When the Toronto Maple Leafs steamrolled a goalie-challenged and talent-deprived Detroit Red Wings squad on Wednesday, it was hard to be too impressed by the 6-0 result.
The Maple Leafs undoubtedly played well, but they made the Red Wings look like a collection of Walmart mannequins largely because Detroit is downright dreadful. Before the enthusiasm for the Sheldon Keefe era gets out of hand, this team is going to need to face a little more quality competition.
Even so, the uncompetitive game had its uses as the Maple Leafs were able to work on and showcase the brand of hockey they’ll be playing under Keefe. The patient, possession-focused attack they brought to bear was extremely effective and resulted in them peppering the Detroit net from dangerous areas all night.
It wasn’t a goal, or even a point-blank chance, that best encapsulated the new-look Maple Leafs, though. It was a second-period sequence where they hemmed the Red Wings in their zone for a full 77 seconds, putting on a clinic in the type of position-flexible cycling they hope to perfect under Keefe.
With 4:20 left in the frame, the rookie coach sent his fourth line of Frederik Gauthier, Pierre Engvall, and Dmytro Timashov over the boards in the offensive zone to do battle with the Red Wings’ only competent trio of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Robby Fabbri. What followed was picture-perfect offensive pressure:
Part One: Securing the Puck (11.7 seconds)
Early in this sequence, quick passes from Morgan Rielly (44) to Timashov (41) to Engvall (47) creates an opportunity for a quick wrister from the slot. When that goes awry, Gauthier (33) does a good job of puck retrieval and Engvall quickly supports him, allowing the puck to wind up on his stick with time and space. Timashov also deserves some credit for a little pick that ensures his fellow winger doesn’t have a man on him. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, just good fourth-line work that lays the foundation for what came next.
Part Two: Rielly on the Move (12.7 seconds)
This ends almost exactly as it starts with Engvall controlling the puck in the high slot — an area forwards ventured far less frequently under Mike Babcock. Of particular interest is what we see from Rielly. The offensive-minded defender creeps down low on both Engvall’s first shot attempt and again when the rookie winger regains the puck up top. In the first instance, he comes wide open and would have been a great option for Engvall. Through Keefe’s first three games, the appearance of Maple Leafs blueliners at the half boards or below has been a constant — a development that meshes well with Rielly’s aggressive game.
Part Three: Engvall’s Patience (8.5 seconds)
One of the most important tenets of the Keefe system is being patient with the puck. That could mean holding onto it and wheeling or regrouping when an attack is stifled, or both. Instead of forcing the puck down low, Engvall doubles back and feeds Cody Ceci (83) before getting it back for an open shot. Not only does the rookie’s deliberate approach create a chance, it also lets Rielly get back in position at the point.
Part Four: The Rielly Setup (11.6 seconds)
Following Engvall’s shot, we see another good job of puck retrieval by the Maple Leafs’ grinders. That results in the puck finding its way to the point once again. This time, Rielly and Ceci switch positions, giving the former some valuable space on the right wall and the opportunity to feed Gauthier in front.
Part Five: Another Chance for Engvall (7.7 seconds)
There’s nothing too exotic here. Ceci corrals the puck around the boards and Rielly finds Engvall with a nifty pass in space. Gauthier is heading for the bench at this point, meaning the Maple Leafs are essentially playing 4-on-5, Detroit’s inability to cover Engvall in that context is pretty embarrassing.
Part Six: Mad Scramble (9.8 seconds)
Ceci gets down close to the corner to feed Timashov behind the net and the Maple Leafs maintain possession despite the winger being outnumbered down there. John Tavares (91) gets some points for a good stick to help the puck stay in the zone and the puck finds Ceci again.
Part Seven: Role Reversal (15.1 seconds)
During the Babcock era it’s hard to remember a single instance of Ceci working the puck this deep into the zone or Ilya Mikheyev (65) making any plays to keep the puck in at the blue line. This is one of the biggest changes Keefe is bringing to the Maple Leafs. It’s not exactly position-less hockey, but it is far less segregation between his two types of skaters. Defencemen support forwards and forwards support defencemen, and this is a great example. The rest of the play is far from beautiful, but Zach Hyman (11) is almost able to find Tavares in front for an easy goal.
Once again, anything Toronto accomplishes against competition as dreadful as the Red Wings needs to be taken with an enormous grain of salt. However, blowout games do present an example of what the Leafs can look like at their best — and it’s hard to remember them looking much better than they did in those 77 seconds on Wednesday.
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