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Game One of Leafs vs Bruins: This is not a repeat of last year

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The Leafs have a whole new set of tools to use on the Bruins, and new ways to use the old ones.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always a bit iffy to look at single game Corsi and Expected Goals and read much into it. It’s descriptive, yes, but there’s likely some errors one way or the other on shots miscounted, locations misapplied and you need to consider anything a couple of shots from even as just even.

But Game One of Round One of this year’s playoffs shows some very interesting results and paints the picture of a team very much changed from last year’s Leafs.

The Big Picture

Score and Venue Adjusted Corsi: 53-50 for the Leafs. (All numbers are from Natural Stat Trick.)

By period, the breakdown is:

  1. 19-19
  2. 18-20
  3. 16-14

Of note, the non-adjusted Corsi advantage for the Bruins in the third period was only 5 shots. So the Bruins did not show much improvement from score effects at all. But the second period was definitely their best, it’s just that the goal scoring by the Leafs obscured that.

The Expected Goals on the game were 4.18 to 2.69 for the Leafs in all situations, and 2.95 to 1.99 at five-on-five.

Score adjusted vs actual:

And the all-situations situation:

Eyetesting the Game

I re-watched the game today, and noted a few things, one of which you can see in that image above. The Leafs bulled their way into the net-front, and the Bruins didn’t obstruct them very effectively. At the other end of the ice, both Nikita Zaitsev and Zach Hyman realized that cross-checking a guy to the ice is A-OK in the playoffs as long as you’re within a sticklength of the blue paint. That helped them limit the Bruins chances. The Leafs also just defended well.

The Bruins had good command of their own zone in one sense. They took the puck back well, but they had more trouble than usual getting it out clean. They did execute some breakout passes that sprang their two dangerous wingers, but the Leafs very effectively defended them.

The rest of the Bruins below that top line were utterly toothless, and it sure seems to me they miss Nash & Nash, who really gave the Leafs a hard time offensively last year in various combinations with David Krejci.

The Leafs had a free pass in the neutral zone, and were never pushed to boards.

The Leafs also played a smart and effective heavy game. They didn’t go looking for big hits, and the Jets found out how well that serves you the night before last. Instead they played hard on the forecheck and stuck to short, sharp passes to break out of their own zone.

Their breakouts were calm, effective, and maybe a lot of that was chance. Not much went wrong on the initial pass after the Leafs regained control. Once out of the zone, the path to the net was pretty easy to find, and they used speed well for most of the game barring the first half of the second period.

The Matchup Winners and Losers

Using the Natural Stat Trick Forward Lines report, which only considers the minutes with all three players on the ice, The Kadri line had SVA Corsi of 10-8, The Tavares line was 14-13, and the Matthews line was 10-22. The Gauthier line played for five minutes, and while they were fun, they don’t matter much.

The Expected Goals tells a very different story. Despite Nylander’s goal, which came on a beautiful play, the Kadri line’s xGF was 0.45 compared to the Tavares line with 0.86 and Matthews with 0.33. As we’ve seen all season, Kadri & Co wins the possession battle, but does not produce offence that will get you goals on the regular. Matthews didn’t get enough zone time to get enough chances. Tavares carried the game.

Note that quite a bit of the Leafs total xG came at even strength, but not five-on-five.

The Bruins Winners and Losers

The Bergeron line led the team in Corsi success at 15-13 after Score and Venue Adjusting. The Krejci line had 10-9, and the new third line centered by Charlie Coyle was very bad with 6-12. The Bruins fourth line played 7:42 and were worse at 5-13.

In terms of Expected Goals For, only the Bergeron line was effective at .54, with Coyle’s line at .36, suffering the same fate as Matthews — not enough time in zone to get good chances. That line should be a good one if they’re allowed to be. The interesting thing is that the Krejci line only put up 0.18 in Expected Goals For, which is horrible.

Who Did What to Whom?

