Analyzing How The Leafs Won Game Four and What They Should Change in Game Five

Two days after a potentially era-defining comeback for this iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs, some might still be wondering how they even managed to pull it off. The Tampa Bay Lightning had close to a 99% chance to win the hockey game on Monday night before Auston Matthews scored his first of two goals to narrow the gap to two. They had outplayed the Leafs for most of the night and dominated them a game earlier, too (despite losing). Toronto was struggling even to enter the zone on their powerplays, often being turned back before they reached Tampa’s blueline. Sure, the Leafs played better in the second period after a horrid first, but they were still down three goals, and the Lightning have the best goalie of this generation. Maybe if the roles were reversed, a three-goal comeback wouldn’t have seemed impossible, let alone miraculous. I mean, this is the Leafs we’re talking about. But something changed in Amalie Arena after Toronto killed an extended four-on-three powerplay that Tampa had to start the period. One team begged to take control of the game, and the other let them. Here are three reasons the Leafs managed to comeback Monday night

Neutral Zone/Transition

When I say that Tampa let Toronto take control, I don’t mean that Tampa allowed Toronto to score three straight goals—quite the opposite. However, the Lightning had been on top of the Leafs all night thanks to an aggressive forecheck and suffocating the neutral zone. Toronto usually eats teams alive in transition with their speed and long stretch passes. However, Tampa has stymied that all series by keeping their defence high on Toronto’s wingers and making them dump the puck in. But in the third, with a commanding lead, they started to give the Leafs’ defence a lot of time on breakouts, usually dropping into a 2-2-1 or 1-3-1 trap in the neutral zone. Toronto also took advantage of open ice when they or the Lightning were changing to gain entry into the zone. Here is an example from early in the third: Morgan Rielly makes a great pass to Zach Aston-Reese, who snuck behind the Tampa 1-3-1 coming off the bench and got a half-breakaway.

Matthews’ first goal is also a great example. Nylander comes straight from the bench and finds some room behind the Tampa trap leading to Brodie making a great pass. The Leafs get easy entry in the zone with speed, back off the Tampa defenders and use their elite skill to create an open shooting opportunity for Matthews, who doesn’t miss.

Another straightforward thing the Leafs did, which allowed a lot of easy zone entries in the third, was swing one of their forwards low and get him to build up speed to the weak side of the ice, then pass it to him in transition. Again, they were able to do this by taking advantage of the open ice left by a Tampa change combined with the Lightning dropping back late in the game.

Notice how John Tavares is starting to skate backwards here to create an option for Rielly, he receives the puck with Hagel on an excellent angle to defend him, but because he has built up speed, he manages to get past Hagel and into the zone. The Leafs’ fourth goal also came from this transition play:

Matthew Knies picked up the puck wide open on the weak side of the ice after curling low to build up speed, and here is his simple zone entry. 21 seconds and an offensive zone faceoff later, Rielly scored to tie the game at four. Tampa won’t give the Leafs this much room in game five, but Toronto should continue to note lazy Lightning changes and use that to their advantage regarding zone entries and transition chances.

Morgan Rielly

Morgan Rielly was the second biggest reason the Leafs managed to come back in game four. The longest-tenured Leaf on the team has been incredible so far and keeps adding to the legend of Playoff Morgan. His difference in play in the postseason compared to the regular season is remarkable and much needed for a Toronto team that lacks offensively gifted defensemen.

When Rielly is at his best, he is everywhere on the ice. That includes being the lead forechecker, jumping up into a rush he has no business in, or making a tremendous last-ditch defensive play with his stick. Game four had all of this, but where Rielly helped the Leafs the most was his ability to recognize open space and give his teammates an easy outlet to start a transition. Here are three great examples:

The first shows Rielly anticipating that Nylander will get his pass to Matthews and trusting Matthews’s skill and smarts to find Rielly wide open on the far side. It goes to plan, and the Leafs not only get a stress-free breakout but also end up with a dangerous odd-man rush leading to a Nylander shot from the slot.

The second example is vital because the Leafs had been dealing with some Tampa pressure and needed a change. Rielly sees that Schenn has control and time to find O’Reilly at the top of the Leaf zone and immediately makes a beeline up the weak side. O’Reilly throws it his way, Morgan gets it deep, and the Leafs change and get time to establish a forecheck.

Lastly, at the start of overtime, Morgan uses his skating and awareness again to get a decent chance off the rush. Marner has the puck and only one option, Calle Jarnkrok, at center ice. Jarnkrok came across from the left side of the ice dragging his defender with him to open up room for Rielly, who happily obliged Jarnkrok and leaped onto a nice Jarnkrok pass. Again, the Leafs get a chance after Morgan drops it to Marner.

