT there, it seemed as if the Leafs were rotating four defencemen.

I checked up Ryan O’Byrne’s minutes because, contrary to what you’d expect to happen when a defenceman goes down, the minutes of the sixth defenceman dropped. Before Mark Fraser’s injury, O’Byrne’s shifts averaged :44 seconds and he took 1:55 between shifts. After the injury however, O’Byrne averaged just :36 seconds a shift and spent 2:49 of elapsed game time on the bench between shifts. (Found using the TOI app

The fourth line had all but been glued to the bench since Colton Orr’s penalty and other than for the odd bit of faceoff insurance, Jay McClement and Leo Komarov took a seat (Komarov’s first and only OT shift was ended by David Krejci’s winning goal) so Toronto rolled three lines and four defencemen.

Depth? Where we’re going, we don’t need no depth. Before the Fraser injury (which also coincided with the fourth line being benched) the Leafs’ were out-chanced 14-11. After all that mess, they out-chanced Boston 9-4. I hate to look at any one particular event as being a “turning point” but the Leafs were clearly a better team when Gardiner moved up and the fourth line took a seat.

I mentioned in the recap that Gardiner was mostly matched against the Bruins’ third line of Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Jaromir Jagr. Those three had an awful game and I’m surprised Kelly took a shift in OT at all. There’s some talk that Jagr is still ailing from some illness, and in my view, as good as he was in the third game of the series, that’s as how bad Jagr was in the fourth.

Franson, meanwhile, in all his juggling around, drew the Boston first line primarily. He and Fraser did a fine job in the early going restricting scoring chances against and the Leafs’ net, but with Gardiner later, they started turning that Bruins attack around in the neutral zone and making consistent outlet passes leading to shots for the Leafs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the Leafs worked the shot clock when Fraser left the ice—he’s a bit of an offensive liability and Gardiner has all year deserved a shot at Top Four minutes.

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Here’s how the defensive pairings broke down in the fourth game, using’s H2H app and my scoring chance counts:

 Pairing For Vs. TOI Diff
3 36 4 6 14.2 -2
23 51 2 3 12.7 -1
4 45 3 2 9.5 1
4 51 4 0 6.4 4
36 51 2 0 1.8 2
4 23 1 0 1.4 1
3 51 1 1 0.9 0
3 45 0 1 0.5 -1

Those counts are rebound-adjusted. Franson and Gardiner were on the ice for a mid-second period sequence where James van Riemsdyk and Mikhail Grabovski were stopped by Tuukka Rask in quick succession. Until we know whether rebounds are on the goaltender or the defencemen or the forwards primarily, I’m not going to use them when breaking down individual matchups.

Note that the Leafs’ positive scoring chance differentials are all pairings with either Franson or Gardiner. The three negative pairings involve all the other defencemen the Leafs dressed to some degree. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson’s numbers look pretty bad because they had to go head-to-head against David Krejci with the same sort of regularity as Phil Kessel sees Zdeno Chara in Boston. It’s not an awfully fair fight, especially when Krejci and Milan Lucic are skating that well.

But that second half of the contest, that brief period-or-so where the Leafs played primarily four defencemen and nine forwards should lead to some optimism in the summer. The Leafs have the pieces to put together a roster that’s plus-possession and doesn’t need to rely on the goalies to win more games than they lose. Despite the 3-1 series deficit, the Leafs have hung with the Bruins in this series more than anybody could have expected. Except for the first game, the Leafs aren’t getting glaringly out-shot or out-chanced, but they hadn’t controlled the flow of the game like they did when Franson and Gardiner were put together. Everything sort of fell into place. Tyler Bozak went down to the third line where he belongs, Nazem Kadri up to the first where he belongs, and Mikhail Grabovski was allowed to skate past the red line.

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  • Jeremy Ian

    Great job Cam. I’ve been a huge supporter of Gardiner this season, and he looked fantastic with Franson. Hoping to see Gardiner get 1st Unit PP time and top 4 minutes in the future, along with Kadri getting 1st line minutes.