Coach Sheldon Keefe appeared to talk by means of gritted enamel. He was like a proud dad or mum whose child has gotten straight A’s all yr however will get caught chopping class. How may he be mad when the outcomes had principally been so good all yr lengthy?

And but, he had a tough time hiding his disappointment after his Toronto Maple Leafs delivered a listless effort in Tuesday’s 4-2 house loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

“Games like this are why we’re still competing for home ice in the first round,” Keefe mentioned. “We’ve played so well for most of the season against most of the teams in the league that nights like this are also holding us back.”

“It just didn’t seem like we had much energy on the bench, much energy on the ice,” added middle Auston Matthews.

So, sure, the Leafs laid an egg earlier week and, puzzlingly, have finished so in three of 4 conferences with the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres, who simply set an NHL file by lacking the playoffs 11 straight instances. Maybe it’s a matter of being locked right into a playoff spot so lengthy that it was exhausting to stand up for a random Tuesday sport in April.

“Yeah, there’s some of that at play for sure,” Keefe mentioned. “That’s why it’s easy for me to push past this one because we have played so well when the team is challenged. We wish we didn’t have nights like this. We could be a team that’s competing for the Presidents’ Trophy.”

Even the most effective of groups have off nights, and the Leafs’ .685 factors proportion, the second-best of their 104 seasons, places them on observe to simply beat their all-time file for factors in a season of 105. But expectations are distinctive for a group just a few weeks away from dealing with its Minotaur: the primary spherical of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a beast that has defeated them 5 straight instances within the Matthews/Mitch Marner period. As we creep towards the postseason, it’s pure to seek for weak spots in Toronto’s armor, harbingers of one other collapse. This yr “feels different,” with the Leafs wanting so persistently dominant, however final yr “felt different” too, bear in mind?

That’s why it will probably nonetheless sound just a few tiny alarm bells when a stacked Toronto group exhibits it will probably get dusted by a non-playoff opponent. Will the Leafs choke away a sixth straight season in Round 1? Or is that this group genuinely completely different from different incarnations that flopped?

Let’s evaluate the six groups of the Matthews/Marner period in just a few classes to search for indicators of progress. Since offense is up league-wide this season, we’ll take a look at league rank slightly than the precise stats to get a greater sense of how Toronto has measured as much as its competitors.

5-on-5 Offense

Season Goals/60 Shots/60 Scoring Chances/60 HD Chances/60 Expected targets/60
2016-17 5th 5th 2nd 11th 2nd
2017-18 2nd 16th 2nd 8th 6th
2018-19 2nd 7th 1st 5th 4th
2019-20 8th 7th 2nd 8th  5th
2020-21 3rd 9th 2nd 2nd 4th
2021-22 3rd 7th 2nd 3rd 3rd

No surprises right here. The Leafs have been a wagon, offensively, for all the period, often putting among the many league’s elite in producing not simply possibilities in excessive quantity however high-quality possibilities. Owning a talent group together with the likes of Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly will try this.

5-on-5 Defense

Season Goals in opposition to/60 Shots in opposition to/60 Scoring Chances in opposition to/60 HD possibilities in opposition to/60 Expected targets in opposition to/60
2016-17 23rd twenty seventh 22nd 14th 25th
2017-18 14th 28th 23rd 19th 27th
2018-19 18th 29th 25th 18th 25th
2019-20 27th 18th 17th 21st 19th
2020-21 6th 6th 17th 9th 10th
2021-22 24th 12th 9th 10th 8th

Four the primary 4 seasons of the Matthews/Marner period, the Leafs had been the NHL’s final high-event group, leisure incarnate, matching their elite offense with persistently poor defensive play throughout the board. Last season, which was the primary full marketing campaign below coach Sheldon Keefe, noticed the group’s id shift, thanks largely to the addition of brainy blueliner T.J. Brodie. The Leafs jumped from flat-out unhealthy defensively to solidly above common. This season, their targets allowed counsel they’ve regressed, however take a look at the opposite classes. They nonetheless grade out as above common in limiting opposing assaults and really have their finest expected-goals-against grade of this period. It’s not too powerful to determine why they’re permitting so many 5-on-5 targets whereas taking part in sturdy protection. That brings us to the following class…

Goaltending

Season 5-on-5 save proportion
2016-17 19th
2017-18 6th
2018-19 7th
2019-20 28th
2020-21 7th
2021-22 thirtieth

Last season, the Leafs’ improved defensive self-discipline shaped a nice marriage with Jack Campbell’s breakout season in internet. This yr, significantly after the calendar switched to 2022, goaltending has been a serious weak spot. The Leafs have scored their manner out of bother extra nights than not, however they received’t go far within the postseason if Campbell can’t determine his sport out. Since he returned from a multi-week absence with a rib damage, not a lot has modified. He has an .891 save proportion but is 3-0-1 in 4 appearances. That’s completely on-brand for this yr’s Leafs.

Special Teams

Season Power play Penalty killing
2016-17 2nd 10th
2017-18 2nd 11th
2018-19 8th 18th
2019-20 6th 21st
2020-21 16th 24th
2021-22 1st seventh

Here we see a noteworthy distinction between this yr’s group and the earlier ones. Last season marked the worst special-teams yr within the Matthews/Marner period, and Toronto’s power-play woes carried over into the playoffs, the place they transformed simply 13 p.c of their alternatives. They made a concerted effort to enhance their particular groups for 2021-22, bringing in Spencer Carbery from the AHL’s Hershey Bears to create a much less predictable power-play scheme and Dean Chynoweth from the Carolina Hurricanes to run the P.Ok. The outcomes converse for themselves.

Intangibles

Qualitatively, there’s a case to be made the Leafs are in headspace approaching the 2021-22 postseason. They’ve been one of many league’s most constant groups. They’ve put collectively 5 profitable streaks of 5 or extra video games. Their season-long dropping streak is 4 video games, and it occurred as soon as. They’re 10-5-2 in opposition to the seven groups presently occupying playoff spots within the Eastern Conference, together with 5-1-1 in opposition to the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. They’re getting profession years from a number of gamers, most notably Matthews, whose 58 targets are already a single-season franchise file with 9 video games left on the schedule. They have a properly appreciated, veteran chief added to their dressing room tradition in blueliner Mark Giordano. And defenseman Jake Muzzin, their lone high-impact participant with Stanley Cup-winning expertise (hat tip to Kyle Clifford), was tabbed to rejoin the lineup Thursday. Throw within the need to get captain John Tavares a do-over after a freak head damage ended his season minutes into the 2021 playoffs and there are many motivational storylines Leaf followers can cling to.

So does that imply the 2021-22 Leafs actually are “different”? No, like, completely different completely different? We received’t know till we see them compete within the postseason. On paper, nevertheless, they’ve maintained most of their statistical features of the previous six years and proven marked enchancment in new areas. Ultimately, how far they go would possibly come right down to how properly their goalie stops the puck.

Advanced stats: naturalstattrick.com



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