None of these directly led to goals, but they will eventually help the Leafs. Alleviating pressure and getting straightforward breakouts is half the battle in the playoffs, and Rielly’s helping a lot with this. At this point, Rielly is proving why he is the team’s most indispensable defenseman, and his pairing with Schenn has been Toronto’s best through four games.

Ilya Samsonov

Goaltending will never stop being essential to a team’s success in the Stanley Cup playoffs. For a team like the Leafs, you don’t have to stop every puck for them to have a chance to win. They can score in the blink of an eye and in bunches. However, the Leafs need a goalie that can make the big save when needed, and Samsonov has done that often over the last two games. His stats on the surface are not pretty. Samsonov is 21st amongst 23 goalies in goals saved above expected so far these playoffs, with a save percentage of .875%. Yet, he has three wins and shut the door in the third period/overtime during both of the Leafs’ wins in Tampa. This save on Alex Killorn kept the game tied late Monday night.

Then he made this point-blank stop on the Lightning’s captain in overtime.

I would be lying if I said I’m always 100% confident with Samsonov in the net. But besides game one, he hasn’t really let in a wrong goal. The Leafs have dealt with goalies letting in backbreaking goals constantly in big games over the past six years, and Samsonov has done the opposite so far. I think his game has improved as the series has gone on, and his confidence should be sky-high now. He has played better than Andrei Vasilevsky, and his team leads the series 3-1.

Game Five: To Bunting or Not to Bunting?

Simply put, the Leafs did not play well enough in Tampa Bay despite their two wins. We have seen this team blow a 3-1 lead before in the playoffs (2021), and we have also seen them have a chance to eliminate their opponent at home in front of a packed Scotiabank Arena and fail (2019, 2022). I don’t have to remind any Leaf fan that this series is far from over, and if the Leafs continue to fall behind, the odds are they won’t be able to comeback again. So what should they change?

Firstly, Sheldon Keefe should keep the lines he ran with in Monday’s second and third periods. He had Nylander-Matthews-Jarnkrok working well, and I think Knies-Tavares-Marner could be a really great line with Knies and Tavares’s ability to dominate below the goalline combined with Marner’s creativity off the rush. The bottom six is where things get interesting. Michael Bunting is eligible to return from suspension, and not only do I think he should, I think he will. Sam Lafferty and Aston-Reese have not done anything to suggest taking them out of the lineup would be unfair. Bunting has scored 20 goals or more in back-to-back seasons and would help the forecheck and second powerplay unit immensely. I understand .he worries about him being able to control himself. However, unless Bunting is legitimately the dumbest person on earth, I cannot imagine he hasn’t learned his lesson and will be much smarter from now on.

I really liked Alex Kerfoot’s game once he got moved to a line with O’Reilly and Noel Acciari. He looked much more comfortable as the lead puck carrier on the line and got easier matchups. The three combined well together. I wouldn’t mind seeing Keefe put Bunting with O’Reilly and Acciari, but Kerfoot should probably be rewarded for his play, and again, they seem to have some chemistry. That leaves Bunting for the fourth line, which has been brutal through four games. Bunting will help David Kampf with transitioning the puck and could maybe play the Pierre Engvall role on the line with the added benefit that he will actually hit somebody. I’d go Bunting-Kampf-Lafferty because of Lafferty’s speed.

Regarding strategy, I hope Keefe and his team are developing new ways to beat Tampa’s pressure. I think Timothy Lijegren’s puck-moving ability could help the Leafs with this, but I doubt Keefe messes with the defensive pairs. Whether it be skating the puck out more or just keeping it simple in their own end, the Leafs need to come up with more ways to counter the Lightning forecheck. Tampa will come out firing like they did in game four, and the Leafs need to be ready.

I think Toronto should also look to counter Tampa with an aggressiveness of its own. Too often, I found the Leafs’ defensemen had poor gaping and were giving the Lightning forwards lots of room on their zone entries. Toronto is at its best when it’s creating turnovers in the neutral zone and jumping on pucks to get odd-man rushes. They do well at forcing the opposing team to try and beat them with speed.

Regarding zone entries, the Leafs need to trust themselves more to just skate the puck into the zone. Especially on the powerplay, Toronto tends to try to make a short pass right at the blueline to a man on the boards to beat the trap waiting for them, but Tampa has anticipated this pass multiple times and gotten breakaways or clearances off of it. I would like to see Rielly fake the drop pass and get the puck in himself sometimes, too. Jake Gardiner used to be really good at that. It makes the opposition think a little bit more the next time you come up the ice.

Usually, before big Leaf games, I have a feeling of dread. I always worry about what could (and often does) go wrong. But not this time. I cannot wait for Thursday night. My confidence in this team is sky-high, and I think they will command game five from start to finish leading to our first series win in almost two decades. Go, Leafs, Go.

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