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Maple Leafs' hang-back plan keeps earning wins

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer celebrates after saving a shot from Washington Capitals' Troy Brouwer (not shown) to win during shootout NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday November 23, 2013.

The Canadian Press

The game was close in the first period, started to get away from them in the second, and was particularly lopsided once they had a lead.

But for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, that has been a winning formula.

The Leafs won yet another game that had a very uneven shot clock on Saturday, beating the Washington Capitals 2-1 in a shootout thanks to 49 saves by goaltender James Reimer, who's now the NHL's save percentage leader.

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It was also another night where the Leafs settled into what coach Randy Carlyle has often called "receiving" the play, i.e. spending a lot of time in their own end and on the wrong end of the chance count.

"The third period, we didn't really create any cycle game or any offensive zone time," Carlyle said. "We just received the third period. That again is something we've got to learn from."

One of the most remarkable (and most talked about) aspects of Toronto's 14-8-1 start has been just how badly they are outshot in games. After the Caps nearly doubled them at 50-28 on Saturday, the Leafs have been outshot by an average of 9.7 shots per game, the second worst mark in the league and one of the worst marks in recent league history.

Why exactly that is happening hasn't been explained in any depth by the team, but it appears to be at least somewhat related to their system of hanging back when they have the lead.

According to behindthenet.ca, which tracks analytics for the NHL, the Leafs are close to a league average team in terms of puck possession when they are trailing by a goal. In those situations, they create 51.2 per cent of the attempts on net, compared to 53.4 per cent for the average team.

But when they lead by a goal, their possession rating is less than 41 per cent, well off the league average of 47.4 per cent.

It's a trend you can see in the Leafