Examining the circumstances of Toronto’s third period collapses

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

You know the story. The Leafs score a bunch of goals, pull ahead in the third period, and then everybody holds their breath. They’re going to cough it up again, of course. In 37 games this year, Toronto has led in the third period 23 times and won 15 of them, losing one in regulation and seven in overtime or the shootout. That’s still 80.4% of possible points, but if they had the nine that they gave up, they would be just a single point back of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead and right near the top of the standings, likely tied or a point ahead of Washington for sixth overall.

So that really stings, especially when sitting two points back of a playoff spot. It stings even more of late, too, seeing as Toronto has pulled this act in 3 of their last 4 games; winning against Florida after conceding two early in the third period and narrowly winning the Centennial Classic after falling from 4-1, but losing to Washington last night made the issue glaringly obvious once again.

Why does this keep happening? Here are a few thoughts.

They always have the Lead

I’ve been beating this drum on Twitter for the past couple of weeks, but that’s because its a drum worth beating. Simply put… the Leafs give up a lot of leads because they spend a lot of time in the lead. This year, Toronto has been ahead of the opposition for 940 minutes; nearly half (42%) of their time spent actually playing. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that is on a historical 16-game winning streak, are ahead of them in this regard, and at their current pace, Toronto will have eclipsed their time with the lead total from last season by the end of this weekend.

A huge reason as to why nobody remembers the Leafs collapsing this frequently previous years was they were usually tied or trailing. Toronto has never spent more than 1498 minutes ahead in the fancy stat era (since 2007/08); they’re on pace for 2084 minutes, sixth highest of the decade, this season.

It’s harder to pull ahead than to come back

You’ve probably heard about score effects so many times that you’re sick of it. For those who haven’t, it’s the idea that teams that are ahead will pull back to protect their lead while teams that are trailing will get a bit more aggressive and take more risks, valiantly attempting to come back.

Ten years of data pretty clearly backs this up. Teams have historically attempted 44.2% of the game’s shots while leading, 45% of the unblocked shots, 45.1% of the shots on goal, and Corsica’s expected goals model assigns a typical weight of about 45.6% of goal differential to those efforts. Interestingly, leading teams exceed that, landing right around the 50% that they would in any score state, which over 426,000 minutes of sample, might just mean that the better team is a bit more likely to keep chipping away.

Trailing teams also see an uptick in the share of attempts faced that they block, perhaps because they tend to sit back and play passively instead of chasing for another goal. Even still, shots against tend to go up, so playing for blocked shots isn’t incredibly opportune.

While the goals have balanced out in the long run for these teams, teams that do a lot of winning should theoretically be capable of having a better goal gap than even. Not to mention, playing at the mercy of getting outshot makes smaller samples more likely to swing in a negative way, which might be part of the issue here. Toronto has walked away with points in all but one of these collapses; there could simply be luck of the draw.

Who Heads Over?

As much as most would love to make this another “lets completely dump on the depth players” segment, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

For example, while the pairing of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak, unsurprisingly, gives up the most shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, shots on goal, expected goals against, and scoring chances against, they really haven’t given up too many goals; their pairing has actually been the most effective. Now, as you all know, I’m a huge skeptic of using goals to predict the future (most people are), but when we’re talking about “who has given up the lead”, that’s very much results based and the results say that part isn’t on them.

Where they might be influencing goals against, though, is the fact that the team takes a more negative penalty differential when they’re on the ice, likely due to a lot of puck chasing. Jake Gardiner is in a similar boat. While the goals might not come on their even strength shift, they put the Leafs in an even tougher spot to protect their lead when making them go down a man. Ben Smith is in a similar boat to that pair; bad at just about everything, the worst at having his line take penalties, contributing almost nothing offensively and not even helping much at the faceoff dot, but not giving up goals.

Hunwick himself has also done a better job than most at directing attempts away; while he gives up a lot of them, possibly too many for this to matter, only 45% of attempted shots turn into a shot on goal when he’s on the ice while the Leafs are up. Meanwhile, most of other defencemen over at 47-50%. I don’t know how much that really means, but it’s a tangible example of him keeping shots to the outside, if nothing else.

