The Toronto Maple Leafs were in St. Louis on Saturday night to take on the defending Stanley Cup champions for the final time this regular season. And while the team was without Andreas Johnsson, who was out with an injury, and Frederik Gauthier, who was a healthy scratch, they were able to muster up enough offence to take down the Blues and get back into the win column.
Now, it wasn’t an easy win by any means. Even though the scoreboard showed a 5-2 final, the Blues showed why they are the defending champions with strong play throughout the second and third period and physically dominated the Maple Leafs like most teams have this season.
That said, the Maple Leafs got an early start from their young stars and it was enough to give them a lead from the get-go that the Blues just couldn’t overcome. With that, here’s a look at what we can take away from the Maple Leafs’ win.
The Blues’ started the game with their number one goalie in the net in Jordan Binnington. But it didn’t take the Maple Leafs long to chase him from his first game as a starter in his young NHL career.
Just 12:57 into the game, the Maple Leafs had already fired 11 shots on Binnington – including seven at even strength, three on the power play and one shorthanded. Of those 11 shots, Binnington stopped just seven of them as the Maple Leafs jumped out to a 4-1 lead after just 13 minutes of play.
Now, in all fairness, it wasn’t Binnington’s fault that his team was down 4-1. In fact, he may have wanted two of those goals back, but the other two were ones that he didn’t stand a chance on. That included a two-on-oh break.
Binnington was quickly replaced by Jake Allen, who gave up just one more goal – a power play tally – on 16 shots as he closed out the game for the Blues. Binnington finished the game with a .636 save percentage and a 18.46 goals against average.
Freddie Stands Tall… Again
That said, the Blues weren’t the only team to struggle defensively in this game. The Maple Leafs, while only giving up two goals, gave up a number of high-danger opportunities that the Blues simply couldn’t take advantage of. That was, in large part, due to the play of Frederik Andersen who came up with a number of big saves throughout the night.
Of the 28 he faced in the game, Andersen saw seven high-danger shots and another seven that qualified as medium-danger shots, according to Natural Stat Trick. That means at least half of the shots taken by the Blues that reached Andersen were, to some extent, decent scoring chances. Of those 14 opportunities, Andersen allowed just one goal against – a save percentage of .929 on those opportunities alone.
But, as is the case on most nights lately with the Maple Leafs, the defence in front of him wasn’t exactly helpful for the entirety of the 60 minutes for Andersen.
On a number of occasions on Saturday, the Maple Leafs players put pucks right out in front of their own net from behind their icing line and right onto the sticks of Blues’ players. While it only shows them with seven giveaways, the majority of them were ones right in front of their own net – forcing Andersen to come up with big saves.
One thing that has changed since Mike Babcock was removed was the team’s ability to make short passes while getting out of their own zone. When the defensive players remain composed and look for the pass, it didn’t seem to be a problem against St. Louis. That said, they didn’t always look before making the play – resulting in the high-danger opportunities against Andersen that we discussed.
That’s clearly something the Maple Leafs will still have to work on. Not only is it an issue in their defensive zone coverage and physicality within their zone, but their lack of judgement and composure on outlet plays from behind their net has cost them quite often this season.
A Man Down? No Problem
One major step in the right direction on Saturday was the team’s ability to get the job done on the penalty kill. Going into the game against the Blues, the Maple Leafs penalty kill was ranked 28th in the NHL and had shown no signs of taking a step in the right direction.
The Blues’ power play, on the other hand, was sixth in the league clicking at a 23.7% rate prior to Saturday’s game against the Maple Leafs. Well, the Maple Leafs were able to kill off all four opportunities they handed the Blues, dropping their opponents success rate to 22.7% on the season and bringing their penalty kill numbers up to 76.5%.
On top of that, they were able to tally another shorthanded goal – the team’s fourth of the season – thanks again in large part to Pierre Engvall who stole the puck in the neutral zone before dishing it off to Zach Hyman for his second of the game.
If that wasn’t enough, the Maple Leafs also took advantage of their opportunities on the power play, scoring on both chances and going two-for-two on the night.
Matthews Out of Mini Slump
Finally, with Auston Matthews on a mini goal-scoring slump, having not scored in five games, the Maple Leafs’ young stud was able to come out soaring on Saturday and silence any critics that had prematurely spoken up.
In fact, he was feeling so good it seems that the 22-year-old tallied two goals for the Maple Leafs – his 17th and 18th on the season. Matthews played just under 18 minutes in the game and had four shots on goal and registered a hit as well as the game became a little more physical down the stretch.
Not only did his two goals put Matthews in a four-way tie for fourth in the NHL in goals this season (tied with Jack Eichel, Brad Marchand and Nathan MacKinnon), but it also puts the Maple Leafs’ big gun on pace for 47 goals this season which would be a new career high.
Also Worth Noting…
The Maple Leafs became the last team in the NHL to register a fighting major on Saturday when defenceman Travis Dermott got into it with veteran Troy Brouwer. While it was hardly worth a five-minute major, both were sent off for fighting after Brouwer both slashed and cross-checked Dermott leading to the tussle.
Pontus Aberg got his first taste of NHL action this season as he had the chance to play on the Maple Leafs’ top line with Matthews and William Nylander. Aberg was a plus-one with one blocked shot and one takeaway in just over 12 minutes of ice-time in his Maple Leafs debut.
It’s also worth noting that Jason Spezza continues to earn his place in the lineup. While it could be part of the reason that Gauthier got the healthy scratch on Saturday, Spezza fired home another big goal for the Maple Leafs against the Blues in just under 10 minutes of ice-time. It was Spezza’s fourth goal on the year and 12th point in just 20 games. It’s also his eighth point in the last nine games – while he’s only been held scoreless twice over that span.
The Maple Leafs return to action on Tuesday when they travel to Vancouver to take on the Canucks in a game that the Maple Leafs should consider a must-win affair.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.