Maple Leafs’ Recent Physical Play Can Propel Them to Great Things

When we were looking at statistics from Thursday night’s Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes, one set of numbers jumped off the page (or more literally the screen). In that loss, there were 74 hits registered in the game, 42 of them by the Maple Leafs. That’s a full 24 hits more than their average of 18 hits per game this season. 

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In fact, 42 hits are the most hits the team has had in a single game in over two years. According to, the last time they had more than 42 hits in a game was December 28th, 2019, against the New York Rangers. That night the team had 47 hits, but it was Christmas time and they were obviously in a spirit of giving.

Where Did the High Number of Hits Come From?

The oddness of that statistic led us to ask ourselves why, out of seemingly nowhere, this desire to hit came from? We really can’t see it being part of the Maple Leafs’ bigger game plan for stopping a strong Arizona offense, although the Coyotes had been scoring a lot before they came into Toronto. (They had scored 17 goals the two games previous.) 

Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs
Petr Mrazek let in too many goals against the Arizona Coyotes, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The only thing that makes sense was the simple fact that the team was mad, mostly at themselves for their terrible start to the game and the fact they were losing to a team they should be able to beat with more ease than they were having. 

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The game simply wasn’t going well and the players had to take that out on someone. And, taking it out on Petr Mrazek would not have been the answer.

Remembering an Earlier Chicago Blackhawks’ Game

There was a game earlier this season that reminded us of the game Thursday. On October 27th, the Maple Leafs were visiting the Chicago Blackhawks, after stumbling out of the blocks to start the season. They had lost four in a row, including the 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes’ game was one Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe thought was one of their better games to that point, despite the loss. 

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Blackhawks struck for two early goals to lead 2-0. The Maple Leafs stormed back in that game to outshoot Chicago 17-7 in the third period and won the game 3-2 in overtime. Checking the hits statistics from that game, the Maple Leafs had 32 hits. Again, that’s a high number for the team.

That game was notable because it was the first win in a stretch of 25 games that would see the Maple Leafs compile a 20-4-1 record. The Arizona game didn’t end up with a win, because the team gave up the overtime goal to lose 5-4. Again, even more anger ensued when, to most people’s eyes, a penalty should have been called when Auston Matthews was so clearly held. 

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However, the Maple Leafs did take the play to the Coyotes and scored three goals in the third period to tie the game. Can the Coyotes’ game have a similar effect on the team like the earlier Blackhawks game had?

Will the Anger Carry Over? Can Matthews Channel It?  

After the Coyotes scored the winning goal, it was obvious that Matthews was mad and wanted to hit something. Because he was held but did not draw a penalty just before the Coyotes’ overtime score, the something he wanted to hit was wearing stripes. By postgame he had tempered that anger, at least on the outside.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

We’ve been waiting for Matthews to get angry and lose his control a bit. I know why he allows himself to be rag-dolled without responding or without drawing a penalty. But, just once we’d like to see him do a Mark Messier and just use his size and strength to get really physical with an opponent. 

It will be interesting to see how this team might direct the anger it showed on Thursday. It will be interesting to see if that anger will carry over into their next game. Will the Sabres become the victim? That game too was embarrassing.

The Common Theme Was Losing to an Inferior Team

The common theme that pushed the Maple Leafs was that the team was getting embarrassed by team they should beat, and they obviously weren’t happy about it. It appears they took out their anger by upping their physical game.   

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Out of curiosity, we checked the box score of the recent 5-1 loss to the Sabres. In that game the Maple Leafs seemed more listless, uninterested, and anything but mad. Curiously they had just nine hits that game.  

By the Way, Where Did the Maple Leafs’ Hits Come From?

Returning to the Arizona game, if anyone wonders where the hits came from, John Tavares led the team with seven. T.J. Brodie registered five. Nick Robertson and David Kampf had four hits each.  

The Matthews, Marner, Bunting line had nine hits, spread evenly among the three of them. Marner may have had his biggest hit of the season, if not his career,  in this game as he completely levelled a Coyotes’ player in the Leafs’ zone in the game.  

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

If there is a moral, or point, to this, it is maybe the Leafs should play more angry more often. 

[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.]