When you look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s exceptionally tough to find a glaring weakness. If you want to pinpoint an area where the Bruins could have an advantage against Toronto – especially as they did in their lone win over them on Feb. 3 – you have to dig relatively deep.
Even in most areas where you’d assume Toronto is weak, they’re at least mediocre. Their penalty kill, for instance, finished 12th in the NHL at 81.4 percent. But there is one number, a big-picture figure, that could spotlight where the Bruins could capitalize and give themselves the advantage in the series.
The stat in question is zone starts. Specifically, 5-on-5 zone start percentage. The Leafs finished 27th in that category, starting in the offensive zone just 47.1 percent of the time.
Boston finished second in the same category at 56.33 percent.
It’s a mathematical way of saying that the Leafs simply spend too much time in their own end. They spent a lot of minutes under attack. They allowed the fifth-most shot attempts (3,993) in the league during the regular season, just behind basement-dwellers like the Rangers, Islanders, Senators, and Coyotes. The Bruins, by comparison, had a league-low 3,372 shot attempts allowed. This discrepancy is probably the biggest statistical mismatch that you can find for the Bruins.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Leafs are doomed. For all their defensive struggles, they’ve often found ways to make up for it – mainly with a lot of offensive firepower. But another key area, the faceoff circle, could come into play.
At The Dot…
In their one loss to the Bruins, the Leafs posted their worst zone start percentage (39.8 percent) of the season series. But they also won 55 percent of faceoffs in that game. And for a team that struggles to slow down opponents on defense, they’ve been able to get out of trouble by winning more defensive zone draws and jump-starting their transition game.
Despite finishing near the bottom of the league in zone start percentage, the Leafs finished third with 53.7 percent of faceoffs won in the defensive end. It’s a big improvement over last year’s 47.7 percent, which finished 21st. They’ve achieved this by mixing it up and giving themselves the best possible matchup at the dot.
That’s not something that NHL teams have thought about much until recently, since faceoffs generally tend to be a 50-50 proposition. But as noted before the start of the season by Tyler Dellow of The Athletic, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock used Toronto’s analytics team to his advantage this season by putting his faceoff men in favorable positions.
For instance, Babcock has sent the right-handed William Nylander to the dot more often when he’s on his strong side (the right side) and facing another righty, who would be on his weak side. This will come into play more when the Leafs are at home and Babcock has the opportunity to match up as he sees fit. So, for example, don’t be surprised if you see Nylander line up against David Krejci at times.
The strategy appears to have given the Leafs an added edge on faceoffs this season – certainly in the defensive zone. Nazem Kadri (50.1 percent) has been almost perfectly average, but improved over his career rate of 47.2 percent. Besides him? Auston Matthews, Tyler Bozak, and Nylander have combined to win an excellent 57.4 percent of faceoffs in their own end. Tomas Plekanec (60.5 percent in 17 games) has also been lethal in those situations since heading to the Leafs at the trade deadline.
It’s going to be up to Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins to overcome Babcock’s scheming and create as many faceoff mismatches as he can. Because if he can’t, the Bruins will have trouble sustaining pressure against an otherwise leaky defense.
Can The Bruins Answer?
The B’s will have to be aggressive and efficient if they want to take advantage of the Leafs’ problems in their own zone. They could mitigate the Leafs’ faceoff advantages by crashing the net, creating more traffic, and generating rebounds. Basically doing their best to keep Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen from freezing the puck.
But about that last part … Andersen has often been the other way that the Leafs have limited their defensive issues. There’s a chance that none of these advanced stats mean a thing, and that’s if Andersen elevates himself. The Leafs can gain an edge in the series if Andersen stands on his head – much like backup Curtis McElhinney did on Nov. 11, when he stopped 38 shots and the Leafs beat the B’s 4-1 despite being out-shot 39-24.
The reality for Toronto is that Andersen is likely to find himself under siege at times, especially if they can’t limit the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line. Andersen led the league in saves (2,029) for a reason. So you can reasonably expect the Bruins to pepper Andersen with shots when on the attack. It’s on Andersen to take over in those situations.
Ultimately, for the Bruins to control the series, it’ll be important to pressure the Leafs defense as much as possible with possession and aggressive shooting. Forcing Andersen to dominate. It could be the only way to exploit what might be the Leafs’ only weakness.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.
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–Stats via NHL.com, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey-Reference.com