Maple Leafs can’t take their foot off the gas when leading

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
If there is one thing the Leafs should know by the 74-game mark of the season it’s that they are an offence-first team and while their defence and goaltending has improved throughout the season, they are not the strength of Toronto.
Anecdotally the Leafs have had some notable third-period slip-ups of late. Florida tagged Toronto for 3 goals before Auston Matthews added his empty netter to lock in the 6-4 win. The Leafs had a comfortable 5-0 lead against the Oilers a couple of Saturdays back and the Oilers came back for three before again, Matthews sealed it with an empty netter. And the St. Pats game against the Hurricanes saw Toronto tagged for two late-third-period goals before the Leafs lost in a shootout. These are three recent examples that show the Leafs letting good playoff teams back into the game but I guess freaking out of it seems unnecessary given the Leafs still have a 5 points out of 6 in those examples.
So why worry about it? Well…, I guess “it was 4-1” is permanently burned into the brains of Toronto sports fans. With the exception of Morgan Rielly, it’s an entirely new group from that moment but it feels like the lesson should be the same, “this isn’t a team that can simply run out the clock.” No centre ice dump-ins and no putting your trust in David Kampf and Connor Dewar as some sort of shutdown line.
Throughout the year the Leafs have outscored their opponents 87-74 and the Maple Leafs do have a 32-3-3 record when leading heading into the 3rd. Throw in the fact the Leafs have a 6-1-3 record when tied heading into the third, this really feels like a recent narrative where I am looking to panic about something. Out of the other corner of my mouth, I have been talking about the importance of the Leafs sitting their star players when they have in-game leads and honestly the quickest way to let good teams back into the game is by sitting Auston Matthews.
This season the Leafs have a 3.33 goals against per 60 when leading. That’s the 9th worst rate in the league this season and the worst amongst current playoff teams. The good news is that they still have a positive goal differential when leading but that again supports the initial point that the Leafs are better when they pushing not protecting. This is a problem carrying forward from last season’s playoffs as well when the Leafs had the second-worst goals against when leading and the third-worst goal differential when leading (oddly enough, the Panthers finished the playoffs with a worse number than the Leafs, so I guess that’s a pretty big grain of salt regarding the sense of urgency.)
By the numbers maybe there isn’t much of a sense of urgency here and the reality is that protecting a lead means that the other team is going to get more chances, more goals, and it will be less fun for the fans of Leafs offence. Running out the clock isn’t fun but rest and avoiding injuries is generally a good thing but there are concerns about how much the Leafs can be trusted in these situations.
The good news here is that Mitch Marner, Calle Jarnrkork, Morgan Rielly, Timothy Liljegren, and even Joel Edmundson all represent an opportunity for more security when protecting a lead. Their return equals a more defensive sound Leafs team and while there is no such thing as being calm about the Leafs in the playoffs, getting players back from injury is obviously good.
So after rambling about something that may or may not be an issue for the Leafs I still find myself stubbornly holding my initial belief. The Leafs are at their best when taking advantage of their opponents’ mistakes. When a team that is already being beaten because of their mistakes has to start playing a more aggressive style to get back into the game, they will make more mistakes and the Leafs should probably still be taking advantage of that.
Long story short, it seems silly to not play to your strengths after your strengths have been successful.

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