Make no doubt about it. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be judged this season by how they do in the playoffs, period. In an earlier post, we wrote that, in the whole scheme of things, the 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night in itself was meaningless.
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If ever a game outside of the playoffs was not meaningless, it was the Florida Panthers’ game Sunday night. With the way the NHL has set up the schedule, it has seemed like forever since the Maple Leafs have played either Florida, the Tampa Bay Lightning, or the Boston Bruins. In fact, the last time they did play one of these teams was December 9 when they lost to the Lightning 5-3 at home.
They’ll make up for that in the remainder of the season starting with Sunday’s game. In their last 18 games of the season, the Maple Leafs play Florida three times, Tampa Bay twice, and Boston twice. These games are all tests to see how the Maple Leafs stack up against the best teams in the Atlantic Division, which has to be the toughest division in the league.
Comment One: The Maple Leafs Defense Was Stellar Last Night
Looking over the stats of the Florida game, the one that jumps out the most is that at five-on-five, according to naturalstattrick, the Maple Leafs only gave the Panthers three high-danger scoring chances – in the entire game. That’s the lowest number of five-on-five high-danger scoring chances they’ve given up this season. They did it twice before back in February against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Vancouver Canucks. This time they did it against the highest-scoring team in the NHL.
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The Maple Leafs’ struggles defensively have become almost legendary. It seems to be an area that they spend the most time addressing with the least amount of success. Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas dealt almost exclusively for defense leading up to the trade deadline, acquiring Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano on the back end while adding Colin Blackwell at forward. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has talked countless times about how the team needed to be better defensively.
This Maple Leafs’ team might finally be getting there. They have given up over their last four games, in order, four, five, five, and three high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five in each game.
Comment Two: Petr Mrazek Is Benefitting from the Maple Leafs’ Play
The whole idea of the Maple Leafs being better defensively is to support and protect their goaltending. That would allow the goalies to be better, gain more confidence, and become even better yet.
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Petr Mrazek’s last two starts are perfect examples of that. By limiting the high-danger chances the Maple Leafs have helped Mrazek put in two solid games. In those two games, both of them wins, Mrazek has stopped 54 of 58 shots, posted a 0.931 save percentage, and a 2.00 goals-against-average.
These are undoubtedly two games that Mrazek and the skaters in front of him can build from. What a difference a week makes. Mrazek went from being put on waivers, going unclaimed by any of the other 31 teams in the league, to having a stellar performance and defeating the highest-scoring team in the league. Such is the life of an NHL goaltender.
Comment Three: Mitch Marner Is Shattering Records
Both Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews seem to be setting records almost every week. Some of these records have stood for decades. Usually, when a record is broken, it is done by a few games a few months, something that barely beats the previous record by a small margin.
During the Panthers/Leafs’ broadcast, a graphic was shown about Marner’s assist record. With Marner’s three assists in the Panthers’ game, he becomes the fastest Maple Leafs’ player to score 300 assists, doing it in 411 games. In this case, not only did he beat the previous record held by Borje Salming, but he also shattered it by 59 games. Salming recorded his 300 assist in his 469th game.
Marner now has 302 assists, which puts him 13th on the all-time list for the Maple Leafs. He is ten assists away from the top ten, a position presently held by Bob Pulford with 312. Borje Salming is number one on the list with 620. How soon before Marner gets to 600? While perusing that stat we also noticed that Morgan Rielly presently sits 16th on that list with 291 assists.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs play the third game of their tough nine-games-in-fifteen-days stretch when they travel to Boston to take on the Bruins. The Maple Leafs and Bruins are as tied as you can get. Both sport identical 41-19-5 records on 65 games played. They are also tied in regulation and overtime wins with 39 apiece.
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The Maple Leafs have the edge in goals for and against at plus-42 to the Bruins’ plus-26. The Maple Leafs are also only one point behind the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning who are home to the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.
There are some rumors that newly-signed, top-prospect Nick Abruzzese might get the start in that game. We would be surprised if Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe were to put him in a game that quickly without him having time to practice and get acclimated to the Maple Leafs.
Stranger things have happened though. It will be interesting to see.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]