Coming into the season, expectations for the Leafs were (understandably) high. A playoff appearance — and one in which they acquitted themselves well — left fans optimistic and hungry for more. And then the Leafs started the season 7-2-0 and you could practically see the parade route getting planned.
Then, as one might have expected, the red-hot Leafs… cooled off. There was a somewhat miserable stretch of five losses in six games, and great consternation amongst fans. Luckily, that’s completely behind us, and the Leafs are currently riding a four-game winning streak.
Everything is good now, right? Right?
Well, at the very least, things are looking up. Let’s look at some of the reasons to feel good heading forward.
First, the Leafs are winning, which is good. (#JWB)
And during this current four-game winning streak, they won three games without Auston Matthews, which is encouraging. The fact that they’ve had to play three games without Auston Matthews is less good, but that brings me my next point: The Leafs last played on Saturday. Their next game is on Thursday, which means they’ll have had a four-day break between games.
Auston has been skating and is still day-to-day. For what it’s worth, the target date for his return to full practice is Wednesday. The break between games comes at a good time for him personally, but also for the team as a whole. We’re far enough into the season that players will be dealing with minor injuries here and there, and a maintenance day or two doesn’t hurt.
On top of the four-day reprieve between games, four of the Leafs’ next five opponents are out of a playoff spot. Which frankly, doesn’t mean a whole lot, especially with Carolina and Montreal slowly but surely starting to put it together, but the Leafs should be able to cruise by Arizona, you know?
Oh, and today, the Leafs called up Nikita Soshnikov and reassigned Frederik Gauthier. If you asked which of Sosh and Gauthier is a more effective NHLer, I’d say Josh Leivo. But then I’d say Sosh, especially a fully healthy Sosh.
So all in all, things are looking up.
But before you get too excited about the last four wins and the next handful of games, let’s tap the brakes and make sure we’re tempering expectations a little.
After all, how impressive was that win streak, really?
It started with a shootout win against the Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights are doing better than anyone could have guessed, and at some point they’re going to fall off, but the Leafs had total control of this game after the first period, as you can see from the chart below (courtesy of Corsica).
In fact, they were totally in control of this game all the way until the second half of the game, at which point Vegas clawed their way back all the way into it and forced the game to a shootout — which, luckily, the Leafs did win.
The next game against Minnesota, a 4-2 win, was thanks to Frederik Andersen getting the team’s collective ass out of trouble again and again. Like, the Wild peppered him with 37 shots on goal. (On the flip side, the Leafs managed… 19.) It was their first Auston-less game, and while Josh Leivo was one of the more effective forwards that night, the shot attempt chart still looked like this:
To be perfectly clear: the blue line is Minnesota. Yeah. Not a win to be proud of, really, unless you’re Freddie. If you’re Freddie, then be proud as hell of that win because it was basically all you.
The following game was the first of a back-to-back against the Bruins, and in terms of underlying numbers, the Leafs’ best game of the four.
In terms of the eye test… It didn’t look like the Leafs were getting absolutely shelled by Boston, so we’ll go ahead and say that it was the best to watch as a fan, too.
(Disclaimer: I myself didn’t #watchthegame, as I was watching a Brahmas game at the time, but I’m told by reliable sources — thanks, Hayley — that this is the case.)
Boston isn’t the boogieman for Toronto that they were a few years ago, and right now they’re struggling with injuries. But to be fair, the Leafs were missing Auston Matthews. Might be biased, but I’d rather be missing Backes and McQuaid than Matthews, and the Leafs played a good game and were rewarded with a good result.
The second night of the back-to-back wasn’t pretty in terms of shot differential, as a Leafs goaltender once again put the team on his back. This time though? It was Curtis McElhinney with the virtuoso performance, making 38 saves in the win.
See, the Leafs were out-Corsi’d real good, and for the third time in four games, they won a game they really had no business in winning.
Here’s the thing: In some ways, there’s nothing all that impressive about this winning streak. For one thing, it’s just four games. That’s nothing. That’s a week and a half’s worth of wins. For another, the Leafs really didn’t look all that good during most of it.
But good teams find ways to win, even when they shouldn’t. Not all wins are pretty and satisfying. Sometimes, you win a game because you played a good team game. Sometimes, you win a game because the other team plays poorly. Sometimes, you win a game because your goalie stands on his head while the rest of you look like you just put on skates for the first time.
They all count the same in the standings. If the wins are still coming ugly by the second half of the season, then we’ll start worrying. For the time being, though? #JustWinBaby.