Leafs battle back to earn a point against Penguins – Recap

Photo via Abelimages/NHLInteractive via Getty

A few thoughts before I look at some aspects of Toronto’s 5-4 loss against Pittsburgh. Don’t call it a “loss”, really. Toronto came back and got a late goal from Phil Kessel to tie it up. After a nail-biting overtime session that was pretty inconsequential, James Neal and Sidney Crosby scored in the shootout as Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri missed.

But, a few thoughts…

When the National Hockey League came out of the season-long lockout they started showing games on NBC on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Watching out-of-market games is always fun, and in addition to the weekly CBC games, we got the TSN ones and then NBC on weekends. They’d always bring in some good talent from TSN, guys like Chris Cuthbert and Gord Miller I remember calling games, which was pretty cool.

The broadcasts though, weren’t very good. Chris Cuthbert has a fluid voice that flows with the play. NBC was trying out new ways to sell the game to the American audience that didn’t involve glowing pucks. They turned away from a traditional play-by-play and colour-man team and talked a lot about star players and anecdotes as the action went on. Keep in mind this is before high-def became really popular, so it was tough to see which players had the puck.

The other thing NBC did was have a “shift tracker” for no real reason that tracked the star player on each team. On Detroit it had a clock each time Nick Lidstrom was on the ice. For the Rangers, it was Jaromir Jagr. I never really got the point of the shift clock and it just counted up until the player went off the ice. 

That’s the problem with sports. There are too many numbers being thrown about, too many numbers that people have never really bothered to look into and see whether they matter. Shift clocks on NBC, and now CBC, in their remarkable effort to be the most repetitive and inane host broadcaster, spent a lot of time tonight talking about face-offs, playing up Tyler Bozak’s ability, and talked about face-offs as if that was the reason Sidney Crosby was such a terrific player.

Tyler Bozak won 16 of 30 face-offs tonight. That is a 53% advantage. That didn’t give the Leafs a puck-possession or territorial advantage, as Craig Simpson and Jim Hughson so desperately wanted us to believe it did. He had a good night on the draw. 53% doesn’t seem like much, but in the context of a long season, winning 53 out of 100 face-offs is very good. The Leafs, however, were outshot 12-8 at 5-on-5 when Bozak was on the ice. How come the face-offs, that the crew talked up all night, didn’t result in the tangible territorial advantage?

The reason is that face-offs, like scoring chances, are such a minuscule part of our understanding of hockey. Hockey isn’t a tough game to track statistically because it’s so fast and fluid. Hockey is a tough game to track statistically because the amount of scoring events is small compared to basketball, football or baseball. The number of chances we get to test our theories about puck possession needs to last full seasons before we can get a semblance of whether what we’re doing means anything in the long run. In hockey, we’ve had seasons of data for multiple teams that show that scoring chances, in the long run, match up with puck possession and shot differential numbers. Those same shot differential numbers are so predictive of a team’s record in the future.

I was long skeptical about face-offs because I noticed that Edmonton was always good at them, and Edmonton was never a really elite hockey team. This was back during the pre-lockout days before I had a real working knowledge of Excel, or what the hell a regression analysis was. I did take a look and see that the best teams at winning and losing games seemed to do it independently of face-offs. I never, ever tested that theory against the other statistics the NHL pumped out that I loved to quote, like hits and blocked shots, I guess because they were never discussed on hockey broadcasts to the extent they are today.

This isn’t really much of a recap. It’s moreso a manifesto against the use of flimsy data to support a flimsy conclusion. When you boot up CBC, context goes to die. After the first Pittsburgh goal, Jim Hughson seemed absolutely shocked that it had been set up because Tyler Bozak, a 54% face-off man, had lost a draw against Evgeni Malkin, a 45% face-off man. That’s not necessarily how odds work. You know that a coin when you flip it can land either heads, or tails. The coin won’t alternate. Over 4 flips or 10 flips, there’s no guarantee that the coin will land on the “heads” side as many times as the “tails” side, but you do know that the more times you flip the coin, the closer you will get to the sides being equal. 

Ultimately, Bozak won 5 draws against Malkin in 8 attempts. Did that matter very much? No. Evgeni Malkin slaughtered whichever Maple Leafs were on the ice regardless. Pittsburgh put up 14 scoring chances in this game to Toronto’s 3. That’s right, “three”. The damage-doers were primarily Malkin and line mates James Neal and Beau Bennett, and the victims were usually the Bozak line. Malkin may not start with the puck, but he takes minute-long shifts. Typically the puck changes hands about six times a minute, so regardless of whether the Penguins get the puck off the hop, you know one of their big strong centremen is going to be on your defenceman like a horse out of the starting gate on Derby Day, and he’ll make your defenceman look like the drunk clown on the derby infield.

Toronto would not have had a chance without James Reimer in this one. He spilled some rebounds and let one bank in off of him, but Pittsburgh out-shot Toronto 36-22 at even strength. They had the puck for the majority of the game and both of their top lines were rolling. Their top lines were rolling so much that even Randy Carlyle tapped out. Carlyle did something he doesn’t normally do, which is change up his lines and his pairings. He brought Jay McClement back to play with Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin to play against Sidney Crosby. He dropped Korbinian Holzer as Dion Phaneuf’s regular partner midway through the game and cycled Mike Kostka, and then Cody Franson up against the Pens top players.

That made some difference. Toronto kept with the Penguins in the 2nd and 3rd periods. They still had trouble generating offence against a relentless Pittsburgh team, but they did a better job limiting the damage in the defensive zone.

