“We didn’t come ready to play and they pretty much just slapped us.” That was Auston Matthews assessment of the Maple Leafs effort in their 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. It was a night where pretty much everything went wrong for the Leafs but when you look at the goals they allowed, there was a common theme and it’s been a problem for Mike Babcock and his team all season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs lost 14 defensive zone face-offs last night. 4 of those losses led to goals against. Losing draws and subsequently losing coverage in the defensive zone continues to be an issue for the Leafs and it bit them harder than it has in any game this season. The 4 lost face-offs that led to goals against all started with a center on his strong side, losing the draw. All of Toronto’s centers are left shots, so it’s not surprising they have a better success rate from the left circle this season.
But, that didn’t help them last night. Auston Matthews was responsible for two losses that led to goals, somewhat surprising as he’s been the Leafs best player winning strong side draws in the defensive zone in the last 10 games, winning 60% of them. John Tavares and Frederik Gauthier each lost one that led to a goal. League-wide, teams typically win a higher percentage of defensive zone face-offs than offensive zone draws and even though the Maple Leafs are north of 50 percent, they rank 25th overall in defensive zone face-off win percentage, at even-strength. Not ideal.
So, let’s break down the goals, which highlight why the Maple Leafs have struggled all season with coverage in the moments after a lost draw in their end.
Matthews loses the face-off and the Leafs fail to clear the zone. The puck ends up on the stick of Nikita Kucherov and William Nylander pressures him from the right side of the ice. Note – the Maple Leafs play a high-pressure defensive system in their own end and their aggressive puck pursuit can get them into trouble, which it does on this play. Nylander’s puck pursuit leaves Ryan McDonagh wide open and Kucherov, who leads the NHL in assists and pass completions to the slot, finds him with ease, setting up a deflection goal in front of the net for Tyler Johnson.
This time, John Tavares loses the draw and Mitch Marner overcommits to Kucherov, once again leaving McDonagh wide open with a lane to the net. Once again, Tyler Johnson puts the puck in the net seconds later. Sound familiar?
Another lost face-off by Matthews and this one is less about coverage and more about a few bad bounces for the Leafs. The puck pinballs its way into the net and Frederik Andersen’s night is done.
Frederik Gauthier loses the draw clean and Tyler Ennis makes a beeline for the point. Jan Rutta moves the puck quickly to Yanni Gourde, who’s slap pass is redirected home by Cedric Paquette. Again, the Leafs pressure, are late getting to the puck carrier and the result is a goal against.
I learned a valuable lesson playing basketball in high school that applies to a lot of what I’ve seen here. I was running around all over the court trying to steal the ball and before long, my coach blew the whistle and had me stand about 20 feet away from the wall. He said, “When I blow the whistle, run as fast as you can and touch the wall.” He blew the whistle, I took off and after he waited a few seconds, he threw the ball which hit the wall just before I got there. He said to me, “See, no matter how fast you run the other team can pass it faster.” This would be a good lesson for the Leafs to learn when it comes to defending in their own end against elite offensive teams. Their aggressive puck pursuit failed them on multiple occasions last night and it’s one of the reasons Toronto ranks bottom-3 in the league in how often it allows scoring chances following lost face-offs in its own end this season.
Highly skilled teams like the Lightning know if they move the puck quickly they can catch the Leafs out of position and exploit their aggressive defensive scheme. Toronto is almost guaranteed to play Boston in the first round and the Bruins generate scoring chances on over 19% of their won offensive zone draws, at even-strength, 4th best in the league. Tampa Bay ranks 2nd.
The Maple Leafs are going to lose their fair share of face-offs in their own end, especially from the right circle. A first round date with the Bruins seems inevitable and if the Leafs don’t find a way to improve their defensive zone coverage, they’re going to get exposed, like they did last night against the Lightning.
(Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)