Leafs saved their season with superb team defence
The Leafs are best known for their offensive talent, but they kept their season alive with sturdy team defence in Game 4 against the Panthers.
If you're looking for a hero to credit for the Toronto Maple Leafs staving off elimination on Wednesday in Game 4 of their second-round series with the Florida Panthers, there are a few qualified candidates.
Mitch Marner delivered a critical game-winning goal after struggling all series long, and William Nylander earned a tally of his own by going to the net — something he's often criticized for not doing. Joseph Woll also had a .960 save percentage in his first NHL playoff start.
While each of those players had a role to play in the 2-1 victory, the driving force of this win wasn't a single player but rather Toronto's team-wide defensive effort. That's not a sexy explanation, but it's the one that fits the best.
It's why coach Sheldon Keefe was effusive in his praise for his team's performance to the media after the game, despite the fact the Maple Leafs scored just two goals.
"I thought it was our best effort of the season all the way through, from start to finish," Keefe said. "There was no real letup. Our competitiveness defensively and our urgency defensively was the best it’s been all year. It was an unbelievable job by our guys here tonight.”
Would it be an exaggeration to call Wednesday's game the best one the Maple Leafs have played in 2022-23? Probably. Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning was inspired — and it's tough to knock an April 8 performance against the Montreal Canadiens where the team won 7-1 and outshot its opponent 46-21.
Even so, it's easy to understand where Keefe is coming from. The Maple Leafs held a Panthers team that averaged 36.8 shots per game during the regular season to 25. It was only the ninth time in 93 games that Florida had been held to that number or less.
That's partly because Toronto did an outstanding job blocking shots. Shot blocking can be dismissed as a statistic because it correlates strongly with not having the puck. That said, there are times when it helps tell the story of a game, and that's true in this case.
In Game 4, the Maple Leafs blocked 36.8% of the Panthers' shot attempts, highlighted by Mark Giordano's effort on Sam Reinhart...
Giordano makes the glove save pic.twitter.com/qJ6edbQTZY
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 11, 2023
... and Luke Schenn shutting down Sam Bennett:
huge block from Schenn pic.twitter.com/3ubpju5wci
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 11, 2023
If 36.8% sounds like a big number, that's because it is. In the previous three games combined, Toronto blocked 24.9% of Florida's tries on net.
Even when the Panthers were able to get shots off, a significant proportion of them came outside of dangerous areas. Florida got a couple of looks at the net, but most of its attempts were pushed to the perimeter.
When asked about Woll after the game, Keefe gave the goaltender the credit he deserved but also made sure to shout out his players for giving their goalie "every opportunity for success" — and between the blocked shots and the prevention of high-danger chances, that's precisely what they did.
Florida managed just 1.3 expected goals at 5-on-5 on Wednesday — its lowest total in the playoffs. It was the first time in the postseason the team was shut out at even strength.
Because the Maple Leafs are synonymous with the quartet of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Marner, and Nylander up front, it's easy to forget this team won primarily with defence this season.
Toronto ranked seventh in the NHL in goal suppression, conceding just 2.68 per game, while its goal scoring (3.39) ranked ninth. Only six teams surrendered fewer shots on a per-game basis than the Maple Leafs (29.5), while 11 put more on net than Toronto (32.0).
Team defence can be tough to quantify at times. It's also difficult to gauge with an eye test when the goal of it is to prevent noticeable events from taking place. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for as appealing a narrative as something like a Marner redemption arc.
What it can do is win hockey games. Thanks to a quality defensive effort up and down the lineup, the Maple Leafs lived to fight to another day. If they want to keep their season alive, they'll need more of the same, though scoring more than two goals for the first time in nearly three weeks is another option worth considering.