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Here are five things to watch when the Calgary Flames take on the Toronto Maple Leafs:
1. Testing the defense
Toronto was very disappointing in the early going, especially offensively. Mike Babcock had the Leafs playing a dump and chase style built on a lot of low-to-high plays and low-danger point shots. It wasn’t working. They’ve played a much more skilled game under Sheldon Keefe and his system has brought their offense to life.
The Maple Leafs rank 4th in attempts/60 and 3rd in chances/60 at 5v5 since Keefe took over. You don’t need me to tell you any team with that kind of talent generating shots+chances in high volume is dangerous.
While the Flames have cleaned up of late, it hasn’t been on the back of stout defense. They rank 30th in attempts against/60 and 26th in chances against/60 during this 7-0-1 run. The Flames have created chances, and been opportunistic, at one end but given up their fair share at the other. They’ve just had fantastic goaltending.
They’re not going to get that *every night* so if they don’t tighten up, a team like Toronto is going to make them pay sooner than later.
2. Goaltending duel, anyone?
Frederik Andersen and David Rittich both enter this game in fantastic form.
After an up and down October, Andersen has been nothing short of spectacular for ~six weeks now. He owns a .933 save percentage over his last 15 games, good for 4th in the NHL among the 33 netminders to play 500+ minutes since Nov. 1.
Rittich posted a rock solid .920 save percentage over that same span, which is well above the league average (.906) this season.
Both teams have starpower, obviously, so there’s potential for a high-event game but these goaltenders make that less likely.
3. Quality over quantity
As mentioned, Toronto’s offense prioritized low-to-high plays and point shots early in the season. Calgary’s did, too. That’s no longer the case.
The Maple Leafs are more focused on working the puck into high-danger locations than gripping it and ripping it the first chance they get. The same can be said of the Flames, and that shows in the numbers.
Take a look at the attempts/60 of their defenders under Peters (left) and under Ward (right).
Noah Hanifin – 11.35 --> 13.13
Michael Stone – 12.28 --> 11.07
T.J. Brodie – 7.83 --> 9.93
Rasmus Andersson – 10.26 --> 8.03
Oliver Kylington – 10.15 --> 7.52
Mark Giordano – 14.81 --> 7.06
Travis Hamonic – 10.23 --> 3.98
Five of the seven defenders are taking less shots than they were and, in several cases, the differences are significant. We’re starting to get enough of a sample where it no longer seems like a coincidence.
Don’t be surprised if both teams pass up some shots you’d generally expect them to take in hopes of creating a better look at the goal. They’ll need to do so with the way Andersen and Rittich are playing.
4. Pick your poison
Under Peters the Flames generally matched Mark Giordano’s pairing and Matthew Tkachuk’s line against top competition. Ward has continued to do so with Giordano but he’s been a little looser and kind of just rolled forwards, perhaps due to the lineup shuffling that resulted in the team not having a shutdown unit.
What I’m really interested to see tonight is whom Ward uses Giordano against. Matthews and Nylander’s 5v5 numbers together are so good it’s mind-boggling. That isn’t as much the case with John Tavares and Mitch Marner but they are John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
Either way an elite duo is going to get steady ice against, well, not elite players. We’ll see if the Flames can hold up.
5. Attack on the PK
Toronto’s power play can be exposed defensively. They’re willing to take chances and, as a result, are more susceptible to giving them up when things go south. Only three teams allow more expected goals/60 while up a man than the Maple Leafs. The Flames tend to be pretty aggressive while shorthanded, too, so don’t be surprised if they get a couple looks tonight.
Here are the projected lineups:
**questionable as of the time of writing
Matthew Tkachuk** - Elias Lindholm - Andrew Mangiapane
Sean Monahan - Mikael Backlund - Dillon Dube
Milan Lucic - Derek Ryan - Johnny Gaudreau
Tobias Rieder - Mark Jankowski - Michael Frolik
Mark Giordano - T.J. Brodie
Noah Hanifin - Travis Hamonic
Oliver Kylington - Rasmus Andersson
Toronto (via DailyFaceoff.com)
Pontus Aberg - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Zach Hyman - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev - Alex Kerfoot - Kasperi Kapanen
Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza - Nic Petan
Morgan Rielly - Tyson Barrie
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Travis Dermott - Cody Ceci
Puck drop is just after 9:00 p.m. Eastern and can be seen on SNW and TSN4.
Numbers via naturalstattrick.com
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