The Toronto Maple Leafs have won 10 of their past 11 games after beating the Rangers 2-1. While that is impressive, and goaltender Jack Campbell has played a big part, there are style points being gained, too.
That does not mean that the Maple Leafs are playing a high-flying attacking style. It’s the opposite, in fact. The Maple Leafs are learning how to win games without going to a run-and-gun style. If that means grinding out low-event wins, that is a scenario with which the Leafs appear to be more comfortable.
“It’s a mindset,” said Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Once you get it in your mind that you’re going to play a certain way, and not give up chances against, the rest kind of follows.”
“The work ethic has always been there,” continued Rielly. “The desire to win has always been there. But it’s a mental hurdle and a mindset that I think we are starting to establish and it’s a great sign.”
It makes the game easier for goaltender Jack Campbell.
As much as the Maple Leafs played a sound defensive game, head coach Sheldon Keefe called a timeout in the third period to calm the troops.
“I just felt,” Keefe began. “They just made it 2-1, and they were really pushing for a couple of shifts after that, a couple of sequences in a row they were really pushing. Our team is more than comfortable now, we have played in these situations a lot. But you’re just sitting there as a coach and they have just scored one and they’re pressing on you a little bit, and you’re going to feel really terrible if they tie the game and you haven’t done anything.”
Keefe had thoughts about Toronto’s defensive improvement.
“I just think we are far more connected in terms of the relationship between our forwards and defencemen, how they are playing together,” said Keefe. “In general, our players are comfortable on the defensive side of the puck, not forcing things on the offensive side.”
“You know, a lot of guys, early in the season,” Keefe continued. “that are trying to jumpstart their season offensively, looking to get going, and that tends to change your mindset a little bit.”
“It took us a little bit to get to this place, but we’re in a good spot here now.”
To the takeaways…
1. Jack Campbell might be Team MVP right now
On a team with three forwards earning north of $10 million per season, the Maple Leafs’ MVP to this point in the season is most likely Campbell, a 29-year-old getting his first chance as a starting goaltender. He has a .944 save percentage to lead the league and a $1.65 million cap hit. Campbell has handled a much heavier workload than expected, starting 14 of 18 games.
2. Holl and Muzzin were Toronto’s top defensive pair
Early in the season, especially when the Maple Leafs were slumping, their alleged shutdown pair was having some real problems. It landed Holl in the press box as a healthy scratch for five games but in the five games since Holl has returned, he has 51.8 CF% and 57.9 xGF% and the Maple Leafs have outscored opponents 4-2. That might not sound amazing, but it is better than the results Muzzin and Holl were getting early in the year.
3. Rangers fourth line gets buried
It is not a big deal if a fourth line struggles from time to time but there is struggling and then there is what happened with the Rangers’ fourth line on the ice in Toronto. Dryden Hunt, Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves controlled 25.0% of the shot attempts when they were on the ice during 5-on-5 play, which is a problem. But it was nothing compared to the numbers once shot quality was taken into account. That trio was on the ice for 2.1% of expected goals which is almost impossibly bad. Hunt scored the Rangers’ only goal but it was after Ryan Strome and Kappo Kakko had changed to get on the ice. Strome and Kakko assisted on Hunt’s goal.
4. Strong game for Nick Ritchie
He is not scoring, with zero goals and two assists in 18 games, but Ritchie is starting to play a more complete game. He has one assist and 15 shots on goal in the past five games, and while that is not really the mark of a first-line left winger, it is at least encouraging to see some positive contributions. The first line was a force against the Rangers. The Ritchie, Matthews, Marner trio controlled 81.0% of shot attempts and 73.8% of expected goals.
5. Getting Defensive
Having Jack Campbell leading the league in save percentage obviously helps. It is notable that the Maple Leafs are not trying to engage in run and gun contests. On this recent stretch of 10 wins in 11 games, the Maple Leafs have allowed two or fewer goals in eight of those games. It might not be as entertaining as when the Maple Leafs go on their Harlem Globetrotters routines, which they still do from time to time, but being able to grind out wins with strong defensive play is something to be expected from successful playoff teams.
TOR 2.42 NYR 2.31
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