The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to put it together.
Even though it was far from perfect, their 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday extended their current winning streak to five games and improved their record to 11-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.
It was a wildly entertaining game, and while it showed the Maple Leafs still have their flaws (defensive play!), it also showed how much progress they have made over the past month with their new coach.
1. Quick strike offense for everybody
First, let’s take a quick look at the madness during Monday’s game.
This game was all about scoring runs and goals in bunches.
It began with the Maple Leafs racing out to a 3-0 lead in the game’s first five minutes, chasing Hurricanes starter — and former Maple Leafs goalie — Jame Reimer from the game.
The Hurricanes followed by scoring five consecutive goals, including three in 64 seconds midway through the second period, to take a 5-3 lead. After extending that lead to 6-4, the Maple Leafs responded by scoring the game’s final four goals, including three in 59 seconds. Two of those goals — Tyson Barrie‘s game-tying goal and Mitch Marner‘s game-winning goal — came just six seconds apart.
2. Marner’s domination
Marner is always going to have the spotlight on him because of his contract, but you can’t ignore the production.
He finished Monday’s game with five points and is now riding an eight-game point streak. He has multiple points in six of those games and is now on pace for 92 points in 71 games this season. That is also a 105-point pace over 82 games.
He scored two goals on Tuesday, the first of which came on an absurd spin-o-rama pass from Auston Matthews to bring the Maple Leafs within one goal.
His second goal came just six seconds after Barrie tie the game later in the third period.
3. The Keefe impact
This is never going to be a great defensive team as currently constructed. That is not where their strength is. It is not what they do best. It is not what they should be trying to do. That is where things went wrong for Mike Babcock as he kept trying to grind out 1-0 wins every night. Sometimes you just have to turn your talent loose a little bit. That is exactly what has happened in the first 15 games under Keefe.
The Maple Leafs are not only winning games and collecting points at a far higher rate, they also look like a team that has all-star level players. You could not always say that in the first part of the season.
The table below shows just how much things have changed since the coaching switch, looking at the team’s points percentage, as well as scoring chances (SC/60 and SCA/60), expected goals (xGF/60 and xGA/60), and actual goals during 5-on-5 play. They still give up some chances, but they are FAR more dangerous offensively. All data via Natural Stat Trick.
These numbers do not include Monday’s game.
They still have their flaws defensively, but they are at least letting their talent shine. All of the offensive numbers are not only higher, they are significantly higher.
One of the biggest changes has been with the freedom they have in the offensive zone, especially among their defense.
No one has benefited from that more than Barrie, the team’s key offseason addition. This is what he said five days ago on what Keefe wants from him:
Tyson Barrie on Keefe encouraging #Leafs active D: “He’s actually showed clips where I'll dive in and end up in front of the net and he's like ‘I love that, like do more of that.’ I haven't had that often [from] a coach so it's nice to see.”
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 18, 2019
You will never guess where he scored Monday’s tying goal from.
After scoring zero goals and only seven assists in 23 games under Babcock, he has four goals and six assists in 15 games under Keefe.
No, they can’t expect to win every game 8-6. But this game was kind of fluky and should not take away from the improvement they have shown. This is a talented team that is starting to play to its strength.
Whether or not that is enough to get them over their playoff hurdles or closer to a Stanley Cup remains to be seen But they are definitely on a far better path than they were one month ago.