The new season is just two games old for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they are still trying to find their identity as a whole. Friday night in Columbus, their bottom-six took a step forward and helped the Leafs land their game-winning goal.
This was the kind of play you aren’t going to find on the score sheet. But it was a game-defining shift that set the Leafs up for the rest of the night. It was vitally important given the score was just 1-0 at the time.
The game ended up 4-1 Toronto thanks to two Mitch Marner goals, an Auston Matthews power-play goal and a game-winning goal by Cody Ceci. We want to focus on Ceci’s goal, not the goal itself, but the events that led to it.
An Impact Bottom-Six
If the Maple Leafs want to make a deep playoff run next spring, they need efforts like the one they got from their fourth line of Jason Spezza, Frederik Gauthier and Nic Petan. Their relentlessness in pinning the Blue Jackets deep in their own zone in the middle of the second period was a pivotal moment in the game.
That trio forced an icing call after some extended pressure where Blue Jackets’ goalie Joonas Korpisalo had to make some key saves. The icing meant that Boone Jenner’s line had to stay on the ice. In came the Matthews’ line. Next it was a won faceoff and then Ceci scored the game-winning goal.
Look, we know what the Maple Leafs are. Matthews. Marner. John Tavares. They have elite players who can score the puck almost at will. That is never a question. The issue coming into the season was what would the Leafs get from the rest of their lineup. Although Spezza was a scratch in their opener, he came in Friday and made a nice first impression for Mike Babcock and company. That shift is exactly what the Leafs need later in the season and in the playoffs.
The Maple Leafs are dangerous anyway. But if they start to get contributions from different parts of their lineup, their outlook gets much brighter.
So although the stars shined brightly, the Marner’s and the Matthew’s, it was this shift that stood out to me the most. I’m not surprised at what the stars can do. But now in the back of my mind, I know that the Leafs are looking for consistency from their bottom-six. This shift showed me that they can have a dramatic impact on the game even when the other team is outplaying them.
Great News for Leafs Nation
The Blue Jackets were the better team at 5-on-5 according to Nat Stat Trick. They had more scoring chances. Their expected goals for at evens and overall was higher. The difference in this game was the Leafs’ stars doing their normal thing, Freddie Andersen doing his (he was outstanding) and this shift by the fourth line which put the Blue Jackets in a tough spot. Who knows how the rest of the game plays out if the score stayed 1-0 there?
If I’m a Leafs fan, I’m watching your bottom-six to see how this progresses throughout the season. Which players step up consistently? Who makes game-defining plays at key moments? If you want to beat the Tampa Bay’s and Boston’s, you must have a total team effort.
The Maple Leafs showed a blueprint Friday night in Columbus of what their long-term success could look like. Stars scoring, Andersen stopping and the bottom-six impacting games is a recipe for playoff success.
It’s not always what appears on the score sheet that’s important. It’s the little things too. Friday night, the Maple Leafs accomplished their goal while showing everyone how dangerous they can be.
This is one of the elites and a true Stanley Cup contender. There is no denying that.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.