In the early going of the 2009-2010 season, the Leafs got off to one of the worst starts in team history, going 1-7-3 in the first 11 games. The start essentially sealed the Leafs fate to miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year. At the time, fans and critics alike blasted Burke and Co. after the hopes of Leafs nation was elevated to that of “optimistic” with the declaration from Burke that this would be a team that would compete for the playoffs. After their first 11 games, in order to fulfill that promise, the Leafs would have had to win at least 60% or more of their games. We all know how that turned out.
Flash forward to the 2010-2011 season, and we are all shocked to see the Leafs equal their 1-7-3 run from 2009-2010, albeit slightly later than last year. If the Leafs have any chance to make the playoffs this year, they need to right the ship immediately — tonight’s match-up against Vancouver (9-4-0-2) is a basic must win for the Leafs, however they go up against one of the toughest, offensively powered teams in the NHL.
As a sign that management has acknowledged the sense of urgency for which the Leafs face tonight, Burke has done what he promised he wouldn’t do — call up Nazem Kadri from the Marlies to provide some added offense. Kadri had a rather disappointing pre-season and was left off the roster, tasked instead with improving his skills in the AHL rather than being tossed into the rigors of the NHL. During his early stint with the Marlies, he was moved from his natural center position to the left wing position — a move made to cover up his defensive deficiencies. Nazem will need to be more prepared than ever tonight as he takes on a team that has solid scoring on all lines, and toughness the Leafs are not regularly accustomed to.
In addition to calling up Kadri, Burke has also called up Keith Aulie, the defensive asset acquired last year in the trade with Calgary for Phaneuf. Aulie is a big defense man, measuring 6’5″ in height and 217lbs. At only 21 years of age, Aulie will make his NHL debut tonight, replacing Korbinian Holzer on the blue line.
Both call-ups represent nothing more than a vain attempt to spark this team to curb its losing ways. The two players will no doubt be looking to make a statement to stay with the big club, but will that be enough to spark the whole team? There’s no way to tell at this point, but you can bet that both will compete hard tonight, most notably Kadri, who was expected to be in the line-up this year, only to lose it thanks to a less-than-stellar pre-season.
In terms of line-up changes, Tyler Bozak is expected to be slotted as the second line center between Kulemin and Kadri. The top line will likely consist of Grabovski centering Versteeg and Kessel, however there is no confirmation on this. Aulie will replace Korbinian Holzer on the blue line.
In terms of the match-up itself, expect it to be a high scoring affair. In the last 21 meetings between these two, 15 of them resulted in games where more than 5 goals were scored. This could potentially be bad for the Leafs, who have had a difficult time scoring as of late. In the last ten meetings, dating back to 2003, Vancouver has dominated the Leafs, winning 7 of the 10 match-ups.
Vancouver will come into Toronto riding an impressive 6-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. In the last ten games, the Canucks have gone 7-2-0-1, whereas the Leafs have gone 1-7-0-2. The leafs biggest struggles thus far this season has been the tremendous lack of scoring. In the last three games, the leafs have only managed three goals. Vancouver is a powerful team, capable of burying teams in a flurry of goals. The Leafs will need to match this offensive capability with a strong defensive prowess, and ensure that they can pot more than a single goal tonight. A period-by-period breakdown of the scoring for both teams is provided below
The one item that this chart makes frighteningly clear is that the Leafs best chances of blowing this game come in the first period. Vancouver has had much success scoring in the first period, with 15 first period goals, whereas on the opposite end, the Leafs have the worst record for giving up goals in the first period, with a surprisingly equal 15 goals against. The Leafs need to absolutely ensure that they lock Vancouver down in the first period. In addition to this, we all know how critical it is to get that first goal. The charts below indicate the relative frequency of scoring first for each team.
In the majority of the Leafs games, they have given up the first goal and, subsequently, have buried themselves in the standings. The Canucks tend to score first in the majority of their games (10 times out of 15). When you give up that first goal, especially to a team like the Canucks, it is incredibly difficult to make-up ground.
