Special Teams Key to Leafs Success

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on a roll. And that’s not an exaggeration.

The Leafs have been fantastic in their last 10 games, from the Dec. 23 game against the Arizona Coyotes to the Jan. 17 game against the Buffalo Sabres. In their last 10 games, the Leafs are 8-1-1, which for comparison, gives the Leafs the second best record in the NHL in the last 10 games. The team ahead of them? Well it’s just the hottest team in the NHL at the moment, the Washington Capitals.

So what has been the key to success for the Leafs? Based on the statistics, it’s the special teams.

The Power Play

We’ve known since the first game of the season that the Leafs are a high-scoring team. But they’ve outdone themselves in the last 10 games.

In that span, they’ve outscored opponents 38 to 29 with the Leafs scoring at least four goals in seven of their 10 games. Now that’s a team that knows how to put the puck in the net. A large part of their success can be attributed to their power play.

To get a sense of how amazing their power play is means looking at the Leafs’ power-play percentage for the season. The Leafs have a 24.4 power play percentage, which is good enough to give them the second best power play in the NHL. In the last 10 games, the Leafs have a 43.3 power-play percentage.

With 13 goals in 30 power-play chances, it means the Leafs are scoring half the time they have the advantage. It also means that 34.2 percent of their goals came from the power play. So who’s been the reason for such a great power play?

It comes down to four players: James van Riemsdyk, Mitch Marner, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri. All four of them have put up quite a few points during the 10-game span, but most of those points come from the power play.

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James van Riemsdyk. Photo: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Those four have been the reason for the success of the Leafs’ power play. Not Auston Matthews or even William Nylander.

Now this can’t last. Eventually the Leafs’ power play will slip back down to their average for the season. Their average puts them at second best in the NHL, so it’s not a bad thing. It’s just that right now their power play is abnormally great. So they better take full advantage of it while it lasts.

The Penalty Kill

The other side of the Leafs’ special teams is the penalty kill. This has been about the same as their season average. So it’s not like how the Leafs’ power play has been during the last 10 games.

For the season, the Leafs have a 84.5 penalty kill percentage, which puts them fifth in the NHL. This has been their strong point for the season. They need a good penalty kill because of how many penalties they take. The Leafs’ total penalty minutes puts them 11th in the NHL with 470 minutes.

Roman Polak (46) and Lars Eller (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

However, that isn’t the best way of looking at the amount of penalties the Leafs take because it’s dependent on the amount of games played. Penalty minutes per game gives a better representation of the average amount of time the Leafs spend shorthanded. The Leafs have the fifth highest penalty minutes per game in the NHL with an average of 11:11 minutes.

The season’s trend is the same for this 10-game stretch. During this time, the Leafs have 113 penalty minutes and have come away with a 88.9 penalty kill percentage. This means that the Leafs’ penalty kill has kept games close and given their power play the chance to win games. If their penalty kill was worse, it would mean the Leafs would be playing from behind more often.

Even-strength play is important, but close games are often decided by special teams. The Leafs having a great power play and penalty kill means they can beat teams that are better and higher up in the standings. And with the playoffs in reach, they need to beat ever team they can.