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Are the Leafs back or are the Flyers just bad?

Measuring the meaning of the Leafs big win.

Philadelphia Flyers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Leafs beat the Flyers by a score of 5-2, which is the biggest win they’ve had so far this season. The scores have been:

  1. 4-3 Canadiens
  2. 3-2 Leafs
  3. 3-2 Leafs
  4. 4-2 Coyotes
  5. 3-2 Leafs
  6. 4-1 Leafs
  7. 3-1 Vegas
  8. 4-3 Sharks
  9. 4-2 Kings
  10. 4-3 Ducks

In fact, before we get into the game, a look at one statistic for the season we usually ignore is in order. Back in the day, some people developed a variation on Corsi called Corsi-close. It sounded like a really great idea, it just measured the shots for and against when the score was within one. The theory there was that if you just took out the parts of the game that were more subject to scoring effects, you got a better read on the real way the team played. Alas, as usually happens when someone zooms the microscope in too much, Corsi-close was not actually better than score adjusted Corsi and it fell by the wayside.

Natural Stat Trick still splits out stats by score state, though, so at five-on-five when the score is within 1, the Leafs were fifth before last night and are now second with 427:01. They are, in fact, second overall behind only the San Jose Sharks at the percentage of their five-on-five minutes spent within one point of their opponent at 85.77%.

There has been almost no opportunity to play the simple lead-holding game that failed against the Ducks. Every mistake takes on outsized importance in our minds as viewers, and presumably the players and coaches too, because every goal matters more. This also places a great deal of pressure on the goalies, since the closer a hockey game is, the more chance will decide the outcome, and the best bulwark against chance is a goalie who can stand on his head. You don’t want to be in one-goal games against teams you’re supposed to be beating, because their chance of winning is now boosted by random forces. You’re not supposed to always be in tight with the bottom dwellers as the Maple Leafs, either.

Ironically, last night’s big win made this percentage worse! They spent the entire game within one until the third period. So that’s the first clue to answer the question were the Leafs good. That score tells you mostly how they played for the final ten minutes.

The whole game:

Okay, yeah, that’s the Leafs dominating in Corsi for two thirds of the game. The final number was 69% Corsi and 70% Expected Goals, so that’s also good, there was no erosion of shot volume by type of shot. There’s no buffing of it either, but lately the Leafs have been worse by Expected Goals.

The first two periods at five-on-five looked like this:

This is all-situations now, because as you can see from the NST plot, there were a lot of power plays in that segment of the game. The Leafs at this point are the better team, but not by very much. Their shots are from the outside a lot, and they’re allowing a lot of good chances on those power plays and at five-on-five.

The third period is all Leafs, and all quality.

Looking at the shift chart for the game, nothing stands out in terms of player usage. The bench didn’t get short, Victor Mete and Denis Malgin played a lot. Rookie Pontus Holmberg played more than he had earlier and finished with 8:40 at five-on-five, the lowest of all players. A low time that high says everyone played. Auston Mattews only had 15:10 minutes, very low for him. The forwards that sat out all those Flyers power plays in the second played a lot in the third.

Evolving Hockey offers four of the standard skater quadrant plots you’re used to (they don’t offer useful URLs, so you’ll have to select the game once you get to that link).

Contemplating these four plots, two for each team in Corsi and Expected Goals, a few things are revealed:

  • The Flyers were all better at xGA than CA, some quite remarkably
  • The top line of the Leafs plus John Tavares was much worse at xGA than Corsi , while the rest of the team were better
  • Rasmus Ristolainen, Travis Sanheim and Owen Tippet were dreadful
  • This is the Leafs measured by xG:

The offensive dullness of Rielly and Mete is startling. They were better by Corsi.

So what’s the answer to the question? I think it’s both of the above. The Flyers were bad offensively and at all the things that lead to shotshare, and only showed value at defensive execution — limiting the pain of all the shots against. Their goalie allowed one goal over expected (rounding off) and Ilya Samsonov was dead on expected.

The Leafs were extraordinarily defensively sound, so much so that you have to conclude they found defending the Flyers a pretty simple task. The Matthews line troubles seemed to be driven almost entirely by Scott Laughton and Joel Farabee who tuned them up in a very few minutes.

The Flyers had over 10 minutes of power play time to the Leafs sub-seven minutes. Their Expected Goals was .76 to the Leafs 1.33, marking out one of the major areas the Leafs outplayed the Flyers. Add that to the third period play of the Leafs, and they were playing at an extremely high level for half the game.

At this point in a dreadful season, that’s extremely encouraging, but the single most important element in any given game is the quality of the competition. The Flyers had nothing much to show for themselves.

So yes, the Leafs looked more like themselves and the Flyers really were very bad.