Was that the worst set of five games, or did it just feel like it?
It was the worst of times and the best of times ... at times, but it wasn’t really the worst. There were two sets of five games — one ending on game 48, and one on game 73, so overlapping with this set — that had only two points gained in them. One of the official sets of five had only four:
The main difference between the first 40 games and the second half of the season, now almost over, is the rate the Leafs are scoring goals. The Leafs have 264 goals so far this season (according to Natural Stat Trick, and all sites do ENG and shootout goals a little different, so don’t quibble, it’s good enough). That’s fourth in the league.
If I split it properly in half, so the first 41 games, to January 5, the Leafs have 152 of those goals or 58 percent of their total. They were third in the NHL over that period behind Tampa and Calgary for Goals For. In the not quite 41 games since, they have 112 goals, which is eighth in the league behind Tampa, Chicago, Carolina, Winnipeg, San Jose, Washington and Calgary.
Last night on the broadcast there was some talk — in between riveting discussions of faceoff percentages — of how the Leafs goals against has gotten so much worse. In the first 41 games it was 113 goals allowed, or sixth in the NHL and in the second segment that’s not finished yet, it’s at 110 or eighth worst.
Now, let’s unpack that a little. in the first half there were 2.76 goals allowed per game, and since then it’s at 3.24. If they keep on at exactly that rate for the last seven (very unlikely), they’d be at 132 allowed. You can do the math if you like — this rough look at who scored when isn’t worth it — but the goals for changed a lot more that the goals against have.
It’s the offence that dried up.
And okay, since I’m here, I’ll do a very quick comparison of shooting percentage in those two halves. I’m not even going to look at shots or expected goals by rate, just shooting percentage, because I already know what I’ll find just from watching the games. So, in the first 41 games, the team all-situations shooting percentage is 11.6 per cent which is third in the league (Tampa is first at 12.32). In the games since, they are at 9.63 per cent, which is 12th (Tampa is at 11.51, which is third).
Why has Tampa continued to score at an above average rate that is historically valid for two players on their team (Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov both have shooting percentages well above average on their careers) and the Leafs have cooled a little? That’s where the narratives come into play. Because the Leafs are full of really young players — some of them the key players who score the goals — it’s impossible to know what their true shooting talent is. In the case of Auston Matthews, I’d phrase it as: How much above average will he be the rest of his career? You can’t tell at this point in his career, but so far his career average is 16 per cent, and yet people will tell me he’s not actually good. I don’t listen to them.
But since not knowing is so uncomfortable, you make up a story that the things Tampa does result in a high shooting percentage that barely fluctuates, and the things the Leafs do only lets them get that high percentage for a while to make you think they’re great when they’re really super bad. There are only the two choices: great or super bad.
By the way, John Tavares’s career shooting percentage is over 10 per cent in every season, and this year’s 15.65 is just up from last year’s 14.34. So the idea that none of the Leafs shooters really “deserve” that shooting percentage is pretty much bunk, no matter how you slice it.
The Next Five Seven Games
The rest of the season is packed into 13 days starting Monday at home to Florida.
The Leafs then travel to Philadelphia to see the Flyers on Wednesday, who might have given up the dream of playoffs by then. Hope dies hard, so maybe they will still believe.
That road trip continues, after a fashion, with a game in Ottawa on HNIC. Again! Won’t that be fun? But wait there’s more.
After they play the Senators, the Leafs travel to Long Island, again, to play the Islanders, again, and that game is on Monday, April 1. It’s going to be epic, I tell, ya. I cannot wait.
Then it’s back home to the Hurricanes on Tuesday, so a lovely back-to-back with travel right there at the end of the season.
The last home game is our friends from Tampa who deserve their PDO paying a visit, and that game is on Thursday April 4.
The last game of the season is a trip to Montréal, and that might be a very meaningful game, considering the knot at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
It’s good the Leafs get one really good team to play near the end, though. You need to rev up for the playoffs. So thank goodness for that Tampa game.