By Stan Smith

The Toronto Maple Leafs needed a bounce-back game after losing their last two games and four of their last six, including a 6-3 stinker to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday. They got it with a dominant performance against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night. The 5-1 score flattered the Capitals.  If it wasn’t for Washington goaltender Charlie Lindgren the score could have easily been 10-1.

Related: Kyle Clifford: Maple Leafs Forgotten Man

The Good

For whatever reason, the Maple Leafs seem to have Washington’s number. The Capitals have only lost two of their last eight games. In that stretch, they beat the Carolina Hurricanes, the Vancouver Canucks, and shutout the Winnipeg Jets. The two games Washington has lost are against the Maple Leafs. The Capitals have outscored the opposition 23-3 in their six wins.  The Maple Leafs have outscored the Capitals 12-4 in the two Toronto games.

Dominance Beyond The Score

If you look beyond just the score and dig deeper into the underlying numbers of this game, the Maple Leafs’ domination over the Capitals is even more evident. Toronto had 20 High-Danger Scoring Chances to Washinton’s nine. The Maple Leafs had 70% of the Expected Goals. Not a single player on the Maple Leafs had statistics in the negative in Expected Goals or High-Danger Scoring Chances. Every player had an Expected Goal and a High-Danger Scoring Chance percentage of 50% or higher. 

One interesting “Old School” stat that jumps off the game sheet is that every Toronto forward who played in the game was an identical plus one in plus/minus. Four of the six defensemen were also plus one. Ilya Lyubushkin and TJ Brodie were the only two skaters who weren’t plus one on the team. They were plus two. Ten different skaters recorded a point in the game.

Tyler Bertuzzi

Tyler Bertuzzi was the only Toronto player to score more than one point in the game. He tallied his 17th and 18th goals of the season. The 2023-24 season has (actually) been a tale of two seasons for Bertuzzi. Earlier in the season you could have stood Bertuzzi in front of the net with no goalie, given him the puck and he would have found a way to miss the net. Thursday night he banked in a shot off the bottom of Lindberg’s shin pad from behind the goal into the net. 

In Bertuzzi’s first 55 games this season, he scored just seven goals, a 10-goal pace for 82 games. In his last 14 games, Bertuzzi has 11 goals, a 60-goal 82-game pace. 

The main reason the Maple Leafs acquired Bertuzzi was for his play in the postseason. Last season, he was the Boston Bruins’ top scorer in the playoffs with five goals and ten points in seven games. Hopefully, he can duplicate that and carry his play of late into the postseason.

Related: Maple Leafs Need to Get Devils’ Game Out of Their Systems

Different Defensive Philosophy

After years of cringing practically every time the opposing team has the puck in the Toronto end of the ice, I am loving what I see in recent games. The defensive strategy in the past half a decade has been more puck-centric. It has ignored the body and focused more on the puck attempting to disrupt shots and passes. It has also tried to create turnovers to turn the play in the other direction. 

Now the focus is a more traditional, take-the-body approach. Whereas before the defensemen were ignoring the opposing players in front of their goalie they are now focusing on boxing them out. When the opposition is in the corners with the puck, rather than trying to poke-check the puck away, both the forwards and the defensemen are now taking the body and neutralizing the opposing player’s ability to play the puck.

If the team carries that philosophy into the playoffs, despite the fact this team might not have the same overall talent as recent Maple Leafs’ teams, they could be a lot more effective. 

Secondary Scoring

All the scoring in this game was secondary. While Auston Matthews and John Tavares each had an assist, all five goals came from outside the core. Bertuzzi had two goals. Connor Dewar had his first goal as a Maple Leaf. Mark Giordano opened the scoring with a goal in his first game back since returning from a concussion, and Bobby McMann scored his 14th goal of the season. McMann has four goals in his past five games.

The Bad

As you can imagine, not much happened in this game that would be considered bad if you were playing, or cheering, for the Maple Leafs. The only thing I could think of was that Joseph Woll did not get the shutout. The one puck that got by him was one of those downward deflections of a waist-high shot from the point. I have seen that happening more and more of late. 

Nic Dowd batted a point shot by Nick Jensen down and under Woll into the net. Those shots are almost impossible to stop. 

The Ugly

Spoiler: this wasn’t that ugly. Despite missing practices for the past two days and being a game-time decision due to illness, Auston Matthews not only played, he played extremely well. He dominated shifts every time he was on the ice. It appeared that he was trying to score his 60th goal of the season before the home-ice crowd. 

Matthews fired ten shots at Lindberg. Many were great scoring chances, but Lindberg foiled him every time. It would not surprise me if Matthews got his 60th early in the game in Buffalo on Saturday with the puck bouncing in off of his butt. 

What’s Next?

The Maple Leafs travel to Buffalo to take on the Sabres on Saturday night. They then have a tough pair of games on Monday and Wednesday that could be a postseason preview with playoff implications. The Maple Leafs take on the Florida Panthers on Monday and follow that up with a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Goalie Situation Might Be Better Than Expected

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