Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Special Teams, Marner & Faster Hockey

It’s been a good week 12 days for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With their 5-2 win over the Boston Bruins, they extended their winning streak to five games. They also did a ton to re-establish their mojo. That’s especially true for the Core Four. The players who were supposed to score have scored. And for this team, it’s a model for success over the past few regular seasons – except for the playoffs. That success hasn’t yet happened.

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In his comments after the Bruins’ game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe linked the team’s recent success to the play of the Core Four. He noted that the team needs “those guys to produce, and they have been.” He also noted that “there is obviously no coincidence that we have started to roll as a team since that (the Core Four starting to score) happened.”

Auston Matthews John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates with teammate John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

However, Keefe noted that he believed the entire team was playing well. He believed the team’s effort against the Bruins was the most complete of the season. He noted that he “thought we just had terrific efforts from each line, our defense, goaltending, special teams.”

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In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the team’s status coming into the game tonight against the Los Angeles Kings. Tonight will be the last game of the team’s five-game homestand. The team would really like to move its record to 8-4-1 and help solidify its place behind the Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division.

Item One: Special Teams Are Playing Well

Speaking of the special teams, coach Sheldon Keefe also spent some time lauding his special teams during his post-game comments. Of the power play, Keefe noted that the players “stepped up and were really good. They didn’t score on the first two, but in the first period, we had good chances. In the second period, we were on it and stayed with it. Two huge goals for us to give us a chance to win the game.”

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Given that the power-play unit had been struggling, the success against the Bruins shows that there’s potential for success. That has to be a positive change for the team and its success.

Item Two: The Depth Lines Played Well

From my perspective, except for Ondrej Kase, when the top lines are playing well and scoring, it seems that the bottom lines become less noticeable. That said, I noticed Kase. He seemed to be all over the place and had a strong game. He just seems to play really hard – in every aspect of the game. He and David Kampf played well together.

Ondrej Kase Boston Bruins
Ondrej Kase, when he was with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Spezza line was also strong, which is something I’ve come to expect. As I’ve noted about Spezza a few posts ago, I can’t imagine how much better he was when he was in his prime. He’s still a good player.

Item Three: The Maple Leafs Are Playing Faster Hockey

The chemistry between Mitch Marner and John Tavares is obvious. Both players are scoring at opportune times and Marner is starting to look like his creative old self. Marner had four points against the Bruins (a goal and three assists). The one change in Marner’s game is that he’s playing a faster game. In addition, as a team, the Maple Leafs seem to me to be playing more quickly.

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Against the Chicago Blackhawks, Auston Matthews seemed to be calling on the team to play faster – particularly focusing on Justin Holl’s tendency to hold onto the puck longer than he needed to and slowing down the team’s offense. I’m wondering if switching Holl out and putting Timothy Liljegren into the lineup has quickened the pace. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If that’s so and the team is playing more quickly, it fits Marner’s game. He’s best when he’s playing quickly and, when the entire team plays faster, he’s able to showcase his creativity. Over the past few games, the Maple Leafs seem to be able to move the puck without having to stop and think too much. Against the Bruins, it seemed that Marner knew where his teammates were all game. The proof is in the scoresheet: Marner has put up 11 points in his last five games.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Although the Los Angeles Kings have only a 5-5-1 record, they have won four games in a row. For their third straight game, the Maple Leafs are playing a team that comes into town on a winning streak. The Kings will play the first game of a four-game road trip tonight, they’ve just come off a 3-2 overtime victory against the New Jersey Devils. 

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Although Maple Leafs’ fans don’t get a chance to see the Kings that often, the Kings have a great player in Anze Kopitar. Kopitar has scored seven goals and added seven assists in 11 games this season. He could one day land in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It could be a good game.