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What it's like when the Maple Leafs are on their game

It’s been routinely brought up throughout this rough patch for the Toronto Maple Leafs. A fleeting moment in early February, and more specifically, a second period spent schooling the Florida Panthers, has existed as a point of reference, or an elusive standard they believe they can meet but have failed to repeatedly in the time since. The moment was so short-lived (and for that reason almost make-believe) that the Leafs allowed four unanswered goals in the period that followed this near-perfect stretch of shifts versus the Panthers, sullying its importance all together.

This apparent ceiling seems worth bringing up on the heels of the enormous 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. Because for the first time in a long time, it seemed the Leafs were close to reaching those heights again.

They built out an 11-0 shot advantage and had 18 attempts at the net before the Lightning launched their first toward Frederik Andersen in a shockingly dominant first period. It wasn’t wire-to-wire dominance as it was six weeks ago against the Panthers, because the Lightning did manage to settle in and generate some meaningful looks before the period was up. But when factoring in the opponent and the stakes after a disastrous tour through California, it should be considered just as important, and certainly just as impressive.

If it is indeed these two isolated periods that best represent what the Leafs can aspire to be, it seems worth dissecting these minutes, and figuring out exactly what it was that made them so dominant.

After a second watch, here are those things:

Owning the puck

Looking back on the season, the Leafs have had far more exciting, far more productive periods, and certainly moments in time that would be considered more meaningful as well. But with complete ownership of the puck and with it the ability to neutralize the opponent, the Leafs reached peak levels of efficiency in these two isolated moments. Rarely, if ever this season, have they been in a more favourable position for success.

Shot-based metrics would support this claim, and the conversation doesn’t have to go much further than limiting the Panthers to 0.1 expected goals in the second period detailed above last month. But it really is worth focusing on the detail, which should be used as the central focus in their video sessions.

In both cases, it started with sound decision making from their defensive corps. Recognizing when a quick and decisive decision with the puck needed to be made to frustrate a forecheck, as well as the appropriate times to take the extra second to launch a breakout, the defensemen led the charge in efficiently winning possession and initiating productive control.

There was an ease with which the Leafs travelled through zones because of the defenders’ abilities to diagnose these situations, and more often than not a smart play in the defensive zone was the precursor to prolonged stretches in the attacking end. Tyson Barrie and Rasmus Sandin were particularly sharp in the Florida game, using a mix of subtle touches and long-bomb passes to keep opponents on their heels, while Morgan Rielly shored up the zone exits in a big way in his return Tuesday night versus the Lightning.

As control was established in the offensive zone over and over again, the defensemen continued to play a central role. Activated as part of sustained cycles, the defenders were often being pulled down below the goal line as the Leafs worked hard to set up quality looks at the net.

As it often goes, the Leafs forwards seemed to gain an edge on those chasing the puck around deep into shifts, and many second-chance opportunities were created as the Leafs taxed their opponents through effort alone.

What also stuck out was that the Leafs were willing to give it up to get it back. While Sheldon Keefe initially encouraged his players to preserve possession at all costs by curling and reseting with a pass back to the defence, the Leafs seemed to take a simplified approach in both these games. More specifically, the dump-and-chase function Keefe seemed intent on eradicating was a key tactic when racking up time on the puck as the Leafs routinely won battles they initiated by floating pucks into space. It seems as though there was a conscious effort to always push the puck forward, and the correct decisions on when to carry in versus when to chase it was based on the man-power advantage in those moments.

Finally, the Leafs won 59 and 69 percent of the face-offs, respectively, in their dominant periods over the Panthers and Lightning, which undoubtedly contributed to their increased possession of the puck, and ultimately winning those periods.

Forcing the issue

At various points in the season and in previous seasons, the Leafs have been bewildered by the lack of penalties they have been able to draw. Should they isolate these games, it wouldn’t be all that confusing, because the same hard work and determination applied to puck battles against often-taxed opponents also resulted in several productive trips to the power play.

The Leafs earned two man advantages in each high-end period being discussed, having forced their opponents to reach in or hack away as they buzzed through and around the home plate area.

It certainly contributed to their overall possession uptick but these power plays were far more meaningful than that, as they were directly responsible for the three goals scored across the two periods.

While mostly looking to find Auston Matthews on the opposite wing or looking to shoot himself on a recently-stagnating power play, twice Mitch Marner went off-script by feeding the bumper to create a goal. Two crisp passes to John Tavares in the central role resulted in the puck finding the back of the net, with one floating directly in and the other creating a rebound for William Nylander to jam home.

The other goal was not officially a power-play marker, as the clock expired just before Kasperi Kapanen found Nylander for a re-direction in front.

Toronto took just one penalty over these two periods combined. Despite all the shot-based possession accrued at even strength, earning the ability to soak up six additional minutes of power-play ice was as significant of a factor as any in the success of these periods.

Defensive diligence

As detailed, Toronto’s best defence was its sustained offence in these two periods, but the Leafs were remarkably effective in rare instances without the puck as well.

They were precise from an assignment perspective, seeming to roll one-by-one in position as the Panthers and Lightning tried to initiate their cycle games in their limited opportunities. As the defensemen bodied up well, the forwards tracked back efficiently in support.

They also filled up shooting lanes to prevent pucks from reaching the net — especially after Michael Hutchinson replaced Andersen in the Florida game.

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