Moreover, though, these guys can’t really be blamed because they aren’t the ones who are playing the most minutes when leading. Granted, the Leafs also take leads quite early in games and I don’t have the capability to break this data down by period; perhaps looking at just the third period would paint a different picture, but it appears that Zaitsev/Rielly get the most significant leading minutes and that the Kadri and Matthews lines are the most relied upon while ahead. In terms of limiting shots and getting some back, those forward choices appear to make sense of the long run. The Gardiner/Carrick pair does a little better than Rielly/Zaitsev in this regard, but being less gassed as the game elapses probably helps.

They might just be overthinking it

The Leafs seem to have its stretches where these goals flood in most consistently; in games where Toronto has had a third-period lead and either gone to overtime (nine games) or lost in regulation (one game), they’ve given up half their goals in the first two or last 90 seconds of the third period.

Now, both of these timeslots do make some sense to be the ones that stick out. Early goals could come as a result of a shift in strategy, and last-second goals could simply be a matter of the other team throwing it all on the line. But that also goes the other way; Toronto seems to get caught standing shortly after carry-ins on most of the early goals, and in almost all of the late ones, they’re trapped and chasing.

There are a couple of schools of thought here. Maybe the coaching staff isn’t adjusting to other teams quick enough to start the third period, and maybe their late-game strategy isn’t up to snuff.

Or honestly, it might just be in the players’ heads right now. They’re coming out of the gate thinking the same thing we are: “oh crap, here we go again”. Most of these goals follow similar patterns; rushes created by bad passes or absent minded skating, or in tight goals created by failed clear-outs and multiple skaters heading towards the same opposing player, leaving open men in dangerous areas.

Mental mistakes, created by worrying too much about the situation.

Is There A Solution?

So what we know is this; the Leafs are a very good team that are leading games longer than almost everybody in the National Hockey League. Once they’re ahead, they’ve mostly put out their top players, and they’ve done a middle-of-the-pack job statistically at controlling the flow of play. But, for whatever reason, the team seems to stumble out of the gate and in the closing moments without fail, making mistakes that scream pressure, be it a giveaway, bad dump, or a penalty that makes the situation worse.

Somebody who is looking for a rapid-fire solution to cut goals against off would likely deeply their depth players, but while the group has done a surprisingly good job at avoiding goal concession, history implies that relying too much on them would be playing with fire. 

I don’t know if there’s a direct solution right now. Maybe you keep forcing the team to press and attempt to widen the cap in the third period, instead of sitting back, even in the final minutes. Maybe the staff just has to do their best to keep the guys comfortable with the idea of hey, things happen, but just because disaster before doesn’t mean it has to happen again. Showing confidence that things will shake out rather than messing with players’ heads further by experimenting solely based in scattered mental mistakes seems like the sensible thing to do; that’s what Mike Babcock did with Frederik Andersen early in the season and it paid off extremely well.

The good news in all of this, though, is that issues like this are something that through a combination of confidence, strategy, and reversal of some bad luck, can be mended. It’s better to have led and lost than to have never led at all, and while its frustrating to see the odd fumbles right now, it’s a much better situation than the team has been in for a long time.

  • STAN

    The season’s not yet half over. I have confidence that Babcock & Co. will will find a solution to this chronic problem in the not-to-distant future. There’s just too much talent on this roster.

  • tealeaves

    No one really cares about this young leaf team giving up the lead in the third period except those PPP guys who throw a tantrum and cry about how life is so unfair that everything doesn’t work out like their spreadsheets predicted.

  • LukeWarmWater

    Wow rookies wilt a bit under the pressure to some degree. I can’t believe it. One would think that just maybe they have to learn to close a game. That a cagey veteran team knows how to keep their cool in those closing minutes. That guys who have played for years and have been clutch down the stretch succeed against kids. Again tell me it ain’t so.

    Then you have the J.V.R.’s of the world who probably will never shake Kesselitis and just float out there late in the game and simply miss their defensive assignment. Tell me it ain’t so.

    Jeff I got big news for you. Just like any group of young players they will indeed learn. The Islanders had the leafs beaten but the leafs with Lanny MacDonald scored the game winner in a series. Next year the Islanders were ready for the big step to the cup.

    Edmonton with all those kids won a playoff series against Montreal and the great one and Messier and the rest of the hall of fame crew learned how to win and hold on to leads.

    It ain’t rocket science it simply takes time to learn to hold on to the lead when close to half of your key players are roookies.

    Btw the Detroit bad boy Pistons pounded Michael Jordan for a couple of years till he learned with his teammates how to hold to a lead and win the championship.

