Leafs on a Roll Heading Into Their Biggest Series of The Season to Date

While the rest of the league is getting decimated by, as I like to call it, the One Nine, the Canadian division rolls on and the Leafs are rolling right along with it. Monday’s performance in the Leafs’ sleepy 3-1 win over the Canucks wasn’t shocking. Vancouver was desperate, and there were probably more than a few Leafs working off a Super Bowl hangover. Freddy played well, Auston scored again, and that’s all that I need to be satisfied after a Leafs win. There’s a couple of storylines I want to get into then we can talk about what should be a dandy of a hockey game tonight.

Matthews has entered the MVP race boys and girls

I really hope all of you threw some money on Auston Matthews to win the Rocket Richard after his one goal in 4 games start to the season. We all knew it was a matter of time, and although his current rate is unsustainable, he looks unstoppable in front of the net right now. Matthews leads the league with five game-winning goals, including his one on Monday

and is on an 8-game goal streak. He also leads the league in individual expected goals which shows how dominant he has been.

Matthews continues to become a better defensive player and has taken his game to new heights this year. He is second in the league in takeaways and has only taken one penalty. Getting into the more advanced stats, Auston is third amongst Leaf forwards in Evolving-Hockey’s total defence stat and first amongst Leaf forwards in high danger chances against per 60 minutes. He’s obviously an incredibly intelligent player, and he is becoming more and more responsible. It’s been fun to watch him develop into an all-around superstar over the past five years. 

It won’t be easy for him to win the Hart. He’ll need the Oilers to miss the playoffs to have any chance because what Connor McDavid is doing right now is Lebron ‘07 Cavs team levels of carrying. But besides McDavid and even Draisaitl, for that matter, there is arguably no skater more critical to their team in the league than Matthews right now. The Leafs haven’t exactly been their normal free-wheeling, high goal-scoring selves this year, but Matthews keeps on putting the puck in the net.

Nylander and Tavares need some help

While the Leafs’ top line has been scoring at will, their 1B line is struggling just a tad. Willy Nylander and John Tavares thought they had finally found a left-winger that they liked in Wayne Simmonds, but two games into that experiment, Simmonds fractured his wrist. JT and Willy have still had terrific years. When the two are on the ice together, they own 57.75% of the xG and nearly 60% of the high danger chances, but they need a third guy who can produce with them. It was clear Jimmy Vesey was not a fit on their line when he was given an opportunity to start the year. Ilya Mikheyev is fast and smart enough to play with Nylander and Tavares, but right now, he couldn’t score if the Leafs played the whole game against an empty net. There’s been more than a few times this year when JT and Willy kind of just seem like they are on their own out there, and the Leafs need their line to be productive. My answer would be to put Nick Robertson with them. Robertson finally took part in a full Leafs practice on Tuesday, and he should be back by the end of next week.

There is no better time than now to throw Robertson in a top-six role with the injuries the Leafs have at forward. It also allows for Mikheyev to stick on the third line and provide some much-needed energy there. If you don’t think Nick Rob is ready for the top six quite yet, that’s fair, but I don’t see anything wrong with testing it out. This is a guy who scored 55 goals in just 46 games in the OHL last year. He’s tenacious, fast, highly skilled and would mesh perfectly well with William Nylander’s playstyle. The goal for Robertson is for him to be in your top two lines anyway; why not move the timeline up a little bit.

Rivalry Rekindled

Ever since the incredible game between the Leafs and Habs on opening night, we all had our calendars marked for this one. Thanks in large part to the quality of the Canadian division, the Leafs and Habs are both at the top of the league in the standings at the same time. I cannot remember the last time these two teams met in a game as big as this. It is fitting that Ottawa’s only wins this year are against these two teams, the Scotia North man, the Scotia North. Seriously though, how great is it that there is new life in this classic rivalry once again. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but just imagine these two in a seven-game playoff series to decide who goes to the final four. I know for a fact Sportsnet would be delighted with that.

Onto some analysis of the game tonight. As analytical darling himself Justin Holl pointed out, The Habs are ahead of the Leafs in pretty much every single stat that signifies how good you are, except for the one that matters, points! 

The last time these two played, Montreal was the better team at five on five, creating 2.17 xG to the Leafs 1.9. They killed the Leafs’ defence mostly with their speed. In particular, the Suzuki line was able to get pucks in behind them, get them turned and wreak havoc. The Leafs, on the other hand, struggled to get high-quality looks in front of Carey Price. They settled for a lot of shots from the outside and point shots. It should be a better game from the Leafs offensively with how the Matthews line is playing.

The Leafs’ forecheck is going to be key. They are one of the better teams in the league at puck retrievals, and if there is one knock on the Habs D unit, it is their foot speed. The Leafs will also need to start strong because it will be tough to come back against a team as stingy as the Habs if they have to chase this game. 

The Habs are coming off two pretty bad performances against the Sens, including a 3-2 loss, and they’ll need to be much better tonight if they want to have any chance at winning. They’re also going to need Carey Price to be a lot better. He is 32nd in goals saved above average and Jake Allen is 2nd, if I’m Claude Julien, I am monitoring that situation very closely. Because of how incompetent the NHL schedule makers are, Montreal plays the Leafs in 3 of their next 4 games. If they want to make a statement to the rest of the league, here’s their chance to do so.

Tonight though, I got to go with the Buds, 4-3 in overtime.

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