Dan Bylsma wasn’t the home coach in this one, but he did a job making sure that the game was going to be played on his terms. The only way Toronto’s best scorer this season, Nazem Kadri, was going to see ice against the Penguins was if Crosby or Malkin weren’t on the ice. All Bylsma had to do was limit Brandon Sutter’s ice-time, and Kadri had just five shifts in the first period. It helps when you have two workhorse centremen to allow you to run with just two lines, particularly when they were playing so well. 

Maybe the shift clock could have been useful in this one. Crosby and Malkin are excellent hockey players and they’ve been given competent hockey players to play with. Malkin knows that Bennett and Neal will shoot if he put the puck on their stick. Crosby knows that Chris Kunitz can support him on the boards and that Pascal Dupuis can find space. Reimer, who stopped 12 of 15 shots on goal from the scoring chance area, held the Leafs in it. He played a fantastic game and the Leafs got lucky with a leaky bucket at the other side.

Still, they’ve now taken three of four points against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Loss or not, it was in the shootout and it only counts for half a loss. That’s a big point to take at this stage in the season, particularly when it looked like the team would never escape an early 3-1 deficit at the end of the first period.

Individual scoring chances:

  Chances For Chances Vs. Chances +/-
Tyler Bozak 1 7 -6
James van Riemsdyk 1 7 -6
Phil Kessel 2 6 -4
Nazem Kadri 1 1 0
Clarke MacArthur 1 1 0
Matt Frattin 0 2 -2
Mikhail Grabovski 1 6 -5
Nik Kulemin 1 6 -5
Leo Komarov 0 3 -3
Jay McClement 1 3 -2
Colton Orr 0 0 0
Frazer McLaren 0 0 0
Dion Phaneuf 2 6 -4
Korbinian Holzer 0 3 -3
Carl Gunnarsson 1 8 -7
Mike Kostka 2 9 -7
Cody Franson 0 2 -2
Mark Fraser 1 0 1
  Chances For Chances Vs. Chances +/-
Sidney Crosby 4 0 4
Pascal Dupuis 3 1 2
Chris Kunitz 3 0 3
Evgeni Malkin 9 1 8
James Neal 9 1 8
Beau Bennett 11 1 10
Brandon Sutter 0 1 -1
Matt Cooke 0 1 -1
Tyler Kennedy 0 0 0
Dustin Jeffrey 1 1 0
Craig Adams 2 1 1
Tanner Glass 0 1 -1
Matt Niskanen 5 2 3
Kristopher Letang 7 0 7
Paul Martin 7 2 5
Brooks Orpik 6 2 4
Deryk Engelland 1 0 1
Simon Despres 2 0 2

Team scoring chance totals:

  1st 2nd 3rd OT Total
Toronto (EV) 0 (0) 3 (1) 3 (2) 0 6 (3)
Pittsburgh (EV) 8 (6) 3 (3) 5 (5) 1 17 (14)

LeafsNation Three Stars:

  1. Evgeni Malkin
  2. James Reimer
  3. James Neal
  • ChinookArchYYC

    As a friend to Leafs Nation, I would offer this open-minded sugestion: I would rather see Kessel get second star or someone more deserving. Sure, Reimer got the team through OT, but his undoing was mis-playing the shootout.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The leaf first line seems to be a major problem with scoring chance differential. And this differential gets worse against more talented teams (boston and penguins).

    But when I look at your data it doesn’t really point if the problem is Bozak entirely. Or if some of it is on the wingers (Kessel and JVR). Or also the defensive pairings (usually Phaneuf/AHLer of the week). Or the system the team is playing under Carlyle.

    I see no real upgrade route to improve scoring differential for that top line. Weiss seems more sideways to slight upgrade to Bozak. And Kadri is not ready yet to play top line just yet. In fact, I’m not sure Kadri will ever be enough as because kessel/jvr the leafs will need an exceptional 2way #1C like a kopitar or bergeron to clean up for kessel’s/jvr/lupul lacking defensive game.

    I coming to the conclusion that the leafs will struggle with 1C and defensive problems on the first line for years to come.

  • I’m worried about Phaneuf’s conditioning and TOI. He played a great game but was fading in OT. In playoff OT this will be a problem. Phaneuf is not able to play massive minutes yet as his skating are not as efficient as some of the past playoff defensive greats and nor is his positioning as smart and effective. That said his other pairings did not help enough but this is something that needs to change if the leafs are playoff bound.

    The thing I find most surprising is how similar this team is to last year yet how much more effective they are. The big differences I see are fourth line, the PK and carlyle coaching on defence and player confidence. I will say that first period, it looked like the leaf ‘collapse’ you have been preaching might be happening. This game should have been fenwick collapse, however the in game changes that carlyle made helped stem the tide and nullified at least for the time being the importance of being outshot. And that JVR hit on Malkin is what gave the leafs legs and positively swayed the momentum.

    And as a Kessel critic, I thought he played a better game. Though I do note against tighter systems like the Bruins his line is ineffective offensively and a problem defensively. My experience is playoff hockey will be much more like the bruins game and so I hope that first line and Kessel specifically can address that problem. I great center will help solve this but I’m not sure Kessel will ever be as effective in the playoffs as he is in the regular season.

  • Kessel will be fine in the playoffs, he was a point a game guy for the Bruins when they were in the playoffs. For him to compete in the playoffs he just needs somebody big to make some room and an actual good playmaker that can make plays, not just pass the puck to him.