CALGARY – No team in the NHL has shot the puck with greater accuracy this season than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“We're just a very opportunistic team,” said Nazem Kadri, who has scored five times on just 24 shots this fall. “We don't need many chances to score goals.”
Despite being outshot for the 12th time in 14 games this season, the Leafs found the means for their third straight win, beating Calgary on the second leg of a three-game swing through Western Canada.
Totaling about half the shots of the Flames – 22 to 43 – they managed victory yet again (10-4-0) with continued accuracy, a sturdy penalty kill and more mastery in the crease, on this night a 41-save performance from Jonathan Bernier.
In question is whether the Leafs are simply opportunistic with mighty goaltending and terrific special teams or very fortunate considering lingering troubles defensively.
“Obviously great goaltending and our special teams have been great winning us games,” said Kadri, after the second end of a back-to-back set, the Leafs winning in Edmonton a night earlier. “That's only going to get you so far, but when you're not playing your best or maybe if it's an off-night coming into a pretty tough building you have to rely on those things to get you through.”
Firing at a league-leading 12.7 per cent clip (according to the extraskater.com) the Leafs continue to shoot and score with unlikely precision; four goals on 22 shots (including an empty-netter) in a victory over the Flames following four goals on 26 shots in victory over the Oilers.
Unsustainable luck, or strategic accuracy? Also the league leaders in shooting percentage last season, the Leafs tend to believe the latter.
“I guess we're not a team that just shoots from anywhere like some of these teams,” said Kadri, who had one shot and one assist in 20 minutes against the Flames.
“The Pittsburgh's and the Chicago's, even Calgary, any opportunity they have they're just throwing it at the net and then seeing what happens. A lot of times that's not a bad thing. But for us, we wait for our odd-man rushes or if we outman someone in front of the net to get good scoring chances usually we're putting them in.”
The theory proved true on Wednesday night.
Joffrey Lupul out-manned several Flames in front for the game's opening goal; James van Riemsdyk broke loose on a shorthanded rush with Jay McClement for second marker; Mason Raymond tallied the eventual winner on the door-step following a David Clarkson takeaway and rebound.
Not only are they scoring with precision – the Leafs rank third in offence so far – but yielding a mighty sum of shots against; 40-plus for the second consecutive night and 36 per game this season.
But as was the case in Edmonton – a 43-save night from James Reimer – and really all season there was another load-bearing performance in goal; Bernier stopped 41, including 34 of 35 through 40 minutes.
The Leafs goalie tandem now boasts a .939 collective save percentage, amongst the best in the league. Whether such effectiveness can continue under the strain of such a mighty nightly barrage is uncertain.
Helping the cause additionally against Calgary and throughout the season were game-changing special teams. The Toronto penalty kill stoned the Flames on all five power-play opportunities and sits as the fourth best unit in the league. Silent on this night, the power-play ranks third overall.
Lying under the cover of wins are stats which point toward some degree of good fortune. But for the Eastern Conference leading Leafs the numbers in the standings prove satisfying.
“We got two points,” said Randy Carlyle after the most recent win.
“No matter how you get them they're still two points in the standings. I'm sure there's going to be games throughout the course of this season that we'd say we were unlucky that we didn't win and there's going to be more games that we're going to say we're lucky to win. I think it all evens out in the end. Obviously we'd like to play better defensively as every team would.”
1. Rising Shots Against
Wednesday marked the 13th time the Leafs have allowed 30-plus shots and the second straight night of more than 40 against. Only the struggling Senators allow more on a nightly basis.
“We'll give them perimeter shots,” said Kadri. “We have no problem doing that. It's just boxing out in front. That's where we've got to make sure we're good. And really a lot of shots did come from the outside. Bernier did a great job looking at all of them. There were probably countless point shots tonight which aren't terrible to give up.”
Still, the 23-year-old conceded to the danger of yielding so many shots and subsequent chances against. “Yeah, there is [danger],” he agreed. “But really it depends who's in front. That's our job to make sure that our goaltenders can see the puck. Shots from the point with traffic are pretty dangerous; if we're giving that up we've got to make sure we're good in that blue paint.”
2. Cutting Down Those Shots...
As for cutting down the amount of shots opponents have had, Jay McClement pointed to possession. “It's playing with the puck I guess,” said McClement, who won 21 of 28 faceoffs against the Flames. “We get into trouble when we don't possess the puck enough. Part of that is turnovers and part of it's just executing when we do have it and not [making] bad passes or bad dumps or what have you.
“We're lucky we have two great goalies,” he added.
3. More of the Same
Bernier nearly matched the efforts of his teammate from one night earlier. James Reimer stopped all 43 shots in victory over the Oilers on Tuesday. Though he wasn't quite so flawless, the 25-year-old was nonetheless effective in keeping the puck out, most notably during a second frame that saw the Flames fire 20 shots on goal.
“That second I was a little tired at the end,” said Bernier afterward.
“You can't look past your goaltender,” Carlyle added. “He's given us a chance no matter who we've put in the net.”
Bernier sits tied for seventh with a .933 save percentage, just a little ways behind Reimer, who remains second overall with a sizzling .949 mark.
4. Growth from Calgary
Dion Phaneuf first suited up for the Flames on Oct. 5, 2005. He played over 24 minutes in Minnesota that night, a 6-3 loss to the Wild. From the point of his NHL debut to where he stands with the Leafs in the present, Phaneuf says growth has been most poignant defensively. “I think that that's a learning curve that a lot of young [defencemen] have when they come in,” said the 28-year-old before the game.
“When you first start at a young age you're usually protected by different matchups and the coaching staff usually puts you out there against the guys that they want to match you up against and as you get older and as you gain more experience you're playing against better players. I feel that I've grown in my role and the way that I play the game defensively.”
5. Opposing Perspective
Former Leaf Matt Stajan played alongside Phil Kessel when he first landed in Toronto in the fall of 2009. He offered the following assessment of Kessel on Wednesday morning, the 26-year-old's four-game goal and point streak coming to an end against the Flames. “I just think he's making good decisions with when to take off in his own end,” said Stajan. “And he obviously has some chemistry with the guys he plays with now; they know exactly what he's thinking and when to get him the puck.”
Kessel equaled the best opening month production of his NHL career this October, totaling nine goals and 18 points in 14 games. Back in Oct. 2011, he might've been even better, compiling 10 goals and 18 points in 11 games.
13 – Times this season the Leafs have allowed 30 shots or more.
22.2 per cent – Team-leading shooting percentage for Dave Bolland, who has scored six goals on 27 shots.
12.7 - Shooting percentage for the Leafs this season, first in the league.
12 – Number of times the Leafs have been outshot this season.
5 – Consecutive games with a point for James van Riemsdyk. He has two goals and seven points in that span.
23:33 – Team-leading ice-time for van Riemsdyk on Wednesday, including 6:17 on the penalty kill.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“I'm sure there's going to be games throughout the course of this season that we'd say we were unlucky that we didn't win and there's going to be more games that we're going to say we're lucky to win. I think it all evens out in the end.”
- Randy Carlyle following the victory in Calgary.
The Leafs conclude their three-game swing through western Canada with a Saturday date in Vancouver.