The Maple Leafs playing the LA Kings on Tuesday nigh–zzzzzzzzzzz!
This was one of the most boring Leafs games in a long while. Through the first 50 minutes, both teams COMBINED for 35 shots. People complain that it’s quiet in Scotiabank Arena, but the game was so boring, you could’ve taken a nap and not missed anything. Mike Babcock thought it was beautiful — most coaches loathe the high scoring games. He is in the 0.1% of people who would use that descriptor because it was the hockey equivalent of watching paint dry.
Here are my five thoughts from the snooooooooozefest.
1) Dermott Finding His Game
Right from puck drop, Dermott was ready to play. He’s definitely not a saviour, but as he finds his game, he’s making a noted impact for the Leafs. It’s no secret that the Leafs’ backend needs some help and consistency. Against LA, Dermott’s skills were on display, and it was quite refreshing.
On a few occasions, Dermott was a one-man breakout, escaping corners and making forecheckers miss. His edgework was exemplary and seeing controlled zone exits instead of dump outs and turnovers was a nice change.
Dermott didn’t even stop there. He led the rush a few times and took the puck right at the heart of the Kings defence, creating controlled zone entries and scoring chances. On the flip side, Dermott stood up in the neutral zone and at the blue line, maintained a good gap and played effectively in the defensive zone.
As Dermott continues to find his game, you would have to think he gets a strong look in Toronto’s top-four. With the exception of Jake Muzzin, he’s probably Toronto’s best rush defender, meaning he’d be effective in defending other team’s best players before they got in the defensive zone.
With the way Barrie and Ceci play, and especially the pairing of Rielly-Ceci, there will probably come a time in the near future where the Leafs will try Dermott in the top-4. I think Rielly would benefit from playing with Dermott, and considering how poor that pairing has been, the Leafs don’t have much to lose by trying Dermott there.
2) Matthews’ Inconsistency
Apart from *checks notes* one shift, where he had a tap in and an assist, you could not convince that Matthews even played tonight. Ray Ferraro said it best, in that he hadn’t said Matthews’ name more than 5 times last night. That just isn’t going to cut it. Matthews’ line was the only one that lost the possession battle, while the Tavares line was around 70%.
His entire line was invisible to the point where…I can’t even remember who their third linemate was. That is pretty, prettaaaaaay bad.
When you have the ability to just show up and score at a moment’s notice, that erases the poor game you’ve had in the average fan’s mind. Tonight is a perfect example. Matthews was wearing the cloak of invisibility for all but one shift, but it’s probably the only shift that *many* will remember. The conversation would be a looooot different if he doesn’t have that shift, and the Leafs lose the game. He didn’t contribute to anything offensive for the rest of the night.
Matthews has double digits goals this season and that’s great, but the Leafs aren’t going anywhere with that kind of performance from him. Coaches preach being good from start to finish, and it just hasn’t been the case with the Matthews for the majority of the season, thus far. He definitely has shown flashes of dominance and his elite talent, but he needs to be consistent within the context of one game, never mind over a span of games.
3) Offensive Zone Pressure
The Leafs had some good offensive zone pressure tonight. In the middle of the second period, over a span of three shifts, they outright dominated the Kings. The Leafs forced Los Angeles to taste a little bit of their own medicine: get in, cycle, possess the puck, wear the other team down. The result was some offensive zone possession shifts that would be considered “heavy” hockey, which is what Babcock likes.
While this is very positive, the Leafs generated almost nothing from these shifts. It’s a good step that the Leafs are playing with possession in the offensive zone, but that possession needs to eventually generate something. It was three shifts of puck possession on the perimeter of the rink and making the Kings defend. This is effective because it’s pretty difficult to get scored on when you have the puck in the other team’s zone, but you only force teams to really defend when you generate chances off the cycle, the way LA did in their Cup days.
Right now, the Leafs are most dangerous off the rush. Their next step, offensively, is to turn those types of possession-dominant shifts into consistent cycles of: puck recovery, cycle, scoring chance, repeat.
If the Leafs can become dangerous off the cycle, particularly with how some players can shoot the puck, it will create a more well rounded, balanced attack.
4) Offence to the Rescue
For 59 minutes of this game, the Leafs offence was nowhere to be found. For about 33 seconds in the third period, the stars decided to wake up and it was enough to steal two points for the Leafs. With a few good o-zone shifts, Johnsson made a great play to keep the puck alive at the net front and all Matthews had to do was tap it in. On nights where your team isn’t generating much, all it takes is one or two guys with the scoring touch to be the difference. Matthews got the go-ahead goal, and on the very same shift, Nylander sealed it.
The second goal was Nylander magic. It started with a great backcheck where he caused a turnover at the blue line. That’s for all the defensive doubters, because there are far too many. Nylander has been really good on the forecheck lately and has had more success stripping pucks off of stick. With the turnover he created, both Nylander and Matthews transitioned to offence. After an early two-on-one pass, Nylander got it back and proceeded to take Quick to school with a backhand shelf job.
It was the type of shift you’re used to seeing from Nylander and it started with his backcheck.
When you’re the Leafs and you’re this inconsistent within a game, sometimes your best players rescue you. It certainly does not happen every night, and it is most definitely playing with fire, but the Leafs — including their biggest culprit in Matthews — got away with it against LA.
Let’s just say, this is not a strategy I would be deploying, depending upon, or encouraging on a long-term basis.
5) Special Teams
It is no secret that the Leafs have been poor on speciality teams lately. Their power play is 20th in the NHL while their penalty kill sits 26th. That just isn’t good enough for a team with this much talent.
However, LA’s power play and penalty kill are bad in their own right, both bottom-three in the NHL. Coming into the night, the Kings were 9% on the power play…NINE! The first half of the first penalty kill, the Leafs had more chances than the Kings, and with the Kings generating no zone time. Queue a net being knocked off, Mitch Marner has to take a draw and, well, the puck ended up in the back of the net.
The Leafs have given up three power-play goals in the two games, which is not good.
Here’s the most alarming statistic: the Leafs have scored nine power play goals, but they’ve given up 14. Only the Kings and the Red Wings have given up more goals on the penalty kill than Toronto. Both of those teams are rebuilding, so that’s not company you want to find yourself in.
The Leafs have given up the 2nd most goals against in the Eastern Conference, and rank 7th in power play goals, behind teams with less talent. Losing the special teams battle is a recipe to miss the playoffs, and with the star-studded power play the Leafs have, there’s no excuse it shouldn’t be top-five in the league for the entire season. Boston’s power play, while enjoying a shooting percentage high, is 31%, almost double Toronto’s at 17%.
With Tavares back, I would think his insertion onto the top power play unit will help get it going. The penalty kill is giving up far too many chances right now, and something needs to change.
Nic Petan was good and the Leafs will need to make a move with Hyman coming back. I’m sure they’d like to move him to a team where he’d get a chance. I’m not saying I want the Leafs to always play this way, but to have success in a game that wasn’t high event, and not have massive pensive lapses, is a positive.
I hate to say it, but that type of neutral zone and defensive play wins games in the spring. The offensive zone pressure, as opposed to the one and done also has a higher success rate in the spring. It was a snoozefest, but at least they proved that they could be in a boring game and win that way.