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Leafs vs. Stars Recap: High-Scoring Low-Scoring Hockey

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The Leafs win 3-1 in a game much less defensive than the score.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

After a gong show of an outing in Texas last week, the Dallas Stars came to Toronto tonight for a rematch. Stars-Leafs may be the NHL matchup with the largest ratio of offence to defence.

First Period

There was some end-to-end action early, but the first really sustained pressure in the game came from the Matthews line. While it was Matthews (unsurprisingly) who got the zone entry, it was Hyman and Brown who did a lot of the dancing; the play culminated in a pass from Hyman, below the goal line, out front to Brown, who fired a wrister off the far post.

The next great chance was off a spectacular chipped stretch pass from Mitch Marner, who sprung Tyler Bozak for a breakaway. Bozak was unable to beat Stars goalie Antti Niemi, who managed to steer the shot into the far corner.

Neither team (surprise) was all that interested in defence, but the Leafs had the better of the early action, and the two best chances.

The Matthews line had another gangbusters shift, which Niemi managed to end with a desperate netfront smother. However, the pressure paid off for the Leafs immediately subsequently: Bozak won the offensive zone faceoff, Marner picked it up and threw it back to Jake Gardiner at the point. Gardiner fired a shot past Niemi for his seventh of the year and the first goal of the night.

1-0 Leafs.

The Stars had their first sustained zone time against the heretofore solid Matthews line, and Esa Lindell fired a shot off the post. Lindell had another shot from the point that Jiri Hudler tipped on goal, but Curtis McElhinney blockered it aside.

Zach Hyman, who was being even more Zach Hyman than usual, was like a dog on a bone for loose pucks, and he generated multiple chances on another good offensive shift. On the other hand, the Sharp-Faksa-Shore line once again showed that the Leafs cannot stop talented forwards from getting to their net.

The Leafs then had another string of chances as Nylander nearly fed Kadri in front of a half-open net (the pass was just obstructed enough to be stopped.) Subsequent to that, Antoine Roussel and friends got the better of the battle of the fourth lines, nearly potting a scramble goal past Curtis McElhinney. Don’t let the single goal fool you: there was exactly as little defence as expected.

Nazem Kadri was dinged for a hook and then a cross check, taking a double minor. I thought the hook was actually worse than the cross check because the latter often goes uncalled, but Twitter seemed to disagree with me. Either way, the Leafs had four minutes to kill, split almost exactly in half by the intermission.

The Stars scared the daylights out of me with their second powerplay unit, which spent ninety seconds dancing the Leafs around before Seguin, Benn and Eaves even got on. The Leafs hung on for dear life, with a timely clear by Connor Brown, and survived the period.

This was just end to end to end action. I thought the Leafs had the better of the play and the more dangerous chances, but the numbers tell me I was wrong on both counts. The Matthews and Bozak lines did at least look especially dangerous; the Smith line got killed by the Stars’ fourth group. I honestly cannot name anyone who I thought looked good defensively on either team.

Second Period

The Stars’ first unit started the period, and they played shooting gallery with the Leafs. Patrick Eaves threatened especially as the standard finisher for the unit, but McElhinney made saves and the Leafs hung on. A pass back to the point that evaded Stars d-man John Klingberg helped, giving the Leafs a free clear towards the end of the second penalty.

The Leafs had an excellent sustained shift that was maintained by Mitch Marner making a neat footwork play in spite of a broken stick. Seguin and Eaves had a dangerous pair of chances on McElhinney; then the Leafs had a 2-on-1 that ended with William Nylander ringing a post behind Niemi. It’s not that there was any chance of this game ending 1-0; it’s just staggering it was 1-0 as long as it was.

[inhales]

Zach Hyman and Connor Brown put together a two-on-one rush where the pass to Brown didn’t get through quite clean enough for Brown to finish it. Auston Matthews got a rush on the same shift that Antoine Roussel took a penalty stopping, and the Leafs went to the PP.

Despite some good chances for both Marner and Nylander off cross-crease passes, the Leafs were unable to add to their lead.

It honestly became a struggle to keep up with the flurry of offensive chances because they simply didn’t stop. JVR had a shot on goal that Bozak almost managed to direct into the net. Subsequently to that, Tyler Seguin took a holding penalty to send the Leafs back to the power play. The Leafs absolutely wasted it, struggling to get over the blue line. As always with the Leafs’ PP, it doesn’t look any good if they can’t get zone entires; the best chance was a shorthanded 2-on-1 for Cracknell and the Stars, which McElhinney turned aside.

After another string of chances, the Leafs finally struck again. Auston Matthews won the puck back to Jake Gardiner on an offensive-zone draw, and Gardiner fired a point shot that Auston Matthews deflected past Niemi for Goal #2. The goal was originally credited as Gardiner’s second of the night, but was adjusted to credit Matthews with his 25th of the year. 2-0 Leafs.

This was just a straight-up gunfight. Curtis McElhinney played well, but both he and the Leafs were spectacularly lucky not to have been scored on. They weren’t unduly lucky to be leading—the Leafs gave better than they got in the second period at EV, with the Bozak line having an especially strong night. Jake Gardiner, after a rough couple of games, was back in the saddle as the Leafs’ de-facto 1D. The Leafs even kept the Stars’ shot total down to 7. But the Leafs, once again, had a two-goal lead in a game where they had played very loose defence. Gulp.

