It’s taken Phil Kessel a little bit to get going this season. He’s been the same guy. He’s taken four shots per game, is by far the most active Maple Leaf in the neutral zone and, despite just two goals on the year coming in Tuesday’s game, had eight points. Six assists, and his 2.01 points per 60 minutes were behind just James van Riemsdyk on the Leafs.
The goals weren’t there. The shots were, and when shots happen, it means goals will come. Kessel wasn’t going to shoot 5.6% for the whole season. Sometimes it takes a little bit of luck to get going, sometimes it takes an insane, blind, whiplike pass from your linemate. Kessel scored a hat-trick in the Leafs 4-2 win Tuesday over Anaheim, and the Leafs came back from an early 2-0 deficit.
Neither team played well in the first period. The Leafs only managed two shots on goal (and one came from well outside the offensive zone), but Anaheim managed just six. The Ducks did convert late in the period off of breakdown by the Leafs’ fourth line that left Morgan Rielly left to cover three Ducks.
The Ducks would also score early in the second off some poor defensive zone play. Everybody just stood around and the Ducks beat everybody to pucks. Mathieu Perreault scored fairly easily from the slot and just like that it was 2-0. The fans were booing and they had every right to. The Ducks were probably lucky to be up 2-0, but the Leafs certainly didn’t show up to play a hockey game.
Commentators often like to look for turning points in games. Hockey… is an easy sport to do this. Two-goal comebacks are less rare than you might expect (as I’m writing this, Edmonton, Florida and Vancouver had all come back from two-goal deficits) because when a team falls behind, the balance of strategies favour the trailing team and they start to play less conservatively. In sports, aggressive play is generally the best play. Geeks that analyze sports have gone to every end to point out that punting the football on fourth and short or sacrifice bunting a runner to second are decisions that in the long run, cost the team. The dump-and-chase in hockey is the analogue to punts and bunts, yet the Leafs have this brilliant strategy when the score is tied to:
- Have the defenceman fire a puck across the neutral zone
- Have a winger on the far side deflect the puck into the zone
Nobody enters the zone with speed. The Leafs love to give the puck back to the opponent when the score is tied. On rare occasions, they’ll out-hustle the defenders to a loose puck and set up a chance for a shot attempt, but the Leafs don’t nearly recover the puck enough to make dumping it in worth it.
Nothing happened between the Leafs going down 2-0 to pump up the team. They escaped a long 3-on-5 situation by the skin of their teeth, but eventually got it going when they played with more urgency. After (surprise) a failed dump-in attempt by Cody Franson, Kessel decided to it it on his own, foregoing the traditional pass to the blue line and instead gaining the line with a tonne of speed. The Leafs established possession in the Anaheim zone easily, leading to this goal:
The Leafs carried the puck into the Ducks zone just 12 times in the first period, and none of the rushes were real dangerous. Kessel’s rush leading to the first goal was the team’s 8th already in the second period, and David Bolland’s leading up to the Dion Phaneuf goal was the Leafs’ 10th:
Sometimes you just have to play with a little urgency. Kessel’s second and third goals both came off of odd-man rushes, rare breakdowns on a usually stingy Ducks team. James van Riemsdyk could have iced it with a penalty shot late in the third period, but Jonas Hiller stopped him. The Ducks had 13 attempted shots between than and the end of the game (the Leafs had none) but none beat Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs held on.
WHY THE LEAFS WON
During the second intermission, a few Leafs writers in the pressbox, evidently without popcorn or donuts to tide them over, started snarking about analytics because that’s the way to respond to something you don’t understand.
The Leafs shooting percentage will regress to the mean this season. It doesn’t mean that will happen all in a game, or that the Leafs will shoot well below 10% for a chunk of games until the percentages decide that they’ve normalized themselves out. It is simply the law of large numbers, and the key in there is “large”. The same people that believed the Leafs shooting percentage was unsustainable last season also believed the Ducks’ goaltending was. Something had to give Tuesday.
When the Leafs win, it isn’t always because they have outwitted the PDO demon once again. In this case, it was because the Ducks and coach Bruce Boudreau had a monk-like commitment to a flawed dump-and-chase strategy, matching the Leafs ineptness in the neutral zone in the first period and generating absolutely nothing of their own.
The Leafs opened the game up in the second and the Ducks didn’t, and they couldn’t generate anything at the end of the game despite Leafs defenders sitting back and giving the Ducks tonnes of space to walk right in.
I mentioned in the game thread that the Ducks are third in the NHL in shots per 60 minutes in 5-on-4 situations, and the Leafs are doing pretty poor in that regard. I did not see anything Tuesday night that showed me that the Ducks shooting percentage on the powerplay is an anomaly, but that’s probably because the Leafs held the Ducks to just two shots in 5:06 of time. I’ve watched every Leafs 4-on-5 situation over the last 24 hours and can confidently say that the Leafs were pressuring the Ducks point-men very well and giving them very little space to move in. The only time Anaheim’s powerplay looked dangerous at all was in the 1:27 of 5-on-3 time that led to… one shot on goal.
- Despite the Leafs getting out-shot 6-2 in the first period, the shots were even at 21-21 at even strength at the conclusion of the game.
- Bit of a quiet night from Joffrey Lupul, who’s played some of the best hockey of his career recently. He was held without a shot and was particularly quiet in the neutral zone. Be interested to look at his shot differential numbers tomorrow.
- Best Leafs defenceman was Jake Gardiner. He played 21:31, more than anybody on the Leafs except Dion Phaneuf. I noticed a couple of instances where they were paired together.
- I worried about the Ducks third line this morning, but they were a non-factor. Saku Koivu, Daniel Winnik and Andrew Cogliano combined for just two shots, and both were beyond 50 feet.
- Finally, Kessel sent 24 kids and families from Childhood Cancer Canada to a suite at the Air Canada Centre Tuesday. Kessel’s a cancer survivor, and he scored a hat-trick.