Things have been better, but they’ve also been a lot worse.
First off, I want to commend the quality of the hockey that both teams have played this series. After watching 13 Lightning-Leafs playoff games over the last month, watching a new team is a bit refreshing. Watching a team that opens up the play a little bit more and allows for some speed both ways is wonderful. The Leafs and Lightning were locked into very defensive battles with the Lightning, and the game only seldom broke open. These Florida games have seen very fast-paced hockey in just about every period, and a lot of open ice. One reason to hope the Leafs can extend this series a bit here is because, for neutral fans, the games have been very good.
Second, if hockey isn’t enjoyable to you, stop watching it. This has understandably been an infuriating series to watch for fans, with the team seemingly coming out flat in their first time past the first round in the salary cap era. It’s resulted in the injury of a promising rookie on a non-hockey play that was somehow unpenalized, an overtime loss on a sequence of poor plays by a normally reliable defender, and the team’s star players not producing. That is, unfortunately, playoff hockey.
My goal this season was to introduce a little bit of nuance into the discussion by watching the game and painting an honest picture of what’s happening out there, why certain decisions are being made, and what sorts of data the team is paying attention to. I understand that is not what some Leafs fans want right now. I think when it’s time to perform the autopsy, I’ll point to whether I’d bother running back this core again (hint: unless this team can win four straight: I wouldn’t, be we’ll get into that), where things went wrong for this core, and philosophical discussions about whether the Shanaplan Era could be considered a success or failure. But it’s not the time for that now.
I’ll keep this post free for all. I really appreciate the subscription money and donations, and I’m sorry for not keeping up and writing about each game for you all, but I want to expose a wider audience to this sort of analysis and see if I can turn down the temperature a little. Let’s see if we can identify where it all went wrong.
Where did it all go wrong?
Ah, gee, that’s an ominous header.
I pointed out midway through Game 3 that the Leafs basically weren’t generating anything unless it was off the rush, and the Panthers puck management in all zones was really preventing Toronto from getting those rush opportunities. After breaking down the data, I’ve found that’s partially true:
I have the scoring chances at 42-39 for Florida through three games (Game 1 and Game 3 were both much closer than I think people realized, at least at 5v5).
The Leafs have been the better team off the rush (within 6 seconds of an offensive zone entry, and 11 seconds of a defensive zone exit) but the Panthers have been better in transition (within 6 seconds of an offensive zone entry, but not following a zone exit). Basically, the Panthers have done a very good job at capitalizing on Leaf mistakes in the neutral zone and going the other way. They’re striking from about 100 feet, while the Leafs are succeeding when they have to come 200 feet.
The leader in rush chances for the Leafs? Auston Matthews, with 5 rush chance contributions, plus 2 transition chance contributions. He’s been the most dangerous forward in the series based on opportunities alone. Somebody pointed out to me that his wrist looks like it’s still bothering him, and I think I agree. This in particular is a play that I’ve seen Auston score countless times on, and this is one of the weakest shots I’ve seen from him on a downhill wrister preceded by a pass. He doesn’t get much of this one:
Matthews has five goals in the playoffs, all against Tampa, but a couple have been tip-ins, and only two have been of the classic Auston Matthews “Fuck You” variety where he gets some open space and wires one through.
Back to the team scoring chances, and here’s my breakdown for each of the first three games:
One thing Florida has been simply better at is getting the puck on net when they get their chances. 32 of Florida’s 64 attempted shots from the scoring chance area have been put on either Joseph Woll or Ilya Samsonov, while the Leafs have just 23 of 63 on Sergei Bobrovsky. No need to help Bobrovsky along, the way he’s played the last few seasons.
Anyway, Game 3 was pretty funny, because there were some thoughts that the Leafs weren’t shooting enough and trying to be too pretty. I had the opposite thought, after looking at the data: the Leafs took 121 perimeter shots per 60 minutes of offensive zone time in that game, their highest rate in the playoffs, bested only by Game 4 of the Tampa series. It was the only time this series the Leafs were whipped, even though they did control the first period and portions of the third, breaking down a little as the game opened up late.
So, by looking at the overall chances, I’d say that Florida has been the slightly better team, but not better by a big enough margin to have me think they should be up 3-0 in this series.
One area I should also note is that the Leafs powerplay has been superb when given the opportunity. Even if it hasn’t scored, it’s generated scoring chances at a high rate, and the Panthers are particularly lucky they got out of Game 2 relatively unscathed.