Third Period

The Leafs had their first quality chance of the third as Nazem Kadri streaked in and tried to cut to the net; Jordie Benn knocked Kadri down and sent him into the net, which came off its moorings.

Patrick Eaves had another bouncing shot that McElhinney fielded. Prior to seeing him last game and this one, I thought of Eaves as mostly a ride-along for Seguin and Benn as well as a Civil War veteran, but he impressed me tonight with his ability to generate dangerous shots. Obviously his more famous linemates had a lot to do with that, but he’s a real contributor.

Zach Hyman got a holding call for tugging on a Dallas jersey. The Stars scored immediately as Cody Eakin won the puck to Tyler Seguin, and Seguin ripped a shot past McElhinney. 2-1.

Eakin cross-checked Mitch Marner and broke his stick on Marner’s shoulders doing so. The Leafs had some decent pressure, but the Stars wound up rushing in shorthanded the other way. Adam Cracknell bowled over Curtis McElhinney trying to finish the play, and was called for goaltender interference. The Leafs thus had 66 seconds of 5-on-3.

The Leafs were ultimately unable to cash on the 5-on-3. However, shortly after it ended, Radek Faksa took a faceoff violation penalty for using his hand to win a draw, and the Leafs went back to the two man advantage. Lindy Ruff was, as you might expect, not pleased.

This time, the Leafs did not waste the chance. Nazem Kadri threw back to the point; Nikita Zaitsev wired a puck past Antti Niemi, who was screened pretty severely by Leo Komarov. Zaitsev was credited with the goal to push the Leaf lead to 3-1.

The Leafs didn’t score on their remaining power play time from the Faksa penalty. The Leafs next had a chance on a two on one from Tyler Bozak and Matt Martin; Martin was unable to get his stick on Bozak’s pass, or it would almost certainly have been another goal.

The Stars began to come on in style; Tyler Seguin had the best chance cutting towards the net and backhanding the puck on McElhinney. The Leafs were terrifyingly vulnerable in their own end, but they seemed slightly less stuck there than at other times, at least. Still, there was a distinct sense of the Stars coming on stronger, and it was only heightened when Dallas got the inevitable powerplay they were due for (hooking, called on Connor Carrick.) The Stars got two shots, but the scariest chance came right after the powerplay ended; McElhinney moved laterally to stop a Patrick Sharp one-timer.

The Stars pulled their goalie with a little over three minutes left, and peppered McElhinney, but he was up to the task. 3-1 is your final.

Thoughts

  • The temptation after this game will probably be to view it along the lines of this Henny tweet from the mid-third.
  • Not to give Henny a hard time, but this really isn’t true. The Leafs were not good defensively tonight and it was a combination of good luck and Curtis McElhinney that made them look good defensively. When the puck came into the Leafs zone, they Leafed as usual and scared the daylights out of me.
  • The Leafs’ adjusted 5v5 CF% in the third was 24%. That is beyond bad. It is calamitous and it will absolutely burn them most times they do it. I don’t mean to suggest the Leafs didn’t deserve this win—they were just as impressive offensively as they were weak defensively, and the Stars are more or less the same sort of team, so it was the same game both ways. But the Leafs did not fix their problems tonight. Okay? Okay. Now some happy stuff.
  • I don’t really believe Curtis McElhinney is as good as he’s looked this year, because I assume he hasn’t gotten way better at age 33. But he was both lucky and good tonight, and the Leafs were fortunate to have him and his .975 backstopping them tonight (plus a couple of lucky posts.) Failing to get adequate backup goaltending can really damage a team; just ask Claude Julien.
  • The Bozak line had a strong evening, as did the Matthews line through two periods (somewhat less so in the third.) When Zach Hyman got in offensively he did an inspired version of his bull terrier routine, which is always fun. Most of all, this was a great redemption game for Jake Gardiner—a goal, an assist, a typically dominant possession showing, and nothing too glaring in the chances against.
  • The fourth line gets crushed in shot attempts so routinely it’s not really worth remarking on most of the time, but Ben Smith managed an adjusted CF% of 9 (nine) percent in a game where he was primarily matched against the opposing fourth line. Come on, man.
  • As remarked above, Patrick Eaves really impressed me as a gunner in the potent Stars offence, and he had several of the chances that nearly beat McElhinney. Tyler Seguin was dangerous in the offensive zone and weak in his own, but multiple times he reminded you who he is. None of the Dallas defencemen actually seemed to me to get exposed too badly, considering every Leafs goal was generated by a point shot.
  • The Leafs are now tied in points (60) for second in the Atlantic division, although Ottawa holds the higher seed based on one fewer game played. This is encouraging—despite my snarky shot at them this morning, the Bruins are a good team, and it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them make a late surge. Outperform Ottawa and we’re a lot more comfortable.
  • Speaking of Ottawa: our next game is against St. Louis, who blasted the Sens 6-0 tonight and who gave us a 5-1 wringing last week. Better be ready to roll, boys.