In terms of top scorers for each team, a scoring breakdown is provided below
What’s quite scary about these two graphics is the large disparity between total team points for the Leafs and the Canucks. Aside from the top 4 scorers for each team, Vancouver has scored nearly 30 more points than the Leafs non-top-4 scorers. This is a team that features well balanced scoring, with 3 of the 4 lines chipping in regularly. The Leafs will need to shut down all lines aggressively, and ensure that more than the top line scores points for the Leafs.
Why is it that the Leafs appear to have a difficult time scoring as compared to the Canucks? Aside from raw talent, it would appear that the Leafs are not getting quality shooting opportunities, deciding instead on taking low-percentage shots from the periphery, and not getting into the necessary “zones” that often result in success. The graphic below shows the shooting distance of the Leafs’ top 4 scorers vs. the Canucks’ top 4 scorers.
The x-axis depicts average shooting distance, and the y-axis depicts number of points. For the most part, the Canucks’ top scorers shoot several feet closer to the net, and result in higher scoring chances.
In terms of the “Leaf Killers”, as I call them, the Canucks’ top 4 scorers seem to have great games against the Leafs. The graphic below illustrates the amount of points each player has had in their career against Toronto.
Outside of Malhotra, the remaining three top scorers tend to have very good games against the Leafs. Shutting down any of these three is nearly impossible. Look for at least two of them to score some points tonight against the Leafs.
In terms of goaltenders, J.S. Giguere is expected to face off against Robert Luongo. Provided below are some graphics depicting the success rate for Robert Luongo against the Leafs.
Robert Luongo tends to have very good games against the Leafs. He has won the majority of his his games against Toronto and, surprisingly, the majority of his wins have come at the Air Canada Center, the site of tonight’s match-up. Aside from this, provided below is a graphic of each goalie’s respective save percentage.
In the graphics above, Luongo tends to have a better save % against Toronto than his current average save % for this season. In addition to this, his away save % is much lower this season than his home/away save %, however as we have seen from previous graphics, Luongo tends to do very well at the Air Canada Center.
In contrast, Giguere’s current save % matches his career save % against the Vancouver Canucks. In addition to this, his home save % is higher than his average. For Leafs fans sake, hopefully Giguere can hold down the fort tonight and keep the Leafs in the game, especially in the all important first period.
Finally, in terms of specialty teams, a stark contrast exists between the Leafs and Canucks.
The Canucks have a devastatingly potent power play, clicking near 30% vs. Toronto’s paltry 11 %. Surprisingly, Vancouver’s road power play % is higher than their average power play %. The Leafs must, at all costs, avoid taking costly and stupid penalties tonight. If the Leafs give up more than 3 power plays, expect to see Vancouver connect on at least one.
All of this makes for a rather difficult night for the Leafs, one in which youngsters will try to make an impression, and one in which the Leafs absolutely must win. To win, the Leafs need to come out of the gate flying, and build energy around the injection of new faces into the line-up. They also need to simplify their play and get back to the basics of scoring. Too many times of late have the Leafs tried to make pretty, fancy plays to score goals. The solution is to stop taking Jason Blake like shots from the periphery and actually start making quality shots. Put a body in front of the Luongo and make his life difficult. Versteeg knows Luongo very well, as he has faced up against Luongo in two consecutive, and successful, playoff series.
It is also imperative to keep as few penalties as possible. With the speed and power of the Canucks, this will likely be very difficult for the Leafs. They must keep Vancouver’s power play time to a minimum to have any chance tonight.
While it is almost certain that the Leafs will NOT shut out Vancouver, they need to ensure that they keep their composure when they do give up that first goal by Vancouver. Too many times of late have the Leafs given up a goal to the opposition, and lose their confidence almost immediately. This trend, and overall train wreck, needs to end tonight. The city can not take any more lifeless play from this team. Sadly, much will be said about Kadri’s performance tonight, whether fair or not. For the sake of the kids (Kadri, Aulie), and the fans, a difficult win is a must.