As you’re all aware, the Leafs are heading home for Game 3 of their Round One series against the Washington Capitals. They split the two games in D.C. in dramatic fashion, with an OT loss in Game One and a double OT win in Game Two. They’re still definite underdogs facing the Caps, but they’ve shown a hell of a lot of fight.
While we wait for Monday night, let’s see what we can pull out of the numbers from Games 1 and 2.
- Toronto coach Mike Babcock has mostly gotten his key forward matchup, and it’s been for the most part successful. Nazem Kadri has played over 19 5v5 minutes against Alex Ovechkin, and in those minutes he narrowly has the better of the Great 8 in CF% (53% for Kadri), shots, and scoring chances. Kadri and friends had done an excellent job against the Caps’ top line until one marathon shift in the third period of Game 2, where the Caps simply wore them out for over a minute before Nicklas Backstrom tucked a puck behind Frederik Andersen. Still, if the Leafs’ shutdown grouping is able to play straight up against the Caps’ top unit successfully, that bodes well for the Leafs’ chances—and Babcock now has the last change.
- William Nylander is inevitable. Top line RW William Nylander leads the Leafs in CF% (61.6% adjusted) over the two games, leads them in scoring chance percentage, and—if I may bring in the eye test—has looked dangerous as all hell. Auston Matthews has been fighting through some tough checking, but that seems to have opened up more room for the blond assassin on his wing. If this line keeps performing like they have, they are going to put the hurt on somebody.
- Mitch Marner is struggling to find room. He hasn’t struggled on the scoresheet—a goal and an assist in two games is just swell—but Marner is heavily underwater in chances and shot attempts, lagging his linemates considerably and in last place on the team. The Caps have been keying on him physically and he’s taken some big hits. At the same time, he’s been impressively resilient, his backchecking on Ovechkin to stop a Game 2 breakaway was heroic, and the coverage on him seems to have allowed more space for his LW, James van Riemsdyk. Hang in there, Mitch.
- The Leafs need to stay out of the box. This is a) blindingly obvious and b) somewhat beyond controlling if the refereeing is going to be as incoherent as it was in Game 2. But the Caps are 3/8 on the powerplay, for a 37.5% conversion rate. Washington simply has too many weapons on the powerplay for the Leafs to survive extended time down a man. At even strength, they’ve shown they can play with the Caps, so avoiding unnecessary penalties—like Kadri’s retaliatory cross checks last game—is critical if Toronto is going to help its chances.
- Toronto has dictated the pace of this series. In the regular season, the Leafs were the most action-packed team in hockey. In terms of 5v5 shot attempts per minute for both teams—essentially how much offensive action there was in the game combined—the Leafs led the league with 1.97. The Capitals ranked 21st in the NHL with a much more sedate 1.82; the expectation in this series going in was that Washington would slow down the Leafs’ high-flying players with their elite defence. Instead, the first two games of the series have averaged a rocket-fueled 2.27 events per minute, which seems to clearly indicate the Caps have been playing the Leafs on the Leafs’ usual terms of “everything all the time.” That doesn’t mean Toronto is dominating—Washington has the personnel to play run-and-gun, and they have done so—but I can’t imagine Barry Trotz is pleased with this series turning into a gunfight.
Sean Tierney’s graphic work bears this out on an individual basis.
The Leafs' shot rates are in the same relative spot as the reg season, which should surprise no one. It's fun, always fun, nothing but fun. pic.twitter.com/7vIRU98dGr— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 16, 2017
- Frederik Andersen has been exceptional. Yes, he’d like to have the OT winner in Game One back, but by and large, the Leafs have had the benefit of their starter outplaying the opposing goalie—and when the opposing goalie is Braden Holtby, that’s no mean feat. I’ll again cite Sean, because he’s neatly visualized the goals saved above average of all the playoff starters so far:
Goals saved above average (5v5).— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 16, 2017
Checks out by the eye test too. Allen has stood on his head. Andersen has saved ~3 goals. pic.twitter.com/GcPJbIdy2D
- Beware the Eller line. In Game One, the Caps’ two-way line centred by Lars Eller regularly got to line up against the Leafs’ fourth line, and Eller’s group feasted. Mike Babcock wound up putting the Bozak line out against Eller a bit more in Game Two; while this wasn’t a great success either, it worked out somewhat better on the whole. At some point, line-matching with one line forces you to take a disadvantageous matchup elsewhere, and Eller’s line is probably where the Leafs take the hit. Toronto’s fourth line is capable of being effective in this series, as Game Two so dramatically showed, but too much time against Eller may be costly.
- Toronto is in with a chance. Most of all, all the numbers show what your eyes probably told you: the Leafs are going toe-to-toe with a very good hockey team. It hasn’t been all Toronto by any means, but every metric shows the Leafs are at least competitive. That’s a damn good start.