Going into Toronto’s game at Chicago on October 27th, the Maple Leafs had dropped four straight games. The streak started with an overtime loss to the New York Rangers and was followed by successive losses to San Jose, Pittsburgh, and Carolina. The four-game winless skid was ratcheting up the pressure on the Toronto Maple Leafs, from management to players.
But now the Toronto Maple Leafs have won five in a row. Here are five reasons that the team’s fortunes have turned.
1. Stars Playing Like Stars
When the Maple Leafs were 2-4-1, they were getting next to nothing from the highest paid players on the roster.
Mitch Marner had one assist in seven games. After sitting out the first three games recovering from wrist surgery, Auston Matthews had one goal and no assists in four games. John Tavares had a goal and two assists in seven games. William Nylander was the team’s leading scorer with two goals and three assists.
During the five-game winning streak?
Marner has 11 points (3 G, 8 A), Tavares has nine points (5 G, 4 A), Matthews has seven points (4 G, 3 A), and Nylander has five points (3 G, 2 A). It can be too simplistic to say that as the stars go, so go the team’s results, but there is some truth to it. When the big guns are firing, the Maple Leafs are naturally much more intimidating.
2. Legit Goaltending
This has not been an entirely easy situation, as Petr Mrazek has been out for much of the season. Mrazek was expected to ease the load on Jack Campbell, getting his first real chance as a starting goaltender.
Campbell has played well throughout the season to this point, posting a .936 save percentage in 10 games. In his four starts during the five-game winning streak, though, Campbell has turned away 119 of 124 shots, a .960 save percentage.
Campbell’s play has been a real strength to this point. The only concern is whether the Maple Leafs can provide a suitable backup so that Campbell gets enough rest and isn’t worn out or, even worse, at greater risk of injury.
3. A Favourable Part of the Schedule
With the Maple Leafs reeling, and potentially looking at changes, they had to see some matchups on the schedule that should have leaned towards better results. It started in Chicago, against a winless Blackhawks team.
At a time when the Maple Leafs were fragile, Chicago was a welcome spot on the schedule, and that win did not come easily! It could have been the beginning of the end for this group if their four-game winless streak had gone to five, losing to a winless Blackhawks team.
That was followed by a home game against Detroit. The Red Wings have been surprisingly competitive but also without their top goal-scorer, Tyler Bertuzzi. Because he is not vaccinated, Bertuzzi could not make the trip to Canada.
Then the Maple Leafs had a home date against a Vegas Golden Knights team decimated by injuries, missing Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson, three of their top six forwards. The Maple Leafs played a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was similarly decimated and were blown out. They responded well against Vegas, playing a complete game, and maybe starting to build some momentum.
Next up, the Tampa Bay Lightning arrived in Toronto. Now, the Lightning were without star winger Nikita Kucherov, but that is still a great team. The Maple Leafs had to come back late, but they did and escaped with a 2-1 win in overtime.
The fifth game of the winning streak came Saturday, when the Leafs hosted the Boston Bruins. The Bruins were a competitive opponent, but the Maple Leafs did not wilt under pressure from the Bruins. That might not have been the way this team handled it 10 days before.
In any case, the Lightning and Bruins were legitimately tough opposition, but the Maple Leafs at least had the benefit of being at home for those matchups. That helps.
4. Timothy Liljegren
I am not one to attribute big team results to players on the lower end of the depth chart. Generally, they are not the ones that make the biggest impact. But, in terms of a five-game winning streak, it is important to note a lineup change that has brought positive results.
After the Chicago game, the Maple Leafs inserted Liljegren into the lineup, making Justin Holl a healthy scratch. Liljegren has had a massive impact in the past four games. In those four games, the Toronto Maple Leafs have controlled 64.1% of shot attempts and 75.0% of expected goals with Liljegren on the ice during 5-on-5 play. That is dominant, in any role. The Maple Leafs have outscored the opposition 3-0 in that time with Liljegren on the ice.
It has been a long time coming for the 17th pick in the 2017 Draft. If Liljegren can give the Maple Leafs reliable minutes on the right side of the blueline that contribution should not be overlooked.
5. Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds
The veteran fourth line forwards have combined for a single point (a Spezza assist) in the past five games. But they control play. During this five-game winning streak, Spezza (57.3 CF%, 58.1 xGF%) and Simmonds (53.6 CF%, 55.1 xGF%) have had a lot of shifts in which they create opportunities and put pressure on the opposition as opposed to just hoping to survive, like some fourth lines. Could the Maple Leafs win five straight games with their fourth line getting caved in? Possibly, but it sure makes life easier when that group can hold its own.
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