The Toronto Maple Leafs may not have a better, more profitable two-game road trip all season. That is, unless they sweep their way through Florida late next month.
After returning from the All-Star break with a massive win over the Nashville Predators, the Maple Leafs took down a superior Central Division foe Wednesday night, defeating the Dallas Stars 5-3.
There were five different scorers for the Maple Leafs — including Auston Matthews who counted No. 36 — while netminder Frederik Andersen was once again solid, making 31 saves for the victory.
Toronto will have two days to recover and adjust their sleep patterns from the one-hour time change before hosting the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
Until then, three points:
With the highest-scoring team since their change at head coach (the Leafs) meeting the stingiest team all season long regardless of who’s coaching them (the Stars) colliding, it had me wondering if the Maple Leafs would have difficulty with an uncommon opponent. Or in more simpler terms, is it the teams that best prevent goals that offer the greatest challenge to Toronto — as one would probably expect from a team that leans so heavily on its goal scoring?
Oh, quite the contrary.
Toronto has met five of the seven teams allowing the fewest goals on a per-game average in the two-plus months since Mike Babcock was shown the door, beating all of them (and in Dallas, the best of them). The Leafs have registered a total of 24 goals in those wins over the Stars, Blues, Islanders, Hurricanes and Coyotes — which is more than one goal above their season average.
You can actually make the argument that it’s the teams that can present similar fire that now ask the most questions of the offensive-minded Maple Leafs. They have suffered regulation losses to the only two teams scoring at a higher rate at the moment, Florida and Colorado, (they did clock in a win over the Avs as well) while also suffering blowout losses to the often-potent likes of Edmonton, Chicago and Philadelphia.
So that begs the question, who would you rather see in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the Boston Bruins, who are allowing the second-fewest goals on average, or the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are scoring barely a beat behind the Leafs at the moment?
It’s the sort of play that helps illustrate that Sheldon Keefe has stumbled upon his ideal offensive pairings.
With his head down and reaching for the puck when Tyson Barrie creates a second-chance opportunity in the attacking zone, Mitch Marner sends a cross-ice pass on a rope to the most proficient goal scorer on the Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews, who was momentarily left unmarked as the Stars prematurely began up ice.
Filthy pass from Marner to find the perfect guy pic.twitter.com/akbwnV2PIi— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) January 30, 2020
Of course, you will arrive at the same conclusion when analyzing the numbers. Marner has accelerated to a 119-point pace over the course of an 82-game season since being bumped to the top line, while Matthews has pulled to within a single marker of David Pastrnak in the Rocket Richard race while scoring at a goal-per-game pace this month.
It seems the two are in a perfect position to maximize each other’s offerings.
Then again, Marner is such a good passer, he can make Zach Hyman a goal scorer, too.
Of course, this combination has established a previously untested high-priced combination of John Tavares and William Nylander. Despite Nylander scoring in five straight games, the opposition has slightly edged the two from a five-on-five perspective. Still the underlying numbers suggest that will change, and thankfully for the Leafs, the Matthews-Marner combination (with Hyman) has more than made up for that.
Get out the lunch pail
If you’re a fan of defensive hockey — or simply players with limitations that make up for said limitations through sheer hard work and determination — isolate Zach Hyman’s shifts in the third period versus Dallas. And watch them on repeat.
He was an absolute bulldozer late in the game, blowing up possessions, dragging pucks and opposing skaters out of the defensive zone, and antagonizing Ben Bishop just enough to force a stupid mistake that the netminder was fortunate to get away with.
Bishop clearly steps out slightly and clips Hyman. I didn’t see the earlier collision yet and I think I’d like to. pic.twitter.com/8zF8TaaCVX— ToughCall 🇨🇦 (@ToughCallBlog) January 30, 2020
Second to Andersen, Hyman was maybe the reason the Leafs survived the late-game Dallas surge.
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