Player chances, both teams
All stats below are per60 rates unless otherwise specified:
We’ve gone through most of these numbers, so not necessary to break them down again. The big difference in the series at 5v5 is the goals off the cycle and forecheck, with Florida taking a 5-1 lead in raw totals there, and the Leafs have been unable to capitalize on their advantage off the rush, ahead just 2-1.
I was pretty shocked to see that cycle shots and cycle chances were actually that close, but the Panthers have obviously scored a lot of their goals there.
I mentioned that Marner’s set up some looks, and I get that people are down on him, especially since he doesn’t produce late in series, but he’s set up 9scoring chances at 5v5 since Game 5 of the Tampa series, most on the Leafs, and I believe that’s the best rate, as well (I keep the Florida and Tampa data on different files and haven’t combined them here).
He’s still setting up his teammates, but isn’t really taking chances. He was getting inside a little bit more often versus Tampa Bay. I don’t know if he’s a little too hesitant, feeling the pressure, or whatever. Shooting more won’t give him more opportunities to open things up throughout the game, since players get so few touches in the offensive zone as it is. I have liked his playmaking and his transition game, not his defence.
On the positives for the Leafs, William Nylander leads the series in scoring chance contributions. He was noticeably the best player on the ice in both Games 2 and 3 in my opinion.
A player I’m a little more concerned about is Ryan O’Reilly, who has basically been a non-factor at 5v5 this series.
Gotta say, I didn’t expect Sasha Barkov to be second to Nylander in chance contributions, but he and Nylander have the same rate of scoring chance setups, though none of those have resulted in goals yet.
Florida’s top line of Duclair-Barkov-Verhaeghe have been the most dangerous line in the series, with two goals at 5v5 to show for it. The second line hasn’t really come through, with only the Nick Cousins goal. Matt Tkachuk made his mark in front of the net and in the corners in Game 1, but has otherwise been quiet offensively, with just two scoring chances on his own and a handful of contributions, and his game probably has room to improve.
I’ve liked this Florida third line for over a year now. I can remember when Leafs fans were howling at how we could give up Mason Marchment, but I don’t think he was ever the driving force on that line. Sam Reinhart is a legitimate star who happens to be on a third line with all the winger star power the Panthers have, and Anton Lundell is a fantastic sophomore player who should have garnered a few more Calder Trophy votes last season than he did. They’ve broken through for a couple of goals and have really out-played the Leafs third line.
Player entries and exits, both teams:
Toronto has a healthy lead in zone entry attempts per 60, signifying that they’re getting the puck a lot in the neutral zone. Even though they have a higher failed entry rate than the Panthers, they’re still winning the non-failed entry battle, 92-80 per 60 minutes. That’s pretty good, and the more open ice has been noticeable compared to the Tampa series.
The problem is that, unless they’re getting an odd-man rush, the Leafs have really failed to convert their zone entries. Ever since Game 2 of the Tampa series, after which the Leafs had 0.40 chances per controlled entry, it’s been tough sledding to create off the rush. They had 0.24 chances per controlled entry in Games 3-6 of the Tampa series, and just 0.23 in the first three games of the Florida series. I think that’s unsustainably low, since there are lots of pucks that are bouncing over sticks or blocked passes. We’ll see if they play long enough to have that turn around for them.
The Leafs 37% controlled entry rate is much higher than it was against Tampa (32%), but they’re recovering fewer dump-ins, at 46%, down from 51% against the Bolts. The Panthers have a huge advantage in puck recovery rate, which hasn’t led to more chances, but has led to more zone time.
I don’t know what to think about Sam Lafferty: on one hand, he’s driven quite a bit of offence, as evidenced by the scoring chances following his zone entries (and his individual scoring chance setup numbers) but he’s also turned the puck a lot in the neutral zone relative to how much he’s played, and that’s an area the Leafs have struggled. He has the lowest controlled entry to failed entry ration of any player in the series.
Here, we can also see another aspect of Nylander’s dominance. He has 16 controlled entries in 24 attempts through 3 games, which has led to 6 Leafs scoring chances. High volume (30 entries/60) and a high rate of success (67% of entries with control). Give him the puck.
Now, note Matthews. Matthews’ zone entries have been a point of concern of mine for a lot of the season, and while Marner has done a good job entering the zone, maybe it’s time to go back to 34-88 with how dominant Willie has been with the puck? Just a thought, but there’s a big hole on that top line in terms of puck carrying, which of course impacts those players’ overall numbers (you don’t get a high on-ice expected goals rating without a few controlled entries here and there). Michael Bunting hasn’t met a puck he’s wanted to keep on his stick at all this series, either. Without Matthews going, that line is pretty disjointed, and it seems unfair to pin it all on Marner, who has been the best player with the puck on that line.
