Florida-Toronto series recap: Some thoughts and stats following Game 4

There’s a pulse.

In the salary cap era, teams that are down 3-0 in a series have won just 3% of the time (2-60). That’s irrelevant now, and the stat that matters is that teams down 3-1 have won 10% of the time (12-114).

It happens every now and then, where a team comes back from a 3-1 series deficit, most notably earlier this year when the Panthers came back against Boston. A win tonight and the Leafs chances go up to 22%.

I’d be more confident in the Leafs ability to come back if the series had played out like I’d expected, with Toronto able to exploit more open ice and turn that into a relentless forecheck that created a lot of scoring chances and putting that speed and grindiness on the wings to good use. That hasn’t happened, though, and despite the Leafs holding a huge advantage in zone entries (382-326), controlled entries (133-114), and, dump-in recoveries (101-78), they haven’t turned that into a material advantage in scoring chances (53-51).

All four games have been real close, and it’s funny how close we are to this narrative being completely flipped. An extra goal on the powerplay (that they probably deserved) in Game 2 and a bounce in Game 3 overtime and this series obviously looks a lot different. This is the playoffs, and as I’ve said a lot, the margins are razor thin. A bit of bad luck in consecutive games, even if a series is being played evenly, can really haunt you, and it’s probably a little too much for the Leafs to recover from.

I think the Leafs have underperformed relative to my own expectation, but I also don’t think that they’re down 3-1 in this series on overall merit. They’ve spent a lot less time in the defensive zone than they did against Tampa Bay, they’re forcing the Panthers defenders to cough up the puck a lot, but the problem is the offence, specifically, finishing:

Scoring chancesNon-scoring chances

None of this is due to overpassing or laying off good shots (the Leafs are shooting a little less per minute of zone time against Florida than they were against Tampa) or missing the net or anything like that. There have been a few pucks that Sergei Bobrovsky has kind of scrambled to handle properly that haven’t gone in, and in a series where every game has been close, that extra bounce has a huge impact.

Anyway, let’s look at zone exits in this series against the Panthers, and see if you can spot a pattern:

No bonus points if you see the pattern.

I’m not great with Xs and Os, but I do have the data that can measure the change in effect for certain strategies, but it looked to me like the Leafs have found they can have success chipping the puck out past a pinching D to create a bit more speed, and also limit the negative effects of a turnover at the line, or in the neutral zone. Florida hasn’t had too much interest in playing with the puck unless they can hit some easy ice, so making the Panthers come 150 feet is a reasonable strategy here. The Leafs didn’t cut down on the Panthers chances in transition in Game 4, but they did cut chances off the cycle:

I’m not sure how much these things relate to the other. The Leafs D hasn’t had much trouble with turnovers or passing this series, but there have been moments I think where they’ve taken that extra second to make a play and it limits the chance a rush will succeed going the other way. In Game 4, if there was any tangible difference in how the Leafs played, I think it was the defence getting it off their sticks a hair quicker, and letting the forwards, who are all good puck hounds, chase it down to the neutral zone.

A major difference in this series thus far has been goals off the cycle, something I think the Leafs coaching staff is keenly aware of and is looking to cut down on the opportunities for the Panthers to take advantage. The fact that the Leafs winning goal in Game 4 came following a 27-second sequence in the offensive zone (one of 18 such OZ sequences of 20+ seconds, most the Leafs have had in any one game so far) is probably pretty rewarding.

Anyway, the Leafs got their bounces in Game 4, with a powerplay goal assisted by the referee’s leg, and an undeflected distance shot finding its way through Bobrovsky. They still have a big hill to climb, even though they played pretty well defensively in Game 4, they weren’t convincingly the better team in my eyes. Florida is a dangerous team with three excellent forward lines, and certainly not your average Cinderella bottom seed.

A few minor factoids

  • I’ve counted 19 zone exits against forward pressure by Aaron Ekblad this series. Only one of those exits is with control (5% Exit Ctrl%), but it was the flip pass to Sam Reinhart prior to his entry in overtime of Game 3 that led to the winning goal.
  • Auston Matthews has 11 scoring chances this series at 5v5, most of any player. He has yet to record a goal. The worry is that his hand injury (that Jonas Siegel in The Athletic reported on after the deadline) is causing problems again. His shot just doesn’t have the same kind of whip or confidence.
  • After Game 4, Mitch Marner is now tied with Alexander Barkov with 6 scoring chance setups at 5v5, which is most in the series (though Barkov has a better rate, having played 4 fewer minutes). None of those setups have resulted in goals, for either player.
  • In Game 4, Florida shot more from the perimeter than they did previously: 110 non-scoring chance shot attempts per 60 minutes inside the offensive zone, more than any other game in the series (they’d averaged 102 to that point). The Leafs, comparatively, shot less often from the perimeter than they had up in the series to date, with just 62 shots, down from 94 in the other three games. (The Leafs had 115 non-scoring chance shots per 60 minutes in zone in Game 3, a game they were criticized for not shooting enough)
  • William Nylander leads the series at 5v5 in scoring chance contributions per 60 minutes at 5v5 (12.2), controlled entries per 60 minutes (19), controlled entry percentage (65%). Only Sam Reinhart’s entries have created more scoring chances for his team than Nylander’s, but Nylander is playing absolutely possessed right now. He doesn’t want his season to end.
  • Luke Schenn’s pokecheck to take away Carter Verhaeghe’s scoring chance late in Game 4 was Schenn’s 8th such scoring chance disruption at 5v5 this series, leading all players by a mile. He’s struggled at times defending in transition but his puck movement has been more than acceptable. Whatever happens the rest of this series, I think I’m going to take an “L” here.

Programming note: for those of you who purchased subscriptions, I appreciate it a lot, but I would advise you to cancel those subscriptions. If you’re interested in supporting this work financially, there’s still a donation form at the bottom of the “About” page, but I have no interest in continuing to stress myself out by getting timely, valuable information out to a hundred or so subscribers rather than writing at my own pace. I appreciate those that subscribed and kept me going throughout the year, but I will no longer post any subscriber-only content, instead focusing on nuanced, balanced analysis of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.

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