Dom Luszczyszyn on Twitter: “Leafs are at home against Buffalo, playing its third string goalie, currently on an epic losing streak. There’s never been a more guaranteed loss in franchise history.”
Cam Charron, in reply: “the Leafs are fantastic at subverting the audience’s expectations.”
It’s kind of a running gag that the Leafs play the top teams well and then lay an egg against the worst teams. I don’t know how much of it is luck, versus how much of it is that players on the worst teams save up what little they have to give the Maple Leafs their best effort.
The Leafs scored early and often, just the third time this season they’ve put at least 4 past the opposing goalie. It was a good make right game after all that went wrong in the game against the Devils, with the Leafs able to remind a national audience that they still have a little firepower.
Late in the game, the Hockey Night in Canada scorebug flashed the shot attempts to that point in the game. I forget what it was in that moment, but the total count at the end was 62 for Buffalo and 42 for Toronto, which is probably a little misleading in telling the story of the way this game was played. To my eye, while the Sabres held an early edge in zone time, the 5v5 shot attempts and scoring chances remained fairly even throughout the game, with the Sabres converting a big advantage in powerplay time (11:07 on the PP compared to the Leafs 1:44) into some extra work for Matt Murray, who has now put together three strong games since coming back from injury.
I don’t know if there are any big lessons to be learned from this game. The Leafs took a lead and just kind of coasted. They gave up a little too much on the PK than you’d like and Buffalo had a lot of controlled entries and rush chances, but I don’t think at any point the Leafs were in danger of seeing a lead slip away, though the Sabres did manage a few decent shots on their powerplay with the score 3-1.
I’m not crowning the Maple Leafs yet: this is a game they should have won, and they did, but I think it’s fair to praise a full 60-minute effort when it’s due. There are some things to quibble with, such as the Tavares line, now with Nylander on it, failed to generate many scoring chances at 5v5. The Matthews line didn’t really get much off the rush, and Jordie Benn had a difficult time handling his top pair assignment.
The other thing, and I’m guilty of this too, is that maybe people were a little early to declare Buffalo’s rebuild over. They have a strong top line, but their special teams (aside from their powerplay against the Leafs). Per Natural Stat Trick, they’re 25th in scoring chances generated at 5v4, and 25th in scoring chances allowed at 4v5. That’s quite difficult to overcome. Although we didn’t see it tonight, they’re also 25th in scoring chances allowed at 5v5 when leading. Generally, if a team is quite good offensively or defensively, it will show up at different game states. A strong offensive team will generally be better relative to the rest of the league when trailing than tied, and a strong defensive team will be better relative to the rest of the league when leading than tied, just based on the way the flow of the game affects the play.
In addition, following their slow start, the Leafs are now up to 10th in the NHL in points percentage. Their overtime record is oddly poor. Last season in regulation after 19 games they were 9-6-4. This season, they’re 9-5-5, so while they’re running behind last year’s pace in the standings, they’re probably as good in regulation, despite not really breaking through offensively yet.
I still think that’s coming. There’s too much talent on this team to keep shooting at such a low percentage, and they’re lucky that the powerplay has been good and the defence has been good and the goaltending has been good, good enough to win them a few games as they sort through this.
Note: The last couple of weeks have been very draining when it comes to tracking games. I’ve unfortunately lost the ability to track this game live. Frankly, the state of legal hockey streaming in Canada is deplorable, and it makes doing this a lot tougher. If you’re interested in learning more about hockey, please subscribe. It’s roughly the cost of a cup of a latte each month, and the more subscribers I have, the more motivating it will be to push through the myriad of issues I run into when trying to track 162 of these games promptly.
Trust me, I would much rather be writing about the games than trying to sell my content. I’ve never been a good salesman, but I know I’m learning a lot from doing these each game.
Subscribe to get the stats
Subscribe for $5.99/month to get access to Maple Leafs stats and analysis you can’t get anywhere else.