Like nearly every team in the NHL salary cap era, you can only go as far as your best players take you. We rise to the moments where 4th players score huge goals in huge moments, but the world’s Max Talbots don’t have heroic moments without Sidney Crosbys helping them get that far (and they’ll tell you the same).
According to this concept, the best players of the Leafs were their best players, so now in one game series, others will have opportunities to raise their name. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander were uniformly excellent at one of the best hockey games of the Toronto season – in Tampa Bay, trying to bring out a host of new champions. It was heartbreaking for the Leafs, who didn’t shrink from the moment but rose to it, taking the bulk of second-half play to Lightning as they pushed for the final blow.
They’re on their way to Toronto for Game 7, which underscores a season of great action. They’ll get their home muster, the last change, and another break to break what seems like a curse at this point.
There are quite a few surprises left in this series. You know the cast of characters, and the stage is clearly set. But I have 10 thoughts after watching four stints of exciting hockey Thursday night, to put things under a microscope a little closer.
A moment of appreciation for Victor Hedman
It is not unknown. He is a Norris Cup winner, Conn Smith winner, and future Stanley Cup Hall of Fame winner. He gets his due. But Game 6 was a reminder that he’s the most important cog in the Lightning machine (even if the try-figure numbers were against him – any D would have been underwater in his turn). Yes, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been great in the past, but he posted a sub-0.900 save in this series, and Tampa Bay still has three wins. Yes, Nikita Kucherov won the Hart Cup and has eight points, but he runs in hot and cold, while Hedman…just runs.
His work breaking out the disc and bolts has been amazing, and is a real problem for the Leafs. I’m still waiting for one of his impulses to make a spin and a strange man rush in the other direction, but that never seems to happen. In Game 6, Lightning led in both controlled zone exits (12) and zone entries (10, more by three than the next highest total in the game, Auston Matthews’ seven).
On Alexandre Kervot, William Nylander and the concept of “Everything Around Him”
I realize many people saw Kerfoot’s failed 4-on-4 pass that led to the opening goal of the game and I stuck with it, but don’t let that get in the way of your view of his entire game. It was Flight, and the only Leafs player with as many exit zones as the aforementioned Hedman. He’s one of the few foliage leaves whose game translates best in qualifying, as he can dive and slash into the opponent’s chassis like a pesky mosquito you just can’t slap away.
One thing I’ve come to realize over the years watching this Leafs is that guys who turn up early Everywhere around the imp And the play – even when things don’t go well – end up being the people who score the big goals. I thought Nylander and Kerfoot were both “everywhere” in Game 6. There were a lot of good plays, some bad, but nonetheless involved. I’ve said this before, but previous iterations of the Leafs failed when the men meekly disappeared into the night. Numbers 15 and 88 were present at Game 6, and they were knocking on the door like everyone else.
The phrase “The time of John will come” was insightful
After the fourth game, Sheldon talked about how his captain, who let’s face it, wasn’t “all around”, or all that was in the first part of the series. His play in game 5 could be said to be the difference between winning and losing, and in game 6, he was once again one of the Leafs’ best players. He was a dynamite on the front line, valiant defensively, and played only a couple of elite players on their way to two goals.
Tavares seems to have found his place in this type of series. He can’t force it, but he just has to trust that the play will come to him, and be prepared to be at his best when that happens. It’s about time, Keefe said, and it’s getting hot when they head into Game 7 very well-timed.
Good Cast Support: 64, 58, 11
Heading into Game 6 of this playoff series – you’d hardly believe this somewhat correct stat – David Kampf was leading the Leafs in 5 on 5 shots, better than Matthews. After Kampf’s sixth game in second place, he landed 14 shots in 17 attempts, the second best predicted goal resulting from the team behind 34 goals. D-zone, the death penalty.
Michael Bunting found his step and reclaimed his place in the front row as well. And Colin Blackwell’s speed was a noticeable advantage on the front check, his tenacity providing a burst of energy when he starts playing a bit behind.
