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Thoughts on Game 1: The PK, line matching, and the blueline

In a series where the Leafs are attempting to exorcise their demons against a team that, for the last five years, has dangled the “It was 4-1” memory over their heads, they did a terrible job of trying to get everyone to forget that series, as they started it the exact same way the 2013 Leafs did: by getting their teeth kicked in, and losing Game 1.

That’s not to say it was all bad. Hyman’s goal was amazing, and showed that the Bruins might not have been completely prepared to shut down the Leafs depth scoring. Marner was phenomenal in the first two periods, especially on the power play. Andersen was excellent at even strength, with a 5v5 save percentage of .935%. The Leafs held the Bergeron line to one goal at even strength, for what it’s worth. Matthews and Nylander weren’t amazing, but they aren’t going to be quiet all series. And, overall, the Leafs played competitive hockey for the first two periods, and were in the game until they got into penalty trouble in the third.

But, it was still bad. The good news is that it there’s a good chance that it can be fixed. The bad news is that there’s a good chance it won’t be fixed.

The Penalty Kill

Let’s get the big one out of the way. The penalty kill was atrocious last night. At even strength, the Leafs only lost 2-1, but three Bruins power play goals made it difficult for the Leafs to stay in the game. The first goal saw Torey Krug make an easy pass through the Leafs “penalty kill specialists” Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak to spring Brad Marchand, who went unnoticed. The second saw Polak do a terrible job of getting in between a pass, and Hainsey put no effort into the puck battle between him and Backes. The third was a weak goal from Freddy in the dying  minutes of a game that was already over. It was a terrible outing overall for the penalty kill, but sometimes your penalty kill will have bad games.

The problem is that this is more than just a one game problem, this has been a growing trend. Since the trade deadline, the Leafs penalty kill has been operating at 74%, 9th worst in the league. You’d think this would have drawn more attention, but the fact that they were only shorthanded 50 times (10th fewest in the league), meant they only allowed 13 goals in 18 games, so it was brushed under the rug. They also have a xGA/60 of 2.8 on the PK since the deadline, which is the sixth worst in the league. Not. Good.

The main issue is that Babcock’s “penalty kill specialists” aren’t very good at it. In terms of PK CA/60 among the 357 skaters with at least 50 minutes on the PK this season, Roman Polak ranks 80th with 48.37, Leo Komarov ranks 140th with 50.75, and Ron Hainsey is right behind him at 141st with 50.87. Not that that’s terrible, but that’s not good enough to be relying them heavily on the penalty kill.

Luckily, Babcock seemed to notice this, and made some quick adjustments. He stopped relying solely on Hainsey and Polak, and started to give Dermott and Zaitsev more ice time. Ideally, he’d also give Rielly and Gardiner more PK time as well. While you don’t want to overwork them when they already eat minutes on the PP, this is the playoffs, this is why you conserve their energy in the regular season.

Babcock’s Questionable Line Matching

In his third year with the Leafs, the fans have definitely gotten their taste of Babcock and his interesting choices in terms of player deployment. It was bad enough that he was already going into the game with a sub optimal lineup, what with Komarov in over Johnsson, and Polak in over Carrick. But, Boston seemed to try and play the matchup game, and Babcock didn’t do a whole lot about it this game.

While I don’t have a problem with Babcock sacrificing Matthews and Nylander to the Bergeron line, because they can hold their own (and while they weren’t good possession wise, at least the puck didn’t go in). But, Cassidy saw something against the Leafs fourth line, and he went for it, while Babcock didn’t do a whole lot. And that’s what bit the Leafs. The only time the Bergeron line got on the board at 5v5 was against the fourth line, and that late second period goal seemed to kill any energy the Leafs had left in them.

Obviously this won’t be an easy fix on the road, as the Bruins have the advantage there, but if the Leafs can try to not have the fourth line on against the Bergeron line, that’d be great.

The Defense

Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Leafs could beat the Bruins. One of the key points was for the right side on defense needed to not suck.

Well, it was worse, almost the entire defense sucked.

Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak got exposed on the penalty kill early on. Hainsey got exposed again on the third goal, as he completely missed his assignment with Pastrnak. Rielly decided to go for a skate around the net on the fourth goal and leave Kuraly wide open with an opportunity to bat the puck in. Gardiner and Hainsey only had a 7% zone exit success rate. Morgan Rielly was a whopping -26 in Corsi differential.

If there was any bright side to the blueline, Dermott looked solid in his first playoff game, Polak was fine at even strength, and Zaitsev actually had a good game. Rielly and Gardiner are much better than what they were in that game, so let’s hope for the best.

As for Hainsey, I don’t know what to say anymore. Well, I do. He’s fatigued. He’s 37 years old, and had a shortened summer for the first time in his career last year. If there was a player that shouldn’t have played in every game that he wasn’t injured, especially when the Leafs had clinched a playoff spot with 5 games left, it was Ron Hainsey, but Babcock decided to not do that. Why, I’ll never know.

Nazem Kadri

What the hell, Nazem?

I love you man. You’ve been great these last two years at both ends of the ice, and you’re on a great deal. But, when you make not one, not two, but three dirty plays, and one of them is so bad that fans of teams that employ Brad Marchand and Tom Wilson are getting on their high horse saying that it’s indefensible that I support you, it makes it a bit hard.

This also ties into one of the overarching problems from game 1. The Leafs let the Bruins get into their head. The Bruins got the Leafs mad, and off their speed game to be more physical. And that’s not how it works. Look back to the series in 2013. In the first game, the Leafs did the exact same thing, but then reverted back to their speed game in the second game, won it, and the series was a lot closer.

The problem is that some of the “veterans” from that series did the same thing again tonight. Kadri and van Riemsdyk led the team with 5 hits, and Komarov had 4. Kadri was the big problem obviously, making some very dirty hits, but the Leafs let the Bruins get in their head again.

Hopefully, the Leafs learned their lesson, and go back to being their normal speedy selves in game 2. Not that they weren’t that in game 1, but they also tried to be physical, and the physicality got them into penalty trouble, which cost them the game. Stay focused, and they have a better chance at winning the series.

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