Sports

With consistency, the Leafs might have a chance to be pretty good: Arthur

Goaltender Frederik Andersen made a series of big saves and stopped 19 of 20 shots on Tuesday night in Calgary.

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, centre, from Denmark, and teammate Nikita Zaitsev, right, from Russia, look on as Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk trips over Andersen's pads during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, centre, from Denmark, and teammate Nikita Zaitsev, right, from Russia, look on as Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk trips over Andersen's pads during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.

Now and then, it’s really something to realize that so much of the silly holy war of analytics over the past 10 years in hockey — the screaming fight that has wracked the sport, from fans to media to coaches and executives — was over the concept, essentially, that in general it was better to shoot the puck at your opponent’s net, rather than have them shoot it at yours. Time well spent, everyone.

On Tuesday night in Calgary, the Toronto Maple Leafs outshot the Flames 30-20, and won the game 4-1. But not every shot is created equal, and some are not created at all.

For starters, it was the first game in the 110-game career of Auston Matthews, regular season and playoffs, that did not include a shot on goal. That was odd. Unprecedented, even.

On the TSN broadcast they said it was the longest streak with a shot on goal to start a career, and that’s pretty good, since shooting the puck is good. Matthews was eighth in shots on goal last season, at 3.4 per game; he was 18th with the same number before the Calgary game, and is at 3.2 per game this season now.

“He’s got an unbelievable shot, and guys are always looking for him too,” said Zach Hyman, who assisted on Toronto’s second goal. “He gets open, and he doesn’t need a lot of room to get a shot. Elite shooters like that can get shots easier, because they can manipulate where they’re shooting the puck.”

“No, I think I passed up on a couple, but sometimes you find your linemates open and make plays, and you don’t shoot the puck on net sometimes,” said Matthews, who had one shot blocked and another that missed the net. “It’s weird to me that it’s such a big deal, but we won the game, so it’s great.”

He wasn’t wrong that it wasn’t a big deal, since it’s not like the Leafs needed it. For starters, goaltender Frederik Andersen made a series of big saves and stopped 19 of 20 shots, and is now at at .941 save percentage in November, after recording an .896 in October.

But then, he didn’t face the non-Matthews shots that his counterpart Mike Smith faced, which frankly helped underscore how some shots are different than others.

Toronto’s first goal, for instance: Defenceman Roman Polak flipped a shot from the point. It hit Flame Mark Jankowski in the back or hip or thereabouts, and was headed maybe six feet wide before it also hit defenceman Travis Hamonic and deflected past Smith.

“Oh, you know, it was a lucky shot,” said Polak, who has now scored 24 career goals on 426 career shots on goal. “I break a stick on that shot too and it was a rolling puck so it actually hit one of their D and went in so it was a lucky shot.”

Toronto’s second goal came off a terrific play from Zach Hyman on the boards, digging out a puck and spinning off a defender and drawing three Flames before finding diving defenceman Nikita Zaitsev. Zaitsev was in good position, but his shot also hit the stick of Mikael Backlund before it slid between Smith’s pads.

“I was just trying to shoot it,” said Zaitsev. “I was pretty close to the net and in a good spot. I was lucky that I scored.”

All of those things were true, but in this case the important thing was getting the shots, and having a chance to get lucky. Toronto’s third goal came after a shot hit a Flames skate and bounced straight to Nazem Kadri, who scored his 12th goal of the season, and now has 11 points in his last 11 games. The fourth goal came on an empty-netter, which prompted an offside review with 0.9 seconds left, just because sometimes, you have to laugh. The tic-tac-toe passing plays, the cross-ice passes, the stuff that highlight reels live for — those shots were stopped.

And Matthews was a footnote, a statistical improbability that only underscored how remarkable the start of his career has been, and how little drama there was in an efficient, solid road win. For a second the Zaitsev goal, actually, might have been among his better chances.

“First I heard Auston call, and I usually always give it to him,” said Hyman. “But I think everybody was very close to (him) so everyone was kind of there, so I saw Nikita kind of jump backside, and he was open. So that’s a quick half-second play, you have to make the play and get it to him.”

So, wait, could that have been the missing shot? Hyman grinned. “There was a couple guys on him. I actually told him, I meant to get it to you there, but you were covered. And he was like, don’t worry.”

“Yeah, it’s Zach’s fault, for sure,” said Matthews. “No, he made a really nice play, because that guy I think was collapsing on me, and he made a really nice play to Zaits, and obviously Zaitsy buried it. I don’t really think about it too much. I know I can shoot the puck, so being without a shot on net, you just live with it and move on. So I won’t lose any sleep about it tonight.”

Nor should he, or anybody else. It was a quirk in a sport full of them, for a team that hasn’t played especially well at times this season and is still in the top 10 in the NHL in points gained per game.

You know the obvious line here, right? Long ways to go, plenty of time, but if the Leafs can get more consistent quality goaltending, and get some of their jumbled lines and inconsistent play sorted out, they might have a ... chance to be, you know, maybe, pretty good.

More on Metronews.ca