Did the Maple Leafs get goalie’d last year and is it likely to happen again?

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
17 days ago
One of my least favourite narratives to come out of the Florida series last year was that the Maple Leafs ran into a hot goaltender and despite their best efforts, Bobrovsky’s heater was too much for the Leafs and that’s why they were sent home in 5 against Florida.
While I will call bullshit on that and say it was a cop-out reaction for a team that wasn’t successful in the high-danger areas of the offensive zone throughout the playoffs (see below), there is still something to the fact that a goaltender has the potential to impact a series, or an entire playoff run with a well-timed heater.
Leafs 2023 Playoff High Danger Shooting via NHL Edge:
Last season it was Bobrovsky that made life difficult for the Leafs and heading into the playoffs it would have been difficult to predict Bobrovsky having that success. In his 10 starts in March he went 4-5-1 and had a .904 save percentage, in his final three games in April he had a .893 save percentage and went 1-1-1. He hadn’t won against the Bruins all season and had a .871 save percentage in four games, and he had a .870 save percentage against the Leafs in two games.
The Bruins didn’t really run into heater Bobrovsky. He had two games above .900 against them, but 3 turkeys as well. The Leafs and Hurricanes caught Bobrovsky at his best and that is a bit of a combination of goaltender and defence completely getting each other as well. During that stretch of nine games Sergei Bobrovsky had a .919 high danger save percentage, but also saw the average shot distance of 34.76 feet during that time compared to the 28.17 it dropped to during the Vegas series. Not surprisingly with improved proximity came improved results for the Golden Knights as well as Bobrovsky’s HDSV dropped to .755.
While Leafs fans saw with their own eyes that Bobrovsky’s performance absolutely had an impact, he didn’t suddenly get good at the end of the Boston series and completely forget how to play goal when the Panthers arrived in Vegas, the defence and style of play going on in front of him was certainly better suited to the Leafs and Hurricanes style of play than the Golden Knights. It’s easier to goalie teams when your defence is in control and it’s not a coincidence that the Leafs haven’t felt confident in a single goaltender during the same time they feel their defence isn’t up to the standard of the rest of their lineup.
The story on Adin Hill is a bit different than Sergei Bobrovsky’s in that we just weren’t paying attention to the fact that Hill was well on his way before the 2022-23 playoffs to demonstrate himself to be a quality goaltender with consistent results. It’s just he isn’t a high-workload guy. The fact that Hill also had the opportunity to benefit from a very strong Vegas blueline that held their opposition to an average shot distance of 35.74 feet in the playoffs and Hill had a .879 HDSV% over his playoff run is one part of the story for Vegas’ success.
That brings us back around to if the Leafs could be goalie’d again. The obvious answer is yes, but the answer is also yes for in the specific way they were goalie’d the last time around. Of goaltenders with 1200 minutes played this season, Sergei Bobrovsky has the furthest average shot distance at 37.23 feet. With Bobrovsky in net, the Panthers haven’t been offering up their prime real estate. Of late the Panthers have been using Stolarz as their netminder and while he hasn’t benefited from the further shot difference in the same fashion (the 3-foot difference on the same team is interesting but could come down to opponents and who was on the blueline for those games) but Stolarz is presently one of the top statistical goaltenders in the league with the highest goals saved above expected and save percentage of any goaltender with over 20 games played this year.
To the Leafs’ credit, they’ve mitigated some of the risk this year and aren’t entirely reliant on pretty goals from their core four forwards. Tyler Bertuzzi, Matthew Knies, and Bobby McMann are all capable of providing some greasy moments when needed and scoring goals that look a lot more playoff-y. The additions of Max Domi and Nick Robertson to the mix increase the secondary scoring options for the Leafs beyond their top two lines. And while not exactly who you think of when you are looking for offence, both Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin have heavy shots that can get the puck to the front of the net better to go along with efficient puck movers like Liljegren, Rielly, and Brodie. Finding goals shouldn’t be a challenge for the Leafs but last year against the Panthers it seemed damned near impossible.
Whether it is being goalie’d or not being able to create space and opportunities against a stingy defence, or both, the Leafs likely need to be more adaptive than they’ve been in the past. Teams that have the opportunity to plan for their opponents and consume every second of available video on their play are going to be ready for what the Leafs brought in the regular season and if there has been an ongoing theme for the Leafs in past playoff appearances, it’s struggling to counter their opponent’s strategy.
The Leafs went from 3.8 goals per game against Tampa (with Vasilevskiy in net) to scoring exactly 2 goals in every game they played against the Panthers. That is the worst the Leafs have averaged in a postseason appearance since they were shut out twice in the 5-game play-in series against the Blue Jackets. And whether it is the Panthers, the Blue Jackets, or the Canadiens series that the Leafs lost, it wasn’t just goaltending that sunk the Leafs, it was the defence being prepared for the Leafs scoring from their favourite spots. And if the Leafs don’t come in with a few more tricks up their sleeves, they will be “goalie-d” again.

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