With John Tavares out, the Leafs presented one set of lines at practice and used a slightly different tactic in the first game against the Boston Bruins.

The nominal lines:

Andreas Johnsson - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Mitchell Marner
Trevor Moore - Jason Spezza - Kasperi Kapanen
Dmytro Timashov - Nick Shore - Frederik Gauthier

The plan:

The ice time:

Toronto ice time vs Boston, October 19

PlayerAll Situations TOIFive-on-Five TOI
Alexander Kerfoot16.5715.10
Andreas Johnsson10.6010.60
Auston Matthews23.2020.47
Cody Ceci21.0517.38
Dmytro Timashov11.8811.88
Frederik Gauthier9.908.28
Ilya Mikheyev18.3714.55
Jake Muzzin27.0222.87
Jason Spezza9.189.00
Justin Holl13.2710.32
Kasperi Kapanen16.9212.83
Martin Marincin11.7211.28
Mitchell Marner21.1315.13
Morgan Rielly25.9819.97
Nick Shore8.608.60
Trevor Moore15.4312.78
Tyson Barrie25.8022.78
William Nylander17.1015.33

In case you’ve forgotten, the Leafs had no power plays, but there were almost four minutes of three-on-three overtime and three Boston power plays, only one of which was cut short with a goal. There was also two minutes of four-on-four hockey.

Auston Matthews, without power play time, played defenceman minutes, and Mitch Marner was right behind him.

Ilya Mikheyev was third for forwards in all-situations minutes because he plays a lot of PK and he was one of the forwards that got a lot of ice as the game devolved into a two-centre rotation late in the third period.

At five-on-five, William Nylander played more than Marner, but the most notable numbers are the three centres who played less than Andreas Johnsson, who left the game injured.

Jason Spezza, nominally the third-line centre, and Frederik Gauthier and Nick Shore, who share the role on the fourth line, all played less than 10 minutes. So who was the third centre? There really wasn’t one.

The shift rotation

(from shiftchart.com)

The third period opened with a Boston power play, and after the PK work of Gauthier and Shore, Matthews and Kerfoot alternated shifts through to the end of regulation time with four shifts each taken by Spezza and Gauthier.  Matthews took 12, mostly very long shifts, and Kerfoot took nine, lengthening out at the end of the game.

With the injury to Johnsson, the wingers stepped up in what began as a chaotic rotation that they handled excellently. As a viewer, you weren’t always sure who was on the ice with whom, but it didn’t look like a gong show.

Nylander, Mikheyev and Kerfoot were a consistent line in the third period, alternating with Marner, Trevor Moore and Matthews.

Kasperi Kapanen took the depth-line shifts with Dmytro Timashov and Spezza, while the white-hot Timashov doubled up with some shifts with Shore and Gauthier, but all of those players were on the ice a lot less than the top six.

In the first period, the five-man unit of Matthews, Marner, Johnsson, Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci played most of the time together. Nylander got a few shifts swapped with Marner, but it wasn’t really often enough to validate the plan as presented by Babcock.

By the second period, the technique had been refined so that Matthews was rotating out with two different sets of wingers, or just staying on the ice when the wingers changed. Johnsson effectively left the game at the half-way point, and Mikheyev started playing with Kerfoot while Moore moved up with Matthews.

How did that work out?

Kerfoot - Nylander - Mikheyev played the most (five-on-five only from NST) with 8:19, and had a Corsi differential of 7-9. (Percentages are very misleading here, so I’m only presenting the actual Corsi events.)

Matthews - Marner - Johnsson played 6:10 and were 7-5.

Gauthier - Shore - Timashov played 5:25 and were 4-7.

Matthews - Marner - Moore played 4:49 and were 4-6.

Spezza - Kapanen - Moore played 4:19 and were 5-5.

Spezza had a better three minutes with Timashov instead of Moore, but basically, everyone was within a shot or two of 50-50 except the Gauthier line, who you won’t be surprised to learn never started a shift in the offensive zone.

While Matthews played about five minutes with William Nylander, it was with a rotation of left wingers, so they don’t show up as a line. The were 4-6 in Corsi together.

That looks like balance, but the Bruins aren’t a balanced foe, and the only way to beat them, short of getting lucky with a perfect night from your goalie, is to contain the Patrice Bergeron line.

Find Bergeron on that chart, and follow it down, looking for who got to face him, and how much blue they produced doing it. You get Matthews almost exclusively with a decent level of success, and the Gauthier line failing utterly to win shot share against them.

In terms of limiting the quality of the Bergeron line’s play, Matthews can claim some success. Bergeron had a CF% against Matthews of 65%, but only 57% Expected Goals (NST model). Mitch Marner’s and Andreas Johnsson’s numbers are even better, which should indicate that that version of the Matthews line worked better on the night.

That Gauthier containment scheme, though, that was not a good result. Bergeron was on the ice for six CF against Gauthier, and .57 xGF in only 3 minutes.

Spezza saw no time against Bergeron, which goes a long way to explaining his good results and his low minutes.

Is this sustainable?

The Leafs won’t be playing the Bruins every night without one of their top-two centres. And we didn’t need this game to tell us how hard that is to do. But as exciting as the game was, as well as Mitch Marner played, when the team gave the basketball out in the dressing room after, to recognize the player of the game, they gave it to Frederik Andersen, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Auston Matthews had the toughest job on the ice for the Leafs, and he did okay at it, but you can’t call his results great. Mitch Marner had the second toughest, and he played the game of his life. But if we weren’t sure before, we should be now. John Tavares is necessary for Maple Leafs success.

The lines for the next game against Columbus match up with the nominal lines again:

Nic Petan is a placeholder for Johnsson as he takes this practice off. What actually happens vs. Columbus is anybody’s guess at this point.