Maple Leafs Learn Valuable Lesson

Trailing 5-2 in the latter stages of the second period to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Toronto Maple Leafs looked destined for a third straight home loss Friday night. Then, something changed.

Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin notched two goals in quick succession, cutting the deficit to 5-4 heading into the intermission. Although neither goal will make the “plays of the week,” they were the turning point of the game. During the second intermission, Muzzin shared some words of wisdom with TSN’s Mark Masters on the wild finish to the second period:

Perhaps Muzzin offered this same innovative advice during the intermission team-talk as the Leafs picked up where they left off in the third period, equalizing less than three minutes into the final frame. Once again, Toronto got contributions from their backend, this time from Martin Marincin, whose shot was deflected on its way into the Flyers net. Ultimately, the Leafs would overcome the 5-2 deficit to win 7-6, firing 51 shots on goal along the way.

Having a forward core as skilled as the Leafs do, the team often gets wrapped up in making the “perfect play.” With the playoffs on the horizon, time and space on the ice will be at a premium. As another postseason matchup against the Boston Bruins looks inevitable, Toronto should begin to shape up for another claustrophobic clash against a relentless Bruins team. Although Friday night’s win over the Flyers was far from the ideal performance, there was one crucial takeaway lesson for the team: If you shoot and shoot often, good things will happen.

“You Miss 100% Of The Shots You Don’t Take”

Whether you want to credit the famous quote to Wayne Gretzky or the Office’s Michael Scott, this old cliché has rung true for the Leafs on many occasions this season. As fantastic a season as Mitch Marner is having, perhaps his only real knock is his hesitation to shoot more often. In Marner’s defense, no other Maple Leaf has had the success he has in opting out of the shot to set up a linemate (for a prime example, look no further than Zach Hyman’s goal Friday night).

In any case, the correlation between Toronto’s 51 total shots and breaking their two-game skid felt like no fluke Friday night. Similarly, Toronto nearly overturned a 5-0 deficit to the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday night. After mustering just nine shots in each of the first two periods, the Leafs fired 29 shots on goal in the third leading to a late-game surge. Although their efforts were too little too late, the shooting mindset appeared to carry over two nights later against the Flyers.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

If Toronto’s humbling loss Monday night at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was anything other than a wake-up call, perhaps it was an inspiration of sorts. What was advertised as a marquee matchup turned out to be a lopsided victory in favor of the Lightning. What was interesting about the outcome of the game was not only the shot totals for the two teams, but the manner in which Tampa was able to find the back of the net six times.

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In the end, Tampa Bay outshot Toronto 42-28, a number which the Leafs have failed to eclipse only 18 times through 71 games. More importantly, five of the six Lightning goals came directly from the result of a shot from the point, all of which were deflected. Although shots on goal weren’t the only facet of the game in which the Lightning outperformed the Leafs, it proved to be an important one.

After another sluggish 40 minutes to open their game against the Blackhawks Wednesday night, the Leafs took a page out of Tampa’s book from two nights prior. Over the next four periods (the third against Chicago and Friday’s game against Philly), Toronto managed 80 shots on goal, leading to 10 goals scored. Given the success they’ve had with this shoot-first mentality, the Leafs would be keen to maintain this trend down the stretch.

Implications For The Playoffs

Torey Krug, Jaroslav Halak, Andreas Johnsson
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Andreas Johnsson looks for the rebound after taking a shot on Boston Bruins’ Jaroslav Halak, as Torey Krug defends (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Michael Dwyer)

As previously mentioned, a Leafs-Bruins playoff matchup is nearly a foregone conclusion with three weeks remaining in the regular season. With the physicality and line matching sure to ramp up, individual skill becomes less of a factor come playoff time. If last April was any indication, this claim couldn’t be better backed by Boston’s approach against the Maple Leafs.

In reviewing the 2018 series, the findings are not dissimilar than that of Toronto’s Monday night loss to Tampa Bay. Over the seven games, Boston’s defensive core outscored the Leafs’ 5-1, while goals coming directly as a result of shots from the point favored the B’s 8-4. While the struggles of players such as Auston Matthews were well documented, these stats show how the Leafs failed to find secondary sources of scoring last postseason.

After being outshot in five of the seven games last spring, Toronto’s list of adjustments going into the 2019 Playoffs should have “generating more shots on goal” near the top.