Well, they made a fight of it, but the Leafs dropped 5-4 to the Washington Capitals in Game 4, and now the series is tied at two games apiece. The Leafs being in a best of three match with the Capitals is a long ways from the end of the world; they’ve already put up a much better fight than anyone expected, and that will be true even if the Caps wipe them out to win in six. But hey, the Leafs are in with a chance. They took two out of three in the first three games, they’ve at least got a shot at doing it again.
Still, last night was different from what came before. Let’s check that out.
- The most significant thing about last night is that the Capitals, for two periods, dominated the hockey game. Through three games, the Leafs had the narrow overall edge in adjusted CF%. Last night they got crushed with roughly a 60-40 split, and that’s with a huge third period surge. This was what the Capitals were supposed to do to the Leafs all series; they looked like this in the third period of Game 1 and the first ten minutes of Game 3, but this was as long as they’ve sustained their full President’s Trophy form. If Washington can do that consistently, this series is going to be over quick.
- Friend of the site James “James Mirtle” Mirtle theorized that this shift was based around two coaching adjustments from Caps’ boss Barry Trotz. First, Trotz put high-quality Caps defender Matt Niskanen up against the Leafs’ top unit of Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-William Nylander. That line had led the playoffs in CF% up to this point; it no longer does so. Late in Game 4, Mike Babcock made his standard first adjustment by flipping the super-skilled Nylander to the defensive unit with Nazem Kadri and moving workhorse RW Connor Brown up to play with Matthews. The idea with this adjustment is that it makes the top line more defensively sound while making the Kadri line more offensively potent; unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan, as Connor Brown wore the goat horns for the chaotic mess of the winning goal. Mike Babcock knows more than me, of course, and in-game adjustments are natural in response to a bad trend. But the Hyman-Mathews-Nylander line is the best weapon the Leafs have had, and has been all year (it led the NHL in scoring chances for in the regular season). I think you have to ride or die with it at this point.
- The second adjustment: Trotz shortened his bench. Grimy Toronto-born winger Tom Wilson jumped into the top nine, where he got to play the hero with two critical first-period goals, and after that the fourth line of Jay Beagle, Daniel Winnik, and Brett Connolly was dropped into a sewer and never seen again. The Caps leaned on their strong top nine and their top four, and it paid off for them.
- Should the Leafs mimic this move? Well, to some extent Toronto is already leaning on its stars, especially on defence. Jake Gardiner played 25 minutes last night, while Connor Carrick played under 14. At forward, Matt Martin’s ice-time is higher than, say, Winnik’s was last night, but 8:33 isn’t much; lowering his time (and Kasperi Kapanen’s) much further would approach Colton Orr territory. It’s also worth noting that the Bozak line has been playing less and less at 5v5, possibly as a reaction to the relative ineffectiveness of Mitch Marner. But the Leafs haven’t totally cut their bench off—and there’s also the fact the Leafs’ forward balance, and apparently lower fatigue, have paid dividends in this series.
- Reading in too much to stamina is tricky, and in a small sample it’s nearly useless, so grains of salt abound here. But in Games 2, 3, and 4, the Leafs had their best performances in either the third period or (in Game 2) in double overtime. It seems as if the Leafs have played better later in games, possibly due to youth, possibly due to rest. The Capitals clearly have both more defensive strength and defensive depth than the Leafs, but the Leafs may actually have a deeper forward lineup. If so, you can bet Mike Babcock wants to exploit that.
- Frederik Andersen didn’t have a good night. People seem to have trouble admitting this, so let us add the appropriate (totally accurate!) hedges: we would not be here without him, the team in front of him played like trash, even the best goalies have bad games. This is all true and fine, and I am not all that worried. It’s just a fact that has to be considered: if Freddie is putting up .815, we’re not going to win, and not much else we do will matter. Let’s hope for a strong Game 5.
- The sunniest part of all this is that the Leafs played their worst game of the series, and their goaltender had his worst game of the series, and they damn near came all the way back. Toronto did not deserve to win this game, but it’s very easy to imagine how they might have—and that’s a testament to their offensive ability. Putting four goals past Braden Holtby is something most teams struggle to do on their best night, and the Leafs did it on their worst.
- The Leafs are back to being underdogs, statistically—they had a little bump over the 50% mark after Game 3, and now they’re back under it, in most models. If you don’t buy that, you can still probably buy that the team with the better record and home ice advantage ought to be favoured to win a best of three. It’s uphill again. Win or lose, though, these Leafs have been the most fun I’ve had cheering for this team in over a decade. Go Leafs Go.