- Craig Custance
Following Saturday’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle made a comment that was quite telling for a team that has been a statistical anomaly this season. It was a comment that confirmed the argument of advanced stat proponents, who preach a strong correlation between shots attempted and wins.
For the first month of the season the Leafs won games despite consistently being outshot. Just looking at the traditional shots-against stat shows that Toronto allows 35.9 shots per game, worst in the league, and almost 10 more than they manage to shoot themselves.
You can win that way with superior goaltending and players like Phil Kessel, who can change the game with one well-timed goal that only he can score. It’s just not the typical path to success.
Saturday’s loss was Toronto’s fourth consecutive to close out the month. It’s a losing streak matched in the West by the Minnesota Wild, another playoff team from last season that ended November on a slide.
Carlyle’s postgame quote to the Toronto media gives a clue as to which of these teams is better poised for a quick turnaround.
“Teams don’t score very much on the rush anymore in the NHL,” he said. “A lot more goals are created with offensive zone time, cycling, a lot more deflections that are taking place. A lot more second and third opportunities from shots and rebounds. A lot of pucks that are just thrown and directed toward the net. They call that offensive zone funneling now.”
Which leads us to our first Next Question of the week: Which playoff contender is will snap out of their slide first -- Minnesota or Toronto?
To find that answer, let’s examine three things:
1. To steal Carlyle’s phrase, a look at the offensive zone funneling skills is a strong place to start. The Wild lost back-to-back games against the Avalanche, which was especially damaging because it created separation in the Central’s third and fourth spots between the Wild and Avs. The silver lining for Minnesota is that the Wild outshot the Avs in both games by a total of 65-46. Despite the losing streak, the Wild continue to be one of the league’s most persistent shooting teams. According to ExtraSkater.com, the Wild attempt 52.3 percent of the even strength shots in their games, which is No. 7 in the league. The Maple Leafs, by comparison, are at just 43.1 percent, lowest in the NHL. That’s a significant edge for Minnesota.
2. Goaltending. Both of these teams have provided some of the best goaltending stories of the league so far this season. The Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer duo has been outstanding for the Maple Leafs and the early success of Josh Harding had people building an Olympic case for the Regina, Saskatchewan native. Harding has a .936 save percentage so far this season. Reimer is at .931 and Bernier is at .929. They’ve been outstanding but all three have career save percentages of .917, which suggests we’ll see some correction as the season goes on. On the flip side, Niklas Backstrom is currently at .896 and has a career save percentage of .916. If he can stay healthy, he’s capable of going on a run that brings his numbers back to normal. That’s another positive sign for Minnesota.
3. Schedule. The Maple Leafs did what they had to in capitalizing on a friendly early-season schedule but now it gets tough. Five of Toronto’s next seven games are against the West, which has cleaned up on Eastern Conference opposition so far this season. In the next three weeks, the Maple Leafs will see the last four Stanley Cup winners. It’ll make great drama for the HBO cameras, which are getting ready to roll for this season's edition of "24/7," but doesn’t help the cause of a team trying to straighten out its game. The Wild schedule isn’t exactly cake either. They have three of their next four games at home, although they’re hosting an improving Flyers team, the Stanley Cup champ Blackhawks and the Sharks. Then comes a mid-December road trip for seven of eight games, including an east coast swing against the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers. Neither team is getting help from the schedule.
The conclusion? Of the two sliding teams, the Wild are better poised for a quick turnaround, especially if they start capitalizing on their shot attempt advantage against opponents.
Next question: Can the Oilers survive without Bryzgalov, who has been outstanding since joining the team?
Bryzgalov had stopped 29 of 30 shots before getting injured but the strong play in relief from Devan Dubnyk was a good sign. Dubnyk is rounding into form after a slow start and looks ready to take advantage of another opportunity to be the clear-cut No. 1 goalie if Bryzgalov is hurt. His save percentage is still south of .900 but Dubnyk has posted a mark of .927 since November 15, looking much more like the goalie who finished last year at .920 than the one who couldn’t stop a puck to start the season. The shootout win over the Stars was an impressive one for the Oilers, who battled back from an early deficit. They earned four of six points on their three-game road trip and now start a five-game homestand that could determine whether or not this team is serious about turning things around. It would help to have a healthy Bryzgalov but Dubnyk is showing he’s more than capable of holding things down.
The news: After losing the first game of their seven-game road trip, the Blackhawks ran off six consecutive wins to close out the trip. The reigning champs now have a league-high 44 points.
Next question: Which Chicago player is best positioning himself for individual award recognition this season?
Duncan Keith. There may be a Hart Trophy argument for Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews but Sidney Crosby is going to be tough to dislodge from the top of that debate. Keith, however, has catapulted himself to the top of the Norris discussion. He has 24 points in 28 games, important production since Norris voters have shown a propensity to reward offensive output in recent years. He also has the best plus/minus (plus-13) of the top five scoring defensemen this season. When he’s on the ice, 57.9 percent of the even strength shots attempts are made by the Blackhawks, a number topped only by two other defensemen (Jake Muzzin and Brent Seabrook). According to behindthenet.ca, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson see the tougher competition, but Keith is capitalizing on his opportunities. Right now, it’s hard to find a defenseman playing at a higher level than Keith.