Maple Leafs’ Back-to-Back vs. Penguins Could Be Turning Point

The Toronto Maple Leafs seemed to be in a really great spot after last Saturday’s win against the Ottawa Senators. They were third in the Atlantic Division and four points up on the Florida Panthers who are right behind them in the standings. Going into their Sunday match-up against the Buffalo Sabres, it was a game they had to win knowing that the Pittsburgh Penguins were waiting for a back-to-back.

With every game and every point meaning that much more, the Maple Leafs failed to distance themselves from the Panthers. Instead, they had back-to-back 5-2 losses, including an abysmal effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Panthers moving into third. The team knew they had to be better. The pressure began to mount as they failed to capitalize on their opportunity and another loss could mean trouble for their season.

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However, they were able to get their act together to provide the best 60-minute performance we’ve seen in a while. They showed their true nature by playing with an aggressive mentality, earning a 4-0 win. This back-to-back against the Penguins could serve as a turning point for the Maple Leafs this season. If it had to happen, it had to happen now.

Muzzin Calls Team Out

It was an embarrassment to say the least in both losses to the Sabres and Penguins. It didn’t take long for someone to speak out after their appalling play as of late. Defenseman Jake Muzzin spoke to the media post game and he didn’t sugarcoat anything. When describing their effort against the Penguins he said the team needed to “take a look in the mirror… That’s unacceptable.”

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Muzzin’s comments were 100% accurate. There was no drive, urgency, passion, compete or consistency. Everything was missing in their game. Even before that, they showed that their skill was there, but the inconsistencies in their own end were still evident. It wasn’t the first time players were disappointed with the lack of effort this year. Muzzin’s comments showed that enough was enough. Even head coach Sheldon Keefe said that their method is to be embarrassed enough to the point where they have to decide who they want to be.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

If the Maple Leafs think that they can get by easily in this league, they need to reassess that thought. They need to be at their best consistently. This is a crucial time where everyone needs to put their best foot forward. Many teams are in a similar situation (especially in the Eastern Conference), and it’s going to come down to who wants it more. 

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The Maple Leafs showed they wanted it more on Thursday. It started with Muzzin calling the team out and he answered the call with his best game of the season, getting the scoring started as well as adding two assists in the win. With a contract in the works, Muzzin proved to be the leader this team needs. 

Whatever was said amongst the players, it worked. It was a complete 180 from the previous game. They had the drive and determination that they should’ve had to begin with. They played that game with a playoff mentality. If they wanted to get ready for the playoffs and continue to put forward a full 60-minute effort, this was the perfect time to do so.

Work Ethic and Attention to Detail

On most nights when the Maple Leafs get blown out like they did against the Penguins, their effort and work ethic always comes into question. And so it should.

You can say that the Maple Leafs are a young team and that they aren’t mature enough compared to the Penguins. They have a winning pedigree and experience from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist. In addition, their inexperience is showing as well. That is reasonable; players mature and develop differently over time. But with the talent the Maple Leafs have, they should know the right way to play and put forth the effort on a regular basis.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin was essential in calling the team out and leading the team in 4-0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

If the Maple Leafs can build off their 4-0 win against a mature and experienced team like the Penguins, this should give them the reassurance that they can beat the best of the best in the NHL. They’re old enough to know that they can’t play whenever they feel like it. If they want to be considered as one of the best in the league, then they need to be constantly playing at high level with their skill level. 

They seemed to have got the message as their attention to detail and work ethic is what stood out in their bounce-back win. They didn’t just bounce back, they were dominant from the beginning. They were aggressive on the forecheck, finished their hits, applied pressure and more importantly, blocked out the Penguins and gave them little to work with. They held them to 24 shots, while having the advantage of shot attempts (58-50 Corsi For at five-on-five, 64-57 at all situations). The Maple Leafs were dominant in terms of scoring chances for at five-on-five. They had 29 and 16 high danger scoring chances compared to the Penguins’ 13 scoring chances and 4 high danger.

Pittsburgh Penguins/ Toronto Maple Leafs Scoring Chances (02/18/20). Image from Moneypuck.com

The chart above from Moneypuck.com shows why the Maple Leafs were successful. They limited the chances in their own zone with the majority of them coming from outside the high danger area and from the blue line. Their strong positional play was key in limiting those chances and did a good job keeping both Crosby and Malkin off the scoresheet. The amount of chances in the high danger area are extremely low compared the scoring chances the Maple Leafs had in front of the Penguins’ net. 

Pittsburgh Penguins/ Toronto Maple Leafs expected goals percentage (02/18/20). Image from Moneypuck.com

On top of that, every Maple Leafs player had an expected goals percentage over 60% based on shot types and events leading up to the goal. If the Maple Leafs continue to have this mindset of playing strong defense while maintaining their offensive presence, then they’ll be in a good position for the home stretch and make a run for the playoffs. That is the overall game that’ll make them successful.

This Is What They Needed

Sometimes you need a really good wake-up call. In the case of the Maple Leafs, it requires many wake-up calls. Too many times this season and in the past, they needed to be put in their place. There is no better time to learn this lesson than against a team with three titles since the 2005-06 lockout, including back-to-back championships in 2015-16 and 2016-17. 

According to TSN’s Kristen Shilton, before their rematch against the Penguins, Keefe said, “From the conversations we’ve had with the players today, [those losses were] enough to get their attention. Now we have to bring it to the ice.”

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe says the team has to “bring it to the ice” for every game. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Now, we’ve heard this same narrative before. But with a lot on the line right now and with the up and down season that the Maple Leafs have had, this should hopefully give the team confidence. When the Maple Leafs are at their best, they’re no doubt a contender. But decisions in their own end and without the puck proved to be costly over the last month or so. 

A string of bad games have gotten their attention. Now let’s hope that they can grow from this experience and that these kind of games don’t become an issue like it was in the past. On paper, this is a playoff team. They’re just not playing up to the standard, even though they can. The Penguins back-to-back could be the ultimate turning point at a critical time in the season.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.

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