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Line matching for fun and profit: how the Leafs beat the Bruins in Game Three

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Was it all about Tomas Plekanec, or was there something more to the win over Boston?

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Three
This is not the matchup you want outside of the faceoff circle.

Now that the euphoria of beating the Boston Bruins, long may their names live in infamy, has faded, we can take a step back and look at Game Three vs Game Two and see what actually changed. Game One had too much going wrong in the net to look at it too seriously, and the lineups for Two and Three are more similar, so I’m ignoring One for now.

General Shooting Patterns

Looking at the Leafs shots only, the inescapable conclusion is that at five-on-five, they got worse offensively. The total number of Corsi For in Three was higher, but a lot more of those shots were blocked. That said, the pattern of shooting in Three is more typical of the Leafs than Two, just not a typical concentration.

Looking at the Bruins shots, it should be clear that the concentration of goal-mouth shooting the Leafs allowed in Two is likely the biggest reason why they lost that one, despite what they did elsewhere. In Three, it’s much better. Luck and goaltending factor in, obviously, as the Leafs converted on chances in Three and Boston did not.

In both games, the Scoring Chances favoured the Leafs, but in Two, the High-Danger Chances were even, and there was the game.

Blocked shots is an interesting thing to note as well. The Leafs blocked three (3) Bruins shots in Two. I checked that five times, because I didn’t believe it. In Three, they blocked 16 shots, or 24 percent of them. If one is inclined, one can make a narrative out of that of manhood and commitment and character. I’m inclined, having watched these players for years, to say the Leafs were chasing the play and out of position in Two and not so much in Three.

Three was yippee ki yay hockey, which the Leafs have refined into a workable system (leaving Dallas green with envy). Three was how the Leafs need to play to win. More offensive pressure in tight would be good, however.

The Matchup Game

In Game Two, Patrice Bergeron played against a mixed group of Leafs led by Auston Matthews at 6:27, and then a rotating cast of players at two-to-three minutes each. Plekanec was on the ice for only 33 seconds against that line. Against Matthews, the Bergeron line didn’t even have a 50 percent Corsi For. But they did have five High-Danger chances (and two goals) to a big zero for the Leafs top line. Bergeron only played 10 minutes of the game at five-on-five, because the game was over by the end of the first period.

The goal results for the rearranged lines in Game Three look fantastic. Tomas Plekanec, Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner were on the ice for two goals and didn’t get scored on. Plekanec played an astonishing 12:12 at five-on-five against Patrice Bergeron out of his 14:52 total minutes.

Now for the bad news. The Corsi For was 14 for Bergeron and seven for Plekanec.

However, as I’ve previously mentioned a few times, the Bergeron line has some defensive weaknesses. They don’t play in their own zone much, but when they do, they aren’t very good, giving up more High-Danger chances than any other Boston line. So while the Scoring Chances kept to the same proportion, the Big B line only had nine against Plekanec and gave up four. The High-Danger chances were three for Big B and two for the Leafs.

With Matthews on the ice for the rest of Bergeron’s minutes, the shots were even, but Matthews scored a goal, so that’s all that counts, right? Matthews did well against that line in limiting High-Danger chances against too, it was one-all.

Success against the Bergeron line might just look like what Plekanec, Marleau and Marner managed. Matthews, as the secondary match, performed very well.

What about Rielly?

It’s very possible we’ve all missed the defender forest while staring at the forward trees.

The rest of the story on Game Two vs Three was Morgan Rielly. Rielly, who was so bad in Game One, it’s hard to believe, was better in Two, but did not look like himself. He made some really bad defensive errors in addition to not generating a lot offensively.

In Two, Rielly and Jake Gardiner had identical Corsi numbers, 19 for and 13 against. And, just to be clear, 19 for is a very small number for top-minute defenders. They didn’t play top minutes, however, as the game was turned over to the mop-up crew. Gardiner took about half the minutes against Bergeron and was almost even. Rielly had only three minutes and was excellent.

In Three, Rielly and Ron Hainsey played over 11 of the minutes against Bergeron. Jake Gardiner played less than five.

Hainsey, who flat out said after Game Two that he thought he’d performed poorly, and the whole team needed to improve, laid down a 36 percent Corsi against the Bergeron line. The raw numbers were 18 to 10. Rielly’s were 16 to 11. That’s not really great, obviously. But again, the High-Danger chances were three to two.

When Bergeron wasn’t on the ice against Rielly, he only got a 45 percent Corsi.

Someone has to lay down and be the sacrifice to this one super-powered line that Boston relies on. No one on the Leafs (or most other teams) is going to win this matchup. If you insist on a black-and-white interpretation of “less than 50 percent Corsi is bad and greater than is good”, you’ll remain unsatisfied with any matchup the Leafs put up.

The goal is to just be good enough when the Big B line have the offensive zone, contain them enough, that the rest of the team can make something of the rest of the game. The rest of the game very much includes when the Bergeron line aren’t in the offensive zone.

In that rest of the game, Jake Gardiner was on the ice for 33 Corsi For in Game Three. That’s 52% of the Leafs’ shots. That’s what containing the Bergeron line returns as a dividend.

I’m not sure anyone can prove who should or should not be the sacrifice in the next two games. I had said that it had to be Matthews, and now I’m proved wrong.

Gardiner’s offensive support has been firing on all cylinders — he may have beefed up to a V8 turbo for the playoffs — so getting him out in the sunshine to make goals happen seems wise. Matthews can handle it up to a point, so can Nazem Kadri for Game Five, so can Plekanec in his own way.

But who would you rather have out in the sunshine with Jake? I’m picking the Matthews line, but I’m ready for Marleau and Marner to prove again that you can score against the best first line in hockey if you get the chance.