Well, the road trip is over.
The Toronto Maple Leafs ended a stretch of 11 out of 13 games on the road. With 7 wins, they are now 7-4 under Sheldon Keefe. So, it was okay. Ideally, the Leafs needed to come away with 10 wins to make up ground, but anything less than .500 in this stretch would’ve been disastrous. On Saturday night, they finished strong in Edmonton against the NHL’s very best weapons.
Here are my five thoughts:
1) Shutting Down McDrai
Coming into the game, there was no doubt the Leafs had to shut down the Oilers top line to have any chance of winning. Mission accomplished, as the Leafs kept McDavid and Draisaitl to 27.74% and 24.15% xG, respectively.
Considering what those two have done to the NHL this year, keeping them at bay when they got favourable matchups was a huge positive. Now, McDavid did have a chance in the first period that would’ve been played on loop for the rest of the year, had he converted. Andersen stood tall, and from then on, it was a relatively quiet night from the Oilers’ dynamic duo.
Sheldon Keefe did a great job of making sure that Muzzin and Holl were hard-matched to the McDavid line and those two did a very admirable job of handling them. That seems to be Toronto’s shutdown pairing of late.
The key to beating the Oilers on any given night is to keep the first line at bay. The Leafs did that, and they were rewarded for it.
2) Barrie Bad News
On a night when the Leafs were very good, it’s likely they suffered a key injury to one of their top players.
Tyson Barrie blocked a shot midway through the first period and didn’t play a shift after that. He came out during a commercial break, and then to start the second period, but the cursory skate led him to believe he could not continue playing, leaving the Leafs with 5 D for the night.
Considering the lack of weight or skating test that Barrie did when he came out, and the Leafs announcing it is an ankle injury, this isn’t the best news. Barrie was finding his game under Keefe as of late and was beginning to mesh with his new partner, Morgan Rielly.
There is an organizational impact if Barrie misses time. The Leafs have to make a decision on whether to release Rasmus Sandin to Sweden for the World Juniors. If the Leafs have an injury on the backend, it is highly unlikely Sandin gets released. In all fairness, he should be the first recall for any injury.
Once the Leafs find out the extent of the Barrie injury, a decision on Sandin can be made — whether to recall him to the Leafs, leave him with the Marlies, or let him play for Sweden.
3) Third Line Magic
The line of Mikeyhev-Kerfoot-Engvall was a wagon tonight. Every time those three were on the ice, it felt like the puck was in the Oilers end. And it was, really. The trio was almost 70% xG on the night. Both Kerfoot and Mikheyev scored and Kerfoot could’ve had at least one more goal himself, too. Engvall made smart puck decisions, was effective on the forecheck and drew a penalty.
That line has come together really nicely for the Leafs and uses speed and size along the wall to hem opponents in their own end.
The Leafs have a dangerous top six, but if the third line can shut down other teams’ offensive weapons and chip in on the scoresheet, that would be huge. There’s definitely some chemistry between the three of them and they seem to be “hard to play against.”
4) 200 for Freddy
Let’s list some European goaltenders: Henrik Lundqvist, Dominik Hasek, Mikka Kiprusoff. All of them are very good. But none of them reached 200 NHL wins faster than Frederik Andersen.
Andersen is the 4th fastest goalie in NHL history(!) to reach the 200-mark. He did so in just 344 regular-season appearances, good enough for a .581 win percentage. The three guys who did it faster? Ken Dryden, Braden Holtby and Jacques Plante. To finish just behind them, and tie Chris Osgood for 4th, is quite the accomplishment for the Great Dane.
Andersen was great tonight for the Leafs — this is a recording. The backbone of the roster made key saves, kept McDavid and Draisaitl from owning the scoresheet and locked it down after a third-period goal. The Leafs have been poor in third periods lately, and Andersen was determined to make sure that the Leafs held the lead in this one. Much has been made about his workload, but if the Leafs are going to get back into the playoffs, it will be on the back of Andersen.
5) Looking Ahead
The Leafs have a pretty favourable schedule to finish December. With six games remaining in 2019, only two are against playoff opponents. There’s one game against Buffalo, where they typically win, and another against Carolina. What remains after that are contests against Detroit, New Jersey and two against the Rangers.
As of today, the Leafs are tied with the Rangers, but considering they aren’t in the same division, it isn’t as relevant. The Leafs should be looking for 10 points to finish that stretch, and certainly no less than 8. That would go a long way to clawing themselves back into the playoff picture.
With the toughest road trip of the year behind them, the Leafs should be looking ahead to accumulating as many points as possible. With two back-to-backs in the next 6 games, that is a tough ask. However, the second half games are against Detroit and the Rangers, and both are at home. Neither of those teams is a juggernaut, and the Rangers will also be playing the second half of a back to back.
These are winnable games, the kind playoff teams find a way to win.
The Leafs end this stretch with a new coach, fewer injuries, and are still very much in the playoff mix. This trip could’ve been their undoing for the year, and instead, the team has returned with vastly improved special teams. There are positive signs for the Leafs, and things that need some cleaning up. The positive here is that the Leafs didn’t play themselves out of the playoff race and players seem to have found another step.
Let’s hope that continues.