Yeah, the Detroit Red Wings were forced to replace the injured Jimmy Howard with the extremely ill and obviously unfit Jonathan Bernier, but for the first time this season the Toronto Maple Leafs had themselves an opportunity to build out a comfortable lead, and within that low-stress environment pad the statistics a little bit.
Andreas Johnsson led the charge in that regard, scoring twice and adding an assist, while three others registered two points in the 6-0 victory over the Red Wings. Freddie Andersen made 25 saves for the shutout.
Up next, it’s a back-to-back with the Buffalo Sabres, wherein Sheldon Keefe will be forced to show his hand in terms of backup deployment. Will we see the return of Michael Hutchinson on Friday afternoon, or will he make like Mike Babcock and save the backup netminder for Saturday’s rematch?
Until then, three points:
Scoring in a third consecutive game since the coaching change, it goes without saying that Tyson Barrie is far more compatible under Keefe than he ever was in his short time with Babcock, who drew criticism well before his dismissal for challenging the roving defenseman to reinvent his game.
But while the new lease on life is most obvious for Barrie, who is free to be his creative and attacking self, what we’ve really seen since the move to Keefe is validation across the entire unit.
Say what you want about the merits of Cody Ceci, but he is without question better equipped to perform the functions required under Keefe than Nikita Zaitsev, who was clearly at his most uncomfortable when the puck was on his stick. Ceci has demonstrated that he can reverse the puck to hold possession, move the puck across to his partner, sometimes skate it up himself, and make the correct reads when pinching — all essential elements with Keefe, who sees no reason to ever give the puck away.
While the system being better catered to his skills wasn’t immediately reflected in the underlying numbers after wins over Arizona and Colorado, it was versus Detroit, where Ceci finished at 68 percent possession.
Meanwhile, Justin Holl was proving his worth before the switch, but as he seamlessly transitions back into the Keefe system, it’s abundantly clear that his skillset is perfectly suited for this brand of hockey, and there’s no wonder why Kyle Dubas worked to keep him around a core that also includes Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Travis Dermott.
It’s only three games, but the perception of the Leafs’ defence is changing. All because it’s being coached in the manner intended when the pieces came together in the first place.
No bad time to regroup
Toronto will not waste possession under Sheldon Keefe. The idea that throwing the puck on net is never a bad idea? Scrub that from what you thought you knew.
These days, the Maple Leafs will try to improve their position whenever possible, no matter where they are on the ice. Achieving this is through renewed puck support — a lot like we saw in the lead-up to John Tavares’ goal.
It was near the midway mark of the first period when the Maple Leafs retained puck possession following a scoring chance, and the Wings slipped back into their defensive structure. Rotating to the point to cover for Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev accepted a pass, and moved across the line to make space for Barrie at the top of the umbrella. As the two worked the puck back and forth, both Muzzin and Tavares drifted up toward the line to support the puck, for the most part vacating the space deep in the offensive zone.
Controlling near the line and leaving little to check down low, the Leafs effectively stretched the defense by pulling out toward the line, which created space for Tavares, who had pulled up on the opposite side of Barrie to receive the pass.
Tavares stepped into the space provided and as the opposition rushed to fill it, the Leafs captain used the momentum against the oncoming checker with a move to the inside.
JOHN TAVARES 🚨 Cut Inside. Snipe. 3-0. pic.twitter.com/vdzVLnZCBj— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 28, 2019
After last season’s 47-goal outburst, this was vintage Tavares in a Maple Leafs sweater.
Good to see after a difficult start to the year offensively.
When to press
While an easy, feel-good win was always going to be welcome for a Maple Leafs team that needs all the points it can get, the fact that Detroit didn’t put up much of a fight makes it a challenge to evaluate the important points of growth Keefe was looking for from his team.
After two days of practice in Toronto earlier in the week, Keefe mentioned that he wanted to see the Leafs firm up the details from a defensive standpoint to know the team was making progress. This included better protection of the front of the net, and the recognition of where and when to apply pressure.
While Detroit was thoroughly dominated in the second and third periods, the Maple Leafs did allow some decent looks while the game was still in reach. But what was more indicative of the fact that the Leafs are still learning is that often times during the play, you could almost see certain Leafs processing their defensive zone assignments, and more specifically, the green light to attack the puck.
For the sake of tape to dissect alone, the Leafs could have used a better effort from the Wings, who almost inexplicably allowed 54 shots in a game when their backup netminder had to battle through with the flu.
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