Tavares vs Bergeron was the big matchup that Bruce Cassidy went with, and Mike Babcock went along with very willingly. Tavares vs Bergeron is 12-7 for JT, and you should remember that this considers all the minutes these two players were on the ice together, while the forward line numbers require Tavares and both his wingers.

Tavares winning that matchup was the key to the game, and the fact that not only did he win the overall shotshare, he also won it on shot quality for and against by an even more massive imbalance (85% xG% to Tavares).

Tavares was on the ice with Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev for 11 of his 16:25 mintues. The other key to this game was their performance against the Bruin’s killer line. Muzzin was 11-8 in Corsi against Bergeron, and held them to 0.17 Expected Goals Against.

Kadri played almost exclusively against Coyle’s line, which left Matthews to battle Krejci, which he did for 11 of his almost 19 minutes of ice time at five-on-five. The imbalance was 11-15 for Matthews, so not hideous at all, and his really bad numbers come from an ill-fated four minutes vs the Bergeron line where he went 2-8 in Corsi. Against Krejci, Matthews kept the Expected Goals percentage right in line with the Corsi, which is good, since he sometimes fails at keeping down the quality of the shots against when he gets hemmed in.

Matthews played with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey most of the time.

Goalies

Of course, Frederik Andersen was perfect at five-on-five, and got beat on one beauty of a power play setup. He saved 1.69 goals over expected.

Tuukka Rask was bad if you believe save percentage tells the story. But he allowed three goals on a total Expected Goals Against of 3.46, so he saved 0.46 goals over expected. Not great, but not a huge problem for the Bruins, either.

Last Year’s Matchup Game

Patrice Bergeron played against Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey more than any other Leafs in last year’s playoffs. He owned them both with Corsi For percentages of 74 and 65, respectively. He faced a mixture of Tomas Plekanec and Auston Matthews who he owned at 75% and 56%, respectively.

He had his way with the Leafs.

Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev, who led all Leafs players in Corsi For percentage last year, matched up to the Krejci and/or Nash lines. They played mostly with Matthews, where they were just under 50% in CF, and Tyler Bozak, where they were at 64%.

What’s Next

Bruce Cassidy has a choice. Get Bergeron away from Tavares, and risk opening up even more offensive opportunities for them while gaining some of his own, or standing pat and trying to shut the Leafs down in the neutral zone instead of worrying about matchups.

Mike Babcock likely doesn’t want to play Matthews against Bergeron, because the results are likely to be ugly, but he has a card to play he never had before. He can swap his defence pairings around and keep Muzzin and Zaitsev up against Bergeron, or more accurately keep Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey away from him.

Meanwhile, down the lineup, Cassidy can’t uncover the Kadri line as long as Nylander or Kapanen is on the wing, so he needs to use his Coyle line to go head-to-head there, which keeps Marcus Johansson from ever getting a scoring chance. That leaves Krejci against Tavares, and if Tavares can handle Bergeron, he can likely handle Krejci, with the caveat that he might have lost his more effective defensive defenders.

But wait! Who is that idling around on the third pair? Why that’s Jake Gardiner. Give him some minutes with the Tavares line, maybe with Rielly, and suddenly the offensive punch of that group has gone through the roof without their defensive game suffering too much.

If the key to the Leafs success in game one was Tavares, Zaitsev and Muzzin, the key to the Boston failure was Krejci, Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy.

If the Leafs are lucky, Cassidy won’t cut Chara’s time and will keep on running out McAvoy over his head against Tavares. It might be a case of Cassidy not having any choice, and the Leafs may have finally hit the formula on the nose to kill the Bruins with any one of their lines.

If the Leafs are unlucky, Cassidy might decide to put David Pastrnak with Krejci and try to get something going that way. The more the Bruins concentrate their skill, the better for the Leafs.

No matter what, no one should expect that wide-open neutral zone to be there again. Forget that for today, and celebrate the win. Tomorrow will come soon enough.