On Saturday, March 9, the Toronto Maple Leafs finished a three-game western road trip, taking five of a possible six points. Prior, beginning with the Feb. 23 game against the Montreal Canadiens, they had completed a five-game stretch of four home games punctuated by the team’s memorable trip back to play John Tavares’ former New York Islanders on Feb. 28.
It was a good eight-game stretch, with the team emerging with a 6-1-1 record and 13 of a possible 16 points. However, the Maple Leafs didn’t pick up a single point on their rival Boston Bruins in that stretch. In fact, the Bruins played one fewer game and ended with the same number of points (13 of a possible 14 points with a 6-0-1 record).
Reviewing the Past Eight Games
Game One: Feb. 23 Maple Leafs Beats Canadiens 6-3 at Home
The Canadiens started the first period with three goals, but the Maple Leafs roared back with six straight goals. The first Canadiens’ goal was scored on a scramble in front of the Maple Leafs net, but the next two were scored high over goalie Frederik Andersen’s glove hand when he went down to block a shot. The Maple Leafs scored two power-play goals in the second period, then added four more goals in the third. The final goal was an awarded goal when Shea Weber hauled down Zach Hyman on an empty-net breakaway in the final minute. Andersen stopped 32 shots.
Game Two: Feb. 25 Maple Leafs Beats Sabres 5-3 at Home
After a Jack Eichel first-period goal, the Maple Leafs buzzed all second period. They scored four goals, and the only goal they allowed was on a two-man advantage. Kasperi Kapanen scored the fifth Maple Leafs goal on a breakaway. Andersen stopped 31 shots and looked sharp, even giving up three goals. He recorded his 100th win in net for the Maple Leafs, only the eighth goaltender (and the quickest) in history to do so.
Game Three: Feb. 27, Maple Leafs Beats Oilers 6-2 at Home
The Maple Leafs dragged through the first period, but Patrick Marleau scored a power-play goal (he had earlier missed a breakaway) to give the team a 1-0 lead. Then the Maple Leafs young forwards took over. Mitch Marner scored on a nice backhand tip. Andreas Johnsson scored his first of two on a great pass from Kapanen. William Nylander snuck one through a tiny space between the goalie and the post. The four-goal outburst took only seven minutes in the second period. Marner had a goal and two assists, and Andersen made 34 saves.
Game Four: Feb. 28, Maple Leafs Loses to the Islanders 6-1 in New York
The story of this game was not the Maple Leafs 6-1 loss to the Islanders, it was Tavares’ treatment by Islander fans. During this noisy game, the Maple Leafs took a 1-0 lead on Hyman’s goal, but the Maple Leafs didn’t compete well in their second game of a back-to-back. The Islanders scored the next six goals. Garret Sparks sometimes seemed lost.
Game Five: March 2, Maple Leafs Beats Sabres 5-2 at Home
For the second time in a week, the Maple Leafs scored five goals on the Buffalo Sabres. After the Sabres went up 2-1 in the first period, Morgan Rielly tied it. Then, on a great play, Rielly caught up to Jeff Skinner on a breakaway attempt by to help Andersen make the stop. Nic Petan scored for his first goal as a Maple Leaf. Hyman scored on the doorstep, and Andersen made 32 saves.
Game Six: March 4, Maple Leafs Beats Flames 6-2 in Calgary
The Calgary Flames are a strong team, and the Maple Leafs beat them soundly. Tyler Ennis, returning home to Alberta with his parents at the game, recorded his first career hat trick. Hyman had two goals, and Marner’s goal and two assists gave him 10 points (three goals, seven assists) for his last four games. After Marner was stopped on a breakaway, Hyman bounced the puck in. The reviewed goal stood. Andersen made 35 saves and won his fifth straight game. He looked strong all game, and the Flames second goal was an unlucky bounce off a skate.
Game Seven: March 6, Maple Leafs Loses to Canucks in OT 3-2 in Vancouver
The Maple Leafs should have won this game, but they allowed the Vancouver Canucks to come back from 2-0 in the third period to win in overtime. Marner, on a beautiful play, set up Ron Hainsey’s goal. Rielly, who’s from Vancouver, scored to make it 2-0 in the second period. Andersen finished with 29 saves, but Alex Edler’s snap shot fooled him from distance in the overtime.
Game Eight: March 9, Maple Leafs Beats Oilers 3-2 in Edmonton
Tavares scored three points (his 38th goal of the season, with two assists) and the Maple Leafs held off an Edmonton Oilers’ surge in the last few minutes of the game. Rielly and Jake Muzzin had goals, and Andersen made 33 saves. Both teams played well, but the Maple Leafs were much better through the middle of the ice and that was the difference.
What Did We Learn from These Eight Games?
Lesson #1: Zach Hyman Is Getting Better
Hyman has played well. He had seven points in this eight-game stretch (five goals, two assists); and, during these eight games, he was constantly in the middle of the play. He’s getting stronger. It’s easy to see why Mike Babcock uses Hyman so much when things are difficult or keeps him on the ice at the end of close games. Hyman plays hard-nosed hockey, and he will gets lots more ice time.
Lesson #2: Tyler Ennis Continues to Contribute
Ennis is playing bottom-six minutes, but producing like a top-six player. Against a tough Flames team, he scored three of his team’s six goals in the 6-2 win. He now has 12 goals and 17 points in 42 games this season, and every game he gives Babcock a solid option that makes the team stronger. He is versatile and valuable. I hope he stays next year.
Lesson #3: Frederik Andersen Is an Elite Goalie
Andersen is an elite goaltender. He has now played 50 games for the Maple Leafs, and his record is 33-13. His recent play has been stellar. Recently, Babcock noted that he would limit Andersen’s games to 56, but changed his mind to suggest 60 games. He is carrying the team and gives them their best chance to gain home-ice advantage for the playoffs. He faced 242 shots in this eight-game stretch and saved 226 of them (a .934 save percentage). His play allows his team to contend every night.
Lesson #4: Mitch Marner Continues His Career Season
Marner had 13 points during this eight-game stretch (three goals and 10 assists). It’s possible 100 points are within reach. With 14 games remaining, he has 82 points (24 goals and 58 assists). Getting 100 points will be hard, but not impossible. The Maple Leafs are a high-scoring team and have the third-most goals in the NHL, after the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks. Marner is leading the team offensively, and this eight-game stretch supported his value to the team.
Lesson #5: The Maple Leafs Are Strong in the Middle of the Ice
In re-reviewing these games to prepare this post, it was surprising just how many breakaways the Maple Leafs generated in the middle of the ice. Their quick, young forwards often force and pounce on defensemen’s mistakes. Doing this, the team generates a large number of breakaways. They don’t always score, but they often do. It seems to me a particular skill of this team, at least for these eight games.
Moving Towards the End of the Season
The Bruins lost 4-2 on Sunday night March 10 in Pittsburgh against the Penguins. It was the team’s first regulation loss since January. The Bruins had been on an almost unbelievable run, their longest point streak since the 1940-41 season. But I am not surprised they lost, and I don’t think they can retain that pace. They’ve had a couple of miracle comeback wins in recent games, which might be a sign they are holding on.
The Maple Leafs have 14 games remaining. I believe they are the stronger team overall, and I am looking forward to a race for home-ice advantage. It should be fun for fans of both teams to watch.