Just the Facts:
The Time: 7pm EST
The Place: Air Canada Center, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Place to Watch: NESN, Sportsnet
Place to Listen: 98.5 The Sports Hub
Opposing SBNation Blog: Pension Plan Puppets
Preview and Analysis:
As the Bruins enter the Air Canada Center on Saturday night, they will be playing their last of four regular season games against their division rival, Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins took a point out of the first game of the series, in Toronto, on November 10th. The following night, the Bruins lost at home 4-1. The last time these two met was February 3rd, at The Garden where they stomped the Leafs 4-1.
Saturday’s showcase should be a playoff preview as seen below. Unless the Bruins or Maple Leafs win the division, this could turn out to be a key matchup for home ice.
So far, the series has been as even as the results would suggest. The Bruins have shown a slight edge at 5v5. Both teams have scored 3 powerplay goals in the 3 games, but the Maple Leafs have been able to produce more shots on the man advantage.
Tale of the Tape
In November, both teams were banged up, the Bruins more than the Leafs. Auston Matthews was injured during the first two games in November, but so weren’t the likes of Ryan Spooner, David Krejci, and David Backes. Unfortunately for the Leafs, Matthews is day-to-day, and will probably miss Saturday night.
Neutral Zone Play:
The Maple Leafs are a team that relies on their speed. In hopes to utilize Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and other offensive threats, Mike Babcock tries to stretch the rink and catch the defenders off guard.
With plays like that, the Maple Leafs can flip the switch on a team in the blink of an eye. For context, McQuaid did end up catching JVR, but the point still stands. Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs are willing to give up chances at controlled exits in the attempt to create a dangerous opportunity.
In the season series so far, both teams have exited the zone about 83% of the time they’ve tried at 5v5. The other 17% were either turnovers, icings, or the puck went out of play. The difference between the two teams, is how often they control their successful exits.
Against the Bruins this year, the Maple Leafs have only controlled 37% of their successful exits, compared to 60% for Boston. That is a significant difference between the two.
When visualizing the data, the differences between the two teams become more vast. The Bruins’ exits are shown below.
The point of exit is highlighted in yellow, and passes leading up to them are arrows. The Bruins tend to stick to short passes. This may indicate that they play as more of a five-man unit with strong support from their centers.
The Maple Leafs on the other hand try to complete much longer passes to control exits. They also have a more north-south style than the Bruins who utilize lateral passes.
Even though Toronto likes to stretch out their opponents in transition, it doesn’t seem to work as planned, at least against the Bruins.
The Maple Leafs have controlled 42% of their successful entries, only 1 percent worse than the Bruins, but only 4 controlled entries out of 59 that have stemmed from the defensive zone (7%). The Bruins, who play a more compact system, have 8 controlled entries out of 77 stemming from the defensive zone (10%).
Expect to still see threats like the clip above, but if the Bruins can shut down the hand full of attempts Toronto will create from this, they should be able to control the Leafs in transition.
So we’ve gone over transition play, but how do these teams create offense? Toronto could be referred to as a “shot quality” team. They have a strong focus on getting shots from the slot, and not really anywhere else. Take a look at the chart below.
That red spot in the slot indicates the Maple Leafs take more shots than league average from that part of the ice. However, the rest of the zone is blue for the most part, which indicates they take less shots from those areas than league average.
As addressed earlier, the Bruins tend to play as a strong five-man unit. How does that effect the Leafs play style?
While the Bruins are able to penetrate the slot fairly well, the Leafs have struggled against the Bruins. The Bruins right handed defensemen have not allowed a single shot assist (pass leading up to a shot) to come from there side. Because of this, the Maple Leafs have almost exclusively run a low-to-high strategy in the offensive zone.
As previously researched by Ryan Stimson, low-to-high shots have a far lower chance of going in than alternative shots, and contrary to prior belief, don’t generate as high of a rate of rebounds as alternative shots.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a very distinctive powerplay. Although some may not be fans of the drop pass, Mike Babcock and the coaching staff seem to be fond of it. For those unfamiliar with what a drop pass looks like, here’s an example:
Arik Parnass goes into far more detail on the drop pass here, but the main purpose is to catch the penalty killers flat-footed. The Leafs seem to believe in this more than anyone, and are seeing success with it too.
The Maple Leafs have two distinct tendencies in their powerplay entries:
- They perform their drop passes almost solely from the left side
- They push the play toward the left wall to enter the zone
Even though penalty killers surely know what to expect, the Leafs are able to control entries on the left wall, which should help them get into formation quickly and efficiently which may be part of the reason they are more successful at creating powerplay shots than the Bruins.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, the Bruins’ penalty killers have kept them to the perimeter. The Leafs haven’t been able to penetrate the slot, which they like to do. Similar to their shots at 5v5, the Leafs rely on shots from the front of the net, and don’t tend to pull the trigger on other shots.
The Bruins Keys to the Game
To summarize, the Leafs love to stretch teams out in transition. If the Bruins can shut down those plays, they should be able to own the neutral zone and have more offensive zone time than their opposition.
If the Bruins can continue to keep the Maple Leafs out of the slot, it is up to Tuukka Rask to stop the point shots and control his rebounds.
The third task is a lot easier said than done, but if the Bruins can force the Leafs to the other side on their powerplay entries, it may pay them dividends.