The Toronto Maple Leafs won their first back-end of a back-to-back on Saturday night. Having lost the first game, though, it was all more or less washed out in the grand scheme of things. On the second night of a home-and-home with Buffalo, the Leafs grabbed an overtime win, relying heavily on their goaltender to make some terrific saves.
Here are my five thoughts:
1) 5 Stars For Freddy
The Leafs won the shot battle on Saturday night, but lost in the realm of expected goals. Buffalo had a ton of chances from high danger areas and Frederik Andersen was up to the task. His cross-crease glove save on Connor Sheary was *quite* something, although, with puck sensors, that might have counted as a goal.
That’s a conversation for another day, because it was the save of the night.
On multiple occasions, the Leafs were scrambling in their own end and Andersen was called upon to make a difficult save. Not only that, but Andersen also did a great job killing plays when things seemed to be getting away from the Leafs, limiting his rebounds and getting whistles. This is the type of calming presence that a top-tier goaltender has on his teammates, allowing them to win on nights they only score twice.
Saturday was a spectacular evening from Andersen, and it was good to see his teammates score enough to win.
2) The Fatigue Effect
Both teams were playing on back to back nights with the same amount of travel. And while no team is inherently favoured, the home team tends to get a small advantage thanks to last change and the in-arena atmosphere (which shouldn’t really count in Toronto).
On Saturday, both teams looked pretty fatigued right off the bat, with the first period being a relative snoozefest. It was as if both teams were playing timid and waiting for the other to make a mistake. That made for a pretty boring game to watch, that is, until the stars started skating.
The third period wound up being rather entertaining. It seemed pretty back and forth, with chances at both ends and more in-game flow than the first two periods. On many occasions during the third, I noticed the stars of the game making plays, using their speed and creating chances. Carter Hutton was pretty leaky, letting pucks get through him a few times, and that made for some exciting play in the crease.
On the whole, you could tell both teams were playing tired, with mental mistakes allowing for some high danger scoring chances.
3) Nylander’s Play at Both Ends
This was a *helluva* game from William Nylander. As hockey players say, he was “buzzing.”
Nylander was electric with the puck on Saturday night, making plays in the dangerous areas, driving the net, and finding teammates in open space. On the power play, he drove down the flank, headed right to the crease, and put a backhand through Hutton.
When he’s doing these types of things, and using his speed to win pucks, he’s incredibly dangerous.
Without the puck, I don’t think Nylander gets the credit he deserves. On multiple occasions against the Sabres, he tracked back and broke up plays in the high danger area. He was in good spots in the defensive zone and supported the puck, giving his teammates a passing option to relieve pressure.
If Nylander plays likes this on a consistent basis, he will be outperform his contract by a pretty good margin. He was the Leafs most effective skater on the night, and was productive on every shift.
4) Puck Possession Increase
It has become clear that the Leafs prioritize possession under Sheldon Keefe. Instead of dumping pucks in and heading off to the bench, the team reloads, maintains possession throughout the change and skates forward.
During the first period, there was a clear opportunity to dump and change. But instead, the player in question opted to skate towards his end and move the puck out wide to Muzzin, who was skating up the ice. This led directly to a controlled entry, as the Leafs executed the change and maintained possession in the offensive zone.
This is a clear change in mentality for this team under their new head coach, as players would not do that unless they felt confident enough. It is being encouraged by the coaching staff, which I love.
As a team, you work so hard to get the puck, giving it away seems unwise. Obviously, there are times where you dump it in, but as a tactic, retaining puck possession trump the dump and forecheck narrative.
5) Special Teams Are a Positive
It’s not often we have been able to say the Leafs won the special teams battle on the night. Toronto’s special teams have been poor to start the season. Really, really poor. However, this is now two straight games under Keefe that the Leafs have killed every penalty. They seem to be taking fewer penalties, as well — which tends to happen when you have the puck more than the other team.
On Saturday night, the Leafs scored a power-play goal and killed off all of their penalties, ending with a +1 differential. Winning the special teams battle usually results in a win on the scoresheet, and this issue needed addressing.
The special teams aren’t fixed, but they are trending in the right direction, which is a positive sign. In 5 games under Keefe, the Leafs have surrendered one shorthanded goal, but they’ve also scored a shorthanded goal to even things up. With three power-play goals at the other end, that is a significant improvement.
Keefe mentioned that Hakstol made some adjustments to the penalty kill that he wasn’t able to before, and they’ve had success so far.
The Leafs are 4-1 under Keefe, and it’s clear that he’s changed more than a few pillars of how the Leafs play. They possess the puck more, the special teams have made adjustments and improved, and the pursuit without the puck is more aggressive.
If the Leafs are to climb the standings, this play needs to continue with consistency. It’s clear they are capable of winning even when they don’t perform tp their best, and last night’s win against Buffalo serves as a perfect example.