    Simply just growing steps Jeff, one at a time. Here is an idea Jeff go through some of the clubs who over the years have been extremely successful. Find out what the avg. age of the team was. What was their percentage in holding leads, 88%, 90%, obviously they would have blown some leads unless it was that great Montreal team in 1976 that I recall lost 8 games all year. So basically the leafs will have to improve about 10% in this area to have a very respectable plus 90% in retaining the lead.

    Btw let us not forget that as good as Andersen has been over the last couple of months the all-star goalies have the game commentators stating that he just made an incredulous game winning save on occasion. I’m not seeing that from Andersen. Granted he needs help but he will have to occasionally make that stand on his head last minute save.

    As I’ve often stated Jeff, patience is the key with this youthful group. They are indeed learning how to win. I said it before I’ll say it again, there are a number of base camps in the climbing of Mount Everest, a.k.a. winning the Stanley cup. This group of exciting, entertaining, energetic group of youngsters are off to a great start in climbing those base camps.

  • Albertan Leaf Fan!

    So I don’t know if any of you listen to TSN after the game… But last night thier theory was that leafs wernt playing the score. They were always pushing for more, trying to make the play, and score another, when they should be just putting it in a safer spot eg glass and out…. Now the entire time I was listening I was going that can’t be right. Offence has to be the best defence. I am curious to here your thoughts

  • Draper55

    The biggest problem I’m seeing is the forwards not getting the puck out of the zone when they have the chance prolonging zone time for the opposing teams and wearing down the Leafs defensive pressure until they’re able to capitalize. I’ve watched the past few games where the Leafs have given up leads and I’d say the majority of the time the problem is not the defense but the forwards leaving their zone or man unattended to watch or chase the puck, this in turn leaves the D vulnerable and then gets them out of position. Don’t get me wrong the D have made their fair share of poor plays but I think if the forwards are able to tighten up in the defensive end, clear pucks when they have the chance and get pucks deep in the offensive zone the Leafs stand a better chance of holding leads. The top teams like Chicago and LA and Pittsburgh are able to shut teams down late in games not because of their great defenseman (which they do have) but because their forwards always backcheck hard and clear the zone when given the chance, with more experience I see this Leaf team getting better but for now we can dwell on the positives like Jeff said that the Leafs can actually score enough to get 2-3 goal leads. Baby steps

  • Bob Canuck

    I find the discussion regarding the impact of youth on the Leafs inability to hold a lead after two periods to be deficient.

    For example, if you look at the winning percentages of teams leading after two periods and the average age of each team’s opening roster for the 2016-2017 season, Pittsburgh has the highest winning percentage with the second oldest lineup; the Leafs rank 28th with the second youngest roster. Looks like there may be a connection between age/experience and closing out leads. However, in 2015-2016, the Leafs opening roster was the 9th oldest but ranked 27th in winning percentage after leading after 2 periods. Perhaps being a poor defensive team and not youthful is the reason the Leafs rank so low in terms of winning games in which they lead after two periods. Another case in point is Edmonton; they rank/ranked 14th in winning percentage when leading after 2 periods this season and last while having the 28th and 29th oldest team, respectively. How come age does not appear to be a factor for the Oilers?

    By simply looking at how many losses occur after leading after 2 periods, many questions are raised. For example, do teams with a higher winning percentage in games they lead after 2 periods have more multiple-goal leads than teams with lesser winning percentages? Do teams with higher winning percentages blow leads and then win the game with a go-ahead goal? If so, then is closing out the game really because of experience or is it because of relative offensive skill? Do teams with lower winning percentages when leading after 2 periods kill more penalties in the third period than teams with higher winning percentages?

    It may very well be true that the youthful Leafs need to learn how to close out a game but the quantitative analysis is lacking. The qualitative explanations for why the Leafs rank poorly in winning games when leading after 2 periods may be correct; however, the number of questions surrounding the raw data makes those arguments less convincing, in my opinion.

  • Glen

    IMO opinion the main problem is the vets have no clue how to play tight D. Kadri is inconsistant, JVR and Bozak are floaters and Rielly flys around like a chicken with its head cut off. These guys all have talent but they are flawed. Can Babs fix it, that remains to be seen. I love the Leafs, but that is my observation.

  • Mohamed Mike Slack Fahmy

    What I see happening is sloppy clearing attempts out of the zone. They need to do a better job of clearing the puck out of their zone No more of these lazy clearing attempts will probably alleviate most of their issues in the 3rd period