Bad cast support: 47, 65, 25
Two of the three players mentioned above (Pierre Ingval and Ilya Mikheev) felt like the Leafs’ secret weapons destined for this playoff series, two players who have taken steps over the course of the season to go from mere full players to legit. difference makers. In the second half of the year, both scored regularly (well, Mikheev has been in full swing for more than 30 years), and their speed changed. With Kampf, they dominated every game they got.
For three or four solid matches now, Engvall has been an anchor for the Leafs, stuck in the mud, stopping too often, and breaking out of the play. It must move. Mikheev did better, but his play reminds me more of the last season, where he is steadier with a puck disc in his hands, making him quick to shake it off, which often results in more confusion than a well-orchestrated play. For once, they are losing their minutes. These guys have a lot to offer, and they are favorites to go up and score a big surprise goal in the seventh game. They have the tools.
With Ondrej Kase, the cards are in a bit of a pickle. It wasn’t effective, and it’s hard to see it suddenly become effective. His three most outstanding O-zone touches in the game resulted in 6 non-threatening shots at the opponent’s leg pads, he had an extra spin, and only seemed to be behind the play. It’s hard to blame the guy, given what he’s trying to get back at the pace of the series. But he only saw eight minutes of ice time over four periods in Game 6. Will they get more Wayne Simmonds in those two minutes?
Some fast hitters now:
6 . Special Teams Series and Penalties
Lightning scored in 4-on-4, in the power game, and shorted in game 6. It was the story of the series, which coach John Cooper noted several times. But at least in Game 6 there were long rounds of 5 on 5 play, and the game found some flow. I don’t expect Game 7 to be any different.
Fassi vs. Jack
This wasn’t the story of the series it was likely to be, as both guys were… fine. But this is where Lightning has been said to have a huge advantage in the series. Leafs fans remember the squeak that Brendan Gallagher scored in Game 7 last year. I would say the most important thing for the Leafs in the decider on Saturday is that this match is still without a story.
OT . pros
Speaking of going back to last year, the Leafs took it heavy to Montreal in OT of Game 6 before pulling away from them, and I thought they were better in Thursday’s extra game against Tampa Bay. It was less “abandoning all plans to score” and more “creating because it comes from diligent positioning”, and they played a massive run against a big opponent on the road in a big moment. If Game 5 felt like a step up for this group, it felt like it was another. I have made arrows in my notes to Marner, Matthews, Riley, Nylander, Tavares, Campf, and others. Hockey is a weird game, man. It just won’t go for them.
Kudos to the play made up of Veteran Leafs D: 78, 8, 3, 55
There is a calm to this group of Leafs D that allows their attacker to thrive. Some might complain that it lacks the sting, sure, but with the stakes rising, having a guy like Jake Muzzin (who won’t forget he lost in their previous playoff series) and Mark Giordano feels like he always has the “big” on the rink to cool off things before getting away from them.
I thought TJ Brodie, in particular, had excelled there in Game 6.
The pair of Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin is another animal entirely, but I thought Lyubushkin was exceptional in Game 6 as well. He was physical without running, and he put in some really good plays. Rielly is the most high risk/reward guy on the back end, and it’s nice to have one of them (he was also better at the power game that dispenses the disc quickly). You definitely worry about this pair more than anything else, but they also have the greatest potential to swing a game with positive play.
It was a quieter run of the fourth streak, but watch out
For all of the early series talking about the fourth line of Lightning (including the game they all scored in), it waned in importance as the series went on and everyone went from “setting the tone” to “trying to win” with serial precision. Watch out Game 7. These guys have been there and done it and they know how to make a difference in just a few minutes.
Could the Leafs’ fourth streak, which will certainly include Jason Spiza and Colin Blackwell, provide that value for them the other way? Are these four lines important in the end?
Looking forward to the 7 . game
What was disappointing about the Leafs in their previous Decisive games was the way they let them bleed away, without the kind of counter-hit you need after you take the inevitable blow. They’re going to have bad spells, and they’re very likely to score, so that becomes the question this year – can they come back? There is the military expression “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, will Toronto be able to find itself after the initial exchanges?