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The Maple Leafs reached the quarter mark of the NHL season in third place overall, a solid result that shows they can compete with the <a href="http://www.blackhawksnhlproshop.com/ed-belfour-jersey-c-1_20.html">http://www.blackhawksnhlproshop.com/ed-belfour-jersey-c-1_20.html</a> elite. Are the Leafs an elite team, though? They’re full marks for their lofty standing, but there’s also room for improvement in key areas. Here’s a closer look at where they’re at, and where they might be heading:
BY THE NUMBERS
The Leafs’ success centres on their explosive offence. Before taking on the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, they led the NHL in first-period goals (28) and were also a threat to come from behind with 33 in the third period, also tops in the league. They talk a lot about “starting on time,” though, having also allowed 23 first-period markers, sixth-most in the league. With just 15 goals in the second period, they ranked 29th in the middle frame. . . . In five-on-five situations, the Leafs rate among the league’s best in Corsi for and against, which measures shot attempt differential, as well as PDO, which combines five-on-five shooting percentage and save percentage. Those categories suggest they’re also playing sound defence and getting better at what’s popularly known as puck recovery. . . . Faceoffs are also key and veterans Dominic Moore, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak have helped the Leafs win 51.1 per cent of them, 11th best.
After leading the league in power-play success a year ago, they ranked seventh by mid-week. The penalty kill came in at 16th, down from 10th at the end of last season. They deploy two dangerous units with the man advantage, and Morgan Rielly has emerged as one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive defencemen. What success they’ve had killing penalties can be credited to defenceman Ron Hainsey, who has logged a league-high 110 minutes of ice time when the Leafs have been short-handed.
Who has been the central figure in the team’s success: Andersen or Auston Matthews? There’s a case to be made for both, but Andersen is undoubtedly the last line of defence and the Leafs sat third overall despite the fact their No. 1 goalie faced a league-high 496 shots at even strength. Andersen has also made 102 saves with his team short-handed, third-most in that category. He has overcome a slow start, like last season, with a save percentage that dipped below. .900 at times. Ask Andersen, though, and like other goalies he’ll tell you save percentage doesn’t tell the story, that it’s more important to track the quality of the shots faced. In Andersen’s mind, there are three types: ones you had no chance on, ones you saved, and ones you should have saved. And much of that reflects on team defence, which remains a work in progress for the Leafs. Andersen became the first NHL goalie to make 20 starts this season on Wednesday in Florida. His story will continue to be central to the Leafs fortunes over the remainder of the season.
Matthews returned from a four-game injury <a href="http://www.canucksnhlproshop.com/jacob-markstrom-jersey-c-1_23.html">http://www.canucksnhlproshop.com/jacob-markstrom-jersey-c-1_23.html</a> absence and reached the 100-game mark for his career, with 52 goals and 38 assists to show for it — remarkable production from any angle. He’s reaching new heights, personally and when it comes to the impact he has on his teammates. Some excellent research by journalist Andrew Berkshire shows that Matthews — already considered one of the top five players in the NHL — has propelled his line, with William Nylander and Zach Hyman, to top-five status among the best units in the league. They rank first in goals, Corsi-for and scoring chances on net, and second in high-degree chances. Matthews also ranks second in loose puck recoveries, after leading the league a year ago. At the moment, he is on par with the league’s best centres at both ends of the ice.
If there has been a lingering weakness, it’s been the Leafs’ performance against teams that wisely install a neutral-zone blanket over their breakouts. Toronto’s high-octane offence — and, just as important, the team’s ability to establish a forecheck — has suffered against teams that clog the neutral zone: in particular the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers. The Leafs are well aware of it, but still have trouble breaking through heavy traffic. The word’s out, and they’ll likely see more of it as the season progresses.
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