Considering their place in the standings and what might be required to eke into the postseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs have reached a stage where unreasonable swings of emotion will follow every game.
So go on, be excited. It was one of the best of the season.
With two at even strength, two on the power play, and one goal scored shorthanded Saturday in St. Louis, the Maple Leafs rolled the Stanley Cup champion Blues by a final score of 5-2.
Toronto has a few days off before kick-starting its Western Canadian road trip Tuesday versus the Vancouver Canucks.
Until then, three points:
Back to Babcock?
If not somewhat ironic, it is at least worth mentioning that despite all the change that Sheldon Keefe has brought to the Maple Leafs since his promotion, what was rolled out Saturday night on the top three lines in a comfortable win over an elite team (with the exception of Pontus Aberg in for Andreas Johnsson, obviously), was precisely as Mike Babcock would have had intended.
Injuries to several key members of the forward group prevented the since-dismissed head coach from ever having the chance to deploy his ideal lineup, of course, but it’s possible the preferred configuration from the previous regime could wind up being what works best for Keefe, too.
In particular, the second line with John Tavares centering Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman — which carved the competition at even strength last season — was a combination Keefe was initially reluctant to use himself. But after starting together for the first time all season, Marner set up Hyman for the opening goal against St. Louis after a brilliant individual play in neutral ice on only their second shift of the game.
Of course, the rigidness Babcock had with his lines is something Keefe won’t soon revert back to.
Staying true to form Saturday, Keefe continued to shuffle the pieces around in-game in an effort to create mismatches and momentum at specific points in the game.
So maybe that’s the answer, then. Tweaks, and not an absolute upheaval, might be what’s needed for the Leafs to turn this thing around completely.
To not spotlight Frederik Andersen’s role in the win — and specifically after a four-goal first period from the Leafs — would be seriously neglectful. Because while Jordan Binnington clearly wasn’t prepared for the start, the Blues certainly were.
In the two minutes that preceded Hyman’s icebreaker, the Maple Leafs’ team defense failed Andersen three different ways and forced their netminder into three brilliant stops.
Step up, or allow his team to fall behind, yet again.
First it was a horrible pinch from Tyson Barrie that sent the Blues away in transition:
Then, a miscue in the defensive zone paired with a missed assignment at the opposite point:
Freddy the Andersen is on one tonight. pic.twitter.com/E5xHW4IqTU— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) December 8, 2019
And finally, Colton Parayko turned a 3-2 into a partial breakaway with wheels and wheels alone:
Name another 6'6" defenseman who can fend off two checkers and clear his own zone with one hand on his stick and then burn an entire team by skating in a straight line. Parayko has a skill set that no other player in the league has. He does this kind of thing routinely. pic.twitter.com/eaQV8rqiza— llamapen NHL (@llamapenNHL) December 8, 2019
Look no further than these three saves as the difference in the game.
There are certainly positives to take from the Maple Leafs’ form at even strength since the coaching change, but the most improvement has been demonstrated through special teams. It’s been the driving force behind the team’s 5-3 record under Keefe.
With as many shorthanded goals scored as ones conceded to opposing power plays, there’s not much more you need to know about the strength of the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill. (Though it is worth mentioning that after killing off another four opportunities for St. Louis, they have a 90 percent success rate overall).
What’s come along a little slower in part due to opportunity and preexisting injuries has been the success of the power play, though the Maple Leafs have seen considerable gains there as well. Scoring twice on as many opportunities in St. Louis, the Leafs improved to 41 percent with the man advantage under Keefe.
Obviously there’s an element of luck to that bloated percentage, and Auston Matthews’ second goal versus St. Louis was an obvious example of that fortune. But when you’re learning a new system and each other’s tendencies on a new-look unit, certainly there’s less pressure to nail things down when you have already made some meaningful progress.
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