New York Islanders 2 at Toronto Maple Leafs 5 – 2023-01-23 recap

Not a great start for the Leafs, but they settled down midway through and out-classed an inferior opponent en route to a victory with an uneventful third period.

Just as a programming note, I’m going to put up recaps for recent games a day or two after they happen from here on out. I’ll still continue posting the recaps of older games (I’m planning on writing up a slew of Leafs games later this afternoon), but this means that some of the analysis will at least be current. I feel like I’ve let down the subscribers over the last month and a half by posting recaps over a week late on some occasions. While the information is out, the games aren’t usually front of mind.

Like, in a week or two, we may still remember this game as the one where William Nylander and John Tavares dominated, but we might forget some key details: early saves from Ilya Samsonov, Toronto taking over a period to get it together offensively, and just how close Tavares was to being offside on would wind up being the 2-2 goal:

I think if Lane Lambert challenged this, by the way, he’d have lost. In this still, it looks like the back part of Tavares’ skate blade is just even with the back edge of the blue line, and the puck looks to be an inch over the blueline. It would be very hard to find evidence to overturn the goal, and it’s a great call by #77 Caleb Apperson to let the play stand. Watching live, I thought it was offside for sure, and this is a rare play where the play looks offside at live speed, but the goal only really stands on a frame-by-frame analysis of the play.

Anyway, that’s besides the point here. I had a few thoughts to get to before the stats and the subscriber content:

First, the early difference in the game between the two teams. By expected goals, the Islanders were ahead 4.1 to 3.3, according to Natural Stat Trick and 4.6 to 3.7 by Moneypuck. However, on Moneypuck, if you flip to “flurry adjusted” which controls for rebounds, it’s much closer, at 4.1 to 3.6.

Rebounds are interesting, since there’s no real good way to account for them. A lot of goals are scored off rebounds, particularly in tight. However, rebounds where players have a clear shooting lane are different than rebounds where the shooter is just whacking at the goalie’s pads hoping for a good bounce. The sheer number of goals on those clear shot rebounds causes rebound shots from close to have a high expected shooting percentage. But then players that whack at the pads really juice the expected goal totals by doing so, and, anecdotally, those shots don’t often go in. What’s worse, is every arena counts them differently (in my own tracking, I count the first distinct “whack” as the only attempt on the play, and won’t count another shot unless there’s a distinct change in what the attacking player is trying to do)

Next, how do you account for rebounds when it comes to gameplay? If both teams have 5 scoring chances in a period, but one team had 3 rebound shots and the other had 0, which team had the better period? I’d argue the one with fewer rebounds, that was able to set up more first shots. Any other shot in a sequence is conditional on the first shot never having gone in, which is a win for the defence, in theory, but it winds up messing around with the data. The team that creates more scoring chances off first shots is arguably the one moving the puck better and creating more, especially if rebound chances are consecutive. Two goals are possible on two first shot chances, while only one goal is possible on two chances that were consecutive rebound shots, since the second rebound only occurs if the first chance does not go in.

Anyway, by the end of the game, while I had the Islanders out-chancing the Leafs, it was mainly due to rebounds, and also good defence around the net just tipping away the puck from Leafs shooters. The Leafs, by my count, had 9 scoring chances disrupted in the game. Islander sticks were a little bit better around the net, on both offence and defence.

That’s a big part of the game of course: setting up shots and taking shots are two different talents, and I think it’s key to note that even in the early part of the second period when the Leafs were down a goal, behind by several scoring chances, and in the game solely due to their goalie, the teams were about equal in the game between the Bowman lines.

From that point on though, the turning point of the game being Samsonov’s glove stop off Anthony Beauvillier two minutes into the second period, the Leafs started cruising. They recognized the aggression of the Islanders defencemen and rather than attack up the ice through the middle with short passes, started using long distance passes and use their speed to create space.

From that point on, not only were the Leafs able to use their speed, but were also in a better spot to set up their forecheck. They held the Islanders to a controlled exit percentage of just 48% in the final 38 minutes, and forced a turnover on 20% of touches by their defencemen. In addition, the Leafs recovered 62% of dump-ins and entered the zone with control 47% of the time, among their best games. I don’t know if the change was caused by the coaches or the players themselves, but the team adjusted and found a way to open up space in a game where there previously was none.

So that made a big difference. The Leafs scored three of their 5-on-5 goals off the rush, and their powerplay goal was a counter-attack. They drew more penalties and their powerplay was very strong.

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