Why the Maple Leafs are on the verge of another embarrassing playoff defeat

The Toronto Maple Leafs were embarrassed in Game 4 on Saturday.

One more loss will lead them to yet another all-too-early playoff exit. What has them down 3-1 in the series? There are three big factors.

1. No offence

The easily and understandably ignored storyline of this series so far: The Leafs have defended very well – surprisingly well – at five-on-five. They’ve given up only 2.2 expected goals per 60 minutes – a mark that would have led the NHL during the regular season.

But it hasn’t mattered because a team that’s supposed to be able to score, a team that scored a bunch during the regular season, suddenly can’t score.

The Leafs have scored only seven goals in this series. That’s a per-game average of 1.75 for a team that scored 3.6 per game during the regular season.

“This game offensively would be our worst,” coach Sheldon Keefe said after Game 4.

It was as if the Bruins had a force field for much of the night that prevented the Leafs from getting anywhere inside, anywhere near Jeremy Swayman in the blue paint.

This was the heat map at five-on-five after the first period.

20232024 30124 5v5

Not good.

“They protect the inside extremely well,” John Tavares said. “It felt like they got a lot of sticks on pucks and blocked a lot of shots today so we have to find a way through that.”

“They’re playing good defence,” Morgan Rielly added. “They’re clogging up the neutral zone. I don’t think we’ve been entering (the offensive zone) with a ton of speed and control. But I think when we are, when we have things going to the net, there are chances being generated.”

Rielly thought his team was turning down too many shooting opportunities. They had three five-on-five shots in the first period on Saturday.

The neutral zone has been a problem, as Rielly pointed out. As Game 4 rolled along, and the Leafs just could not get through there, pucks were turned over and turned over again. Frustration set in.

Maybe the Leafs best look all game, aside from Mitch Marner’s goal when the game was basically out of hand, was a Marner look in tight during a four-on-four shift with Auston Matthews.

Quality looks like that have been hard to come by.

The Leafs are generating 2.5 expected goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five in this series, down from 2.8 during the regular season. A 6.5 percent shooting percentage in those spots hasn’t helped, though the shots, for much of the series, haven’t been all that dangerous.

Matthews not being at 100 percent for Games 3 and 4 is obviously a blow to the offence. He was basically good for a goal per game for the last four and a half months of the regular season and won Game 2 almost single-handedly for the Leafs.

That’s the guy the Leafs need if they’re to have any hope. “We gotta hope that these couple days are gonna help Auston to be able to come back and be himself,” Keefe said.

There hasn’t been enough help around him. The Leafs’ stars have been outdone by the Bruins stars, Brad Marchand especially.

Marner and Tavares have been busy trying to hold David Pastrnak in check. Their line hasn’t threatened much at all.

Last spring, the Leafs had Ryan O’Reilly centering their third line. This year? Pontus Holmberg. The downgrade has been predictably evident. It’s what made adding a centre at the trade deadline so essential. And while the Holmberg unit has held its own, it’s served no real purpose.

The line isn’t a threat to score, nor is it a group that Keefe will trust to match up with, say, Pastrnak, as he did last spring when he had O’Reilly lining up behind Matthews and Tavares.

The fourth line, meanwhile, was charged with the Bruins first goal in Game 4 and has now been outscored in this series. A line that includes both David Kämpf and Ryan Reaves is never going to threaten offensively (even if Kämpf has one goal already in this series).

Also noteworthy: The Leafs are getting nothing offensively from their defence, which isn’t surprising given the personnel — save for Rielly, who hasn’t made a dent offensively after a superb playoff last season.

Keefe and his staff should be considering meaningful change with their season on the line in Game 5. Namely this: Is there a way to build more meaningful offensive upside throughout the lineup?

That’s been the thinking with having William Nylander on the third line, but as was evident in Game 4, it’s hard for him to do much of anything when his linemates are Holmberg and Calle Järnkrok. (Nylander didn’t look like himself, not surprisingly, in his return to the lineup.)

One option to create some zest from deeper in the lineup: Move Max Domi back to third-line centre. The risks are there, but so is the potential for offence. One of the more frequently deployed lines for the Leafs during the regular season featured Domi, Järnkrok, and Nick Robertson.

That would leave Marner to rejoin Matthews and Tyler Bertuzzi on the top line. Nylander could hook back up with Tavares and Matthew Knies.

Given the need for goals, or at least the possibility of goals, Reaves should be replaced by Connor Dewar in Game 5.

Reaves has gone 69 straight playoff games without a goal.

That would make for a lineup that looks like this:

Bertuzzi – Matthews – Marner
Knies – Tavares – Nylander
Robertson – Domi – Järnkrok
Dewar – Kämpf – Holmberg

The Bruins will have the last change in Game 5 and will surely continue to use Charlie Coyle’s line against Matthews’ unit. The Leafs will have to be comfortable with the idea of having Knies, Tavares, and Nylander defending against Pastrnak.

If they’re not, they could keep Marner with Tavares and let Nylander ride with Matthews.

Another option, given the (mild-ish) sparks from the third period in Game 4: Let Domi centre Bertuzzi and Marner.

Knies – Matthews – Nylander
Bertuzzi – Domi – Marner
Robertson – Tavares – Järnkrok
Dewar – Kämpf – Holmberg

Running back the same look again doesn’t seem tenable.

2. Hammered on special teams

A not-so-insignificant part of the scoring problem is the power play shriveling up into a ball of nothing. The Leafs are 1-for-14 in the series.

They had terrific opportunities to wrestle early control of Game 4 with opportunities on the power play and got little done, even with Nylander back in the lineup. It was probably the worst the power play has looked all series.

No goals and only two shots on three opportunities.

“Honestly, I think we’ve had a lot of looks up until tonight,” Tavares said.

At one point during the regular season, the Leafs pulled Tavares off PP1 in favour of Bertuzzi. And it worked (briefly). Is something like that worth the gamble at this point? Is it logical given Tavares’ shooting prowess? Is there another option? Replace Marner on PP1 with Bertuzzi and have him crash and bang around the net? Is it too late to make a change like that? Is it too late for anything drastic?

The power play sinkhole wouldn’t be such a problem if the Leafs were a) scoring a bunch at five-on-five and/or b) had a penalty kill that could make a consistent stop.

The Leafs have killed off – gulp – 53.9 percent of the Boston power plays in this series. Six goals against on 13 opportunities. At least one power-play goal against in every game of the series, including the Marchand goal that made it 2-0 in Game 4.

It’s not the least bit surprising after what went down in the regular season.

3. Losing the goalie battle

Ilya Samsonov was pulled after two periods on Saturday and it would not be the least bit surprising to see Joseph Woll start Game 5.

Samsonov has an .883 save percentage in this series. He hasn’t been bad necessarily. He just hasn’t been good either. Nowhere close to Swayman, who owns a sparkling .956 save percentage in his three starts this series.

Though they haven’t given up a ton, the Leafs have made glaring errors in front of Samsonov.

Reaves was late to a puck along the wall in the defensive zone that preceded James van Riemsdyk getting in alone for the first goal in Game 4. That’s not on Samsonov. Neither is Pastrnak scoring on a two-on-one with Marchand in the second period.

He could also make a big-time stop there too. Point being, he isn’t winning the Leafs this series.

Can Woll? He didn’t perform all that well after he returned from a high-ankle sprain and he was lit up for eight goals in two March starts against Boston. The Leafs would be turning to him with their season on the line, on the road.

That seems like a lot to ask of someone with so little experience.

On the other hand, what have they got to lose?

(Photo: Michael Chisholm / NHLI via Getty Images)

Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference

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