Funny, I write all that about Sam Lafferty, and his stats are actually quite similar to Reinhart’s (Reinhart is obviously playing a lot more so the rates aren’t as extreme), with Reinhart only entering with control 20% of the time, though one of his 4 zone entries was that absolute clinic in patience to beat TJ Brodie on the Game 3 winner:
That entry was preceded by both Bunting and Matthews getting the puck deep but the Leafs failing to do anything to get the puck back. Nobody will ever criticize a player for getting the puck deep, but those were two unnecessary turnovers that led to a goal (the original Bunting dump-in comes before the clip)
Otherwise, on Florida, it’s obviously Barkov having a great series, with a lot of their other forwards in the 40-45% range in controlled entry percentage, from Verhaeghe down to Luostarinen. Bennett and Lundell are the only top nine players for Florida whose entries haven’t impacted the game positively for them some way.
Both teams, entry defence:
Giordano is the only Leaf whose entries against have resulted in a high rate of scoring chances against, but it’s only two chances against on five entries. Giordano’s generally been facing players lower in the lineup, so I take his entries against stats with a grain of salt. The Leafs are generally doing a good job with Florida off the rush, with all players in the top four allowing entries with control 50% of the time or better.
For Florida, their top four is really taking on a lot of the minutes, and Ekblad, Staal, and Montour have give up their share of controlled entries by also contained pretty well. When the Leafs get chances, it’s usually some odd-man rush (which won’t be classified as an entry target) and though I haven’t liked how Staal has played at all this series, I can’t deny that the Leafs have failed to expose him in any way.
Exits, by team:
The Leafs are able to exit with control a lot better than they were against Tampa. The Panthers have exited with control just 44% of the time (their D just 28% of the time) but I think that’s less Leaf forecheck pressure and more by design. The Panthers are playing some “punt and hunt” hockey, which has worked since they have had success being opportunistic in the neutral zone. The Leafs need to capitalize on all the extra entries they get because the Panthers have been poor at getting pucks to their forwards with control, and they’ve also turned the puck over a bunch more.
Marner leads the Leafs forwards in controlled exits, which is an area Toronto has had a pretty healthy lead in. That may seem like a shock to people, but I generally think he’s done an good job at setting the table on offence.
Basically, every Leaf in the top six is exiting the zone at better than 60%, and the second line are putting up Pierre Engvall-levels of exits. That’s good, and basically where the team needs to be to have a chance to play their style of game. The problem is that the bottom six haven’t really done that at all. Kerfoot’s exits were poor against Tampa Bay as well, but he’s the only one in the bottom six worth a damn breaking the puck out with any sort of volume. The rest of those forwards have been deferring to the D, who have been getting in trouble below the line and working too slowly.
Morgan Rielly has taken his rightful place back as the high-volume exit man, after he and Schenn were a bit more equal against Tampa Bay. Schenn, in addition to Liljegren, had some turnover issues as well, as did Erik Gustafsson, with 4 turnovers on his 13 DZ touches in Game 3. McCabe and Brodie have both been good and efficient with the puck, but I think Brodie has looked poor away from it, covering for McCabe who has been overaggressive at times, forcing Brodie to play a bit more passively.
Are you a Florida Panther whose name isn’t Carter Verhaeghe, Alexander Barkov, or Matthew Tkachuk? Don’t you even think about trying to make a play in the defensive zone. Now, that may hurt the team’s zone entry differential, but aside from one weird nerd in Vancouver, nobody really cares about that stuff.
I hate to see strategies like that work for teams. Ekblad had a single controlled exit: the one right before the overtime winner where he basically threw it for Sam Reinhart to chest down at the far blue line. Florida are really stretching the ice and the forwards have done a great job skating onto it.
It’s also important to note that while the Leafs haven’t scored much off the forecheck or cycle, they have forced some turnovers down low. Every Florida D except Forsling and Gudas has had some turnovers issues, particularly Ekblad (rocking a 0.1 controlled exit to turnover ratio, a number I didn’t even think was possible in the post-Randy Carlyle era of hockey), but the Panthers have been able to hold the fort and defend the front of the net.
So what did we learn?
What did we learn in this post? It’s been a close series, both teams have done some things well, and Florida are a good team with a lot of offensive weapons that can hurt you. The Leafs have been letting Florida off the hook for playing a style of hockey that isn’t conducive to possession, and it doesn’t help that their best shooter is having trouble actually shooting the puck.
Anyway, enjoy Game 4.