They had just one shot on goal through 17 minutes, and when their second one finally came – a big, blooping slapper into Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller’s chest that ended the play – the Air Canada Centre crowd gave a sarcastic cheer.
It’s safe to say, in other words, that tales of the Toronto Maple Leafs shots on goal “problem” have spread far and wide.
But a funny thing happened the rest of the night: The shots eventually came, in a bit of a trickle, and many of them started going in.
It certainly helps when a good portion of those chances are coming off the stick of someone like Phil Kessel, who put up his fourth career hat trick in a 4-2 win that ended a short-but-ugly, shot-challenged slide for the Leafs on Tuesday night.
Two of Kessel’s tallies were off of 2-on-1s as some sloppy play by the Ducks opened the door for Toronto to use its speed and what head coach Randy Carlyle calls their “rush game” to make Hiller look rather silly.
So, after three tough outings for Kessel and the rest of the Leafs top line – which had been filled in badly by Minnesota, Carolina and Chicago on the shot clock – this was a showcase of what they do best.
Use their speed.
Generate high quality chances.
And convert on an incredibly high percentage of said chances.
“Like I’ve said before, things change quick in this game and you’ve just got to stick with it,” Kessel said. “You know, get your bounces. Tonight I got two great passes in front of the net.”
With the brutal start and terrific finish, the Leafs’ 10th game of the season was a pretty curious, Jekyll-and-Hyde one from a lot of standpoints.
Anaheim, which entered the night on a franchise tying record seven-game win streak and has been riding some crazy percentages of its own, looked to be by far the better team through the first half, controlling play and getting two quick goals.
On the first, the Ducks fourth line showcased its skill against the Leafs bottom-three forwards, rushing the puck quickly down the ice and converting a 2-on-1 with just rookie Morgan Rielly back.
On the second, centre Mathieu Perreault scooted out from behind the net and lifted a pinpoint shot over Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier’s shoulder.
Rather than roll over, however, that appeared to get the Leafs going and a couple bounces went their way immediately. Kessel swiped in his first of the night on a mid-game power play, converting a deft pass from linemate James van Riemsdyk on the other side of the crease.
“We were so tense and we were so wound up that we were tripping over one another in the first period,” Carlyle said. “We found a way in the second after we gave up another goal and got a forecheck going and started to build on it…
“I told them to relax [in the first intermission]. We were tense – you could see it. You can tell when your group can’t make a 20-foot pass to someone that’s wide open.”
A little more than a minute after Kessel’s first, Leafs centre Dave Bolland made a nice entry into the Ducks zone, wired a puck on net, and captain Dion Phaneuf cleaned up the resulting garbage with a cannon of a shot for his second tally of the season.
Just like that, what had been a lopsided game was tied, and Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau quickly called a timeout to calm his troops.
But Toronto then killed off a lengthy 5-on-3 and made it look rather easy, leading up to a 2-on-1 that ended with Kessel doing the honours by picking a corner to give his team its first lead in a couple games.
He then capped the trick by batting in another van Riemsdyk feed on yet another odd-man rush midway through the third, a relative tap-in of an insurance goal to bring down a few dozen hats from the stands.
Shot quality doesn’t get much higher than that.
“His shot is one of the best in the league and he gets it off really quick,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s tough to ever tell a guy like that ever not to shoot when he sees an opening. He made some great shots tonight and showed why he has that world-class finishing ability.
“He put it right under the bar [on his second goal] in the elbow. I mean no goalie is really going to stop that.”
Toronto finished the game with four goals and a respectable 23 shots, quickly wiping away their struggles early in the game from the memory of anyone in the building.
But one of the main arguments against the Leafs play being unsustainable a year ago, and now already into this young season, is that they’ve converted on such an incredibly high number of their chances.
That’s a good thing, but it’s also generally a very difficult thing to maintain.
Consider for example that last season, the Leafs shooting percentage was a league-high 11.5 per cent – one of the highest totals for any NHL team in the last six-plus seasons – and this season, after lighting up the Ducks, they’re riding high at 12.3 per cent.
Generally speaking, NHL teams have a heck of a time batting better than 10 per cent over a prolonged stretch, so needless to say, the analytics folks who have gained a growing voice in the game don’t like Toronto’s chances of keeping this up for the long haul.
For now, however, it has been banking them a ton of key points early on, when their schedule is a little softer than post-Olympics, and few around the franchise will complain about a 7-3-0 run to open the season.
Goals may be harder to come by at some point down the road, but they’re the least of the Leafs’ problems right now.
“I just think our team found a way,” Carlyle said. “We’re going to need more of a contribution from all of our groups. We think there’s more to give... our defence as a whole, there’s more there than what we’ve gotten so far. We firmly believe that as a coaching staff.”
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