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Auston Matthews and John Tavares: shooting their way past the Bruins defence

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The top two lines of the Leafs had very different playoff experiences, and the two centres had very different shot patterns.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the 2019 playoffs, John Tavares scored one goal at even strength, had two assists, and spent 80 of his 112 minutes on the ice against Zdeno Chara, and 64 against Patrice Bergeron.

Auston Matthews scored three goals, had no assists, and spent 62 of his 114 minutes on the ice against Torey Krug and 55 against David Krejci.

Numerical data is from Offside Review. Competition stats are from Natural Stat Trick.

But goals tell you who got lucky, and assists tell you who was next to someone who got lucky. Shooting tells a different story, and this is worth looking at to see why these two players who led the team in even strength scoring had some trouble making playoff magic happen. Some of that answer is Tuukka Rask, but the reality of who shot well in the playoffs and who took a step back might surprise you.

Their Normal Shot Patterns

The Leafs have a distinctive offensive style. Very few forwards shoot from distance, and Tavares, known for the tip shot, and Matthews, known for all sorts of magic in tight, are both players who shoot from close to the net. To get an understanding of their normal shooting, these are density maps (like contour maps for landscape elevations, only the darker rings mean more shots) that give you an understanding of where they shoot from. Note: this is all unblocked shots at even strength. There is no shot location data for the origin point of blocked shots.

HockeyViz
HockeyViz

Their main area of shooting is similar, but Matthews has a habit of shooting from the left circle as well. Interestingly, one of his most beautiful goals in the playoffs was a shot from the right circle, which was outside his heavily trafficked area.

Now the playoffs:

HockeyViz
HockeyViz

Charts are made with the Spray Chart tool at HockeyViz. Various sites define even-strength slightly differently so the minutes don’t exactly line up.

You can see the right circle shooting for Matthews showing up, but he shot a lot from the left circle as well, but the in-close action is totally missing. For Tavares, he was kept away from the net a little, but nothing like the extent Matthews was.

For some more clarity, the actual individual playoff shots would work better:

HockeyViz
HockeyViz

For Tavares, while he’s in close, he’s not getting a lot of high-danger tips. But then, in his regular season play, he doesn’t just shoot that way. We just remember them because they’re spectacular goals sometimes. Or really ugly goals. But proportionally, like most shooters, it’s wristers in the vast majority. Tavares didn’t miss the net much, and he shot from good locations, but Rask essentially had his number.

For Matthews, his shot location is very atypical, and his goals all came from the right circle (if you try to make something of this coincidence that happened three times, then you’ve struck out). He also didn’t miss much, but he did almost double up his expected goals from just 1.79 to 3. Even with that shooting success, his results were well below his regular season Expected Goals rate.

Tavares came in at half his Expected Goals of 1.99, and it’s not surprising that Tavares had the higher expected goals number on fewer unblocked shots (22 to Matthews’ 27 at even strength. His shot location was markedly better.

The reason for both of their shooting patterns, if not their goals results, is that Tavares more successfully played against the Bruins top line than Matthews did against Krejci’s line in the offensive zone. And that’s not a knock on Matthews. The Krejci line is a much tougher proposition in the defensive zone than Bergeron’s is, but Tavares not only managed a decent shot rate against Bergeron, he did well in shot share as well which let him grab some offensive zone time against Bergeron and his defensively suspect wingers. Matthews succeeded in getting into the offensive zone primarily against lesser lines.

David Krejci did to Matthews what Tavares did to Bergeron. He held him to almost exactly 50-50 in shots, and that means he got a lot of time against Matthews in his own zone, where he is weakest, while also negating the quality of Matthews offence to a large degree.

Goals land in the net when they feel like, it seems sometimes, but shooting tells a tale not just of the shooter, but of his teammates and who he played against. Both Matthews and Tavares played well overall, and were clearly the best two players on the Leafs, but Tavares made more out of a tougher matchup than Matthews did when you look beyond goals.

Tavares played his game, as did Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, in the offensive zone, and they succeeded well enough defensively as well.

Matthews couldn’t get to the net, and neither could Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, particularly Johnsson, who was back shooting from the point like a defenceman. Matthews was, as you’d expect, better than both of them at pushing through the Bruins defence, but he could only get so far.

This matters a lot because the entire offensive gameplan for the Matthews line, no matter who his wingers are, is rapid-fire net-front play. If they can’t get to the net, they need a lot more shots to score on over time. The fact that Matthews has no assists is reasonable given his on-ice Expected Goals, which are below what the Tavares line showed.

This is not a dramatic difference in offensive quality from the regular season to the playoffs. But it’s a break from the regular season norm that had Tavares and Matthews a fraction different in on-ice Expected Goals while Tavares had the better teammates. The few feet that the Bruins kept clear of Auston Matthews in front of Tuuka Rask was their greatest success at defence. Rask had to take care of Tavares all on his own.