It may only be Feb. 3, but the NHL’s 2019-20 season is rapidly coming to a close and, therefore, the fight for playoff positions is ramping up.
On Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Florida Panthers in a tilt that saw a pair of teams separated by just two points for the third spot in the Atlantic Division. By the end of 60 minutes, the Leafs had fallen 5-3 and were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Toronto lost to a team without its superstar, Aleksander Barkov. It lost goaltender Frederik Andersen after the first period when he went through concussion protocol (he was cleared but held out the rest of the contest for precautionary reasons. And it failed to capture a much-needed boost in the standings.
Still, there were reasons for continued optimism. The Leafs dominated from puck drop to the final buzzer and led by two early in the third period at Scotiabank Arena. As head coach Sheldon Keefe put it, this was a game they played well enough to come away with.
“If we play that type of game 100 times, we probably win 99 of them,” Keefe said. “But you don’t get the points and that hurts.”
He added: “The result sucks, right? I don’t think the result is in any way indicative of the way the game went. … There’s a lot of things to like about what we did today.”
So what were those things to like? Here’s some positives the Leafs can carry into their next game on Wednesday against the New York Rangers:
John Tavares, William Nylander and Auston Matthews scored
Three of the Maple Leafs ‘Big Four’ — Tavares, Nylander, Matthews and Mitchell Marner — netted a goal while Marner chipped in two assists. They drive the offense and having these players show up on the scoresheet in a big game was critical for Toronto.
And these guys are certainly on a roll. Matthews notched his 37th to keep pace in the Art Ross Trophy race and record a point for the fourth straight game (three goals, two assists). Nylander’s goal — his 25th in a career year — extended his point streak to eight games (six goals, four assists), and Marner’s helpers gave him five consecutive games with a point (goal, six assists).
Defense limited chances, even if they didn’t limit goals
“That’s the best defensive game we’ve played the entire season,” said Keefe, despite his squad giving up four goals (one was an empty-netter) in the third period. “I don’t know if we gave up over four scoring chances at even-strength the whole hockey game.”
Well, it wasn’t four but it wasn’t too much more. According to Natural Stattrick, Florida had 11 scoring chances at 5v5 — including none in the second period. Of those, six were considered high-danger with two in the first and four in the third. By comparison, the Leafs had 25 scoring chances with 14 high-danger.
The only problem? Each goal — at any strength — was in the home plate area, which isn’t a good look defensively.
Leafs have time to find groove
If the playoffs were to start on Tuesday, Feb. 4, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not be playing; but they don’t start for another two months leaving plenty of time for them to get back into the postseason.
Of their last 29 games, the Leafs will play 14 at home where they hold a 13-7-7 record. They will also face teams lower in the standings 14 times, including two more ‘Battle of Ontario’ games in which they’re 2-0-0. Considering Toronto has a 6-8-2 record against teams above them in the standings, these games will be critical.
The Leafs will also face the three teams currently sitting 1-2-3 in the Atlantic — Boston, Tampa Bay and Florida — a combined six more times and the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes, who stand in the team’s way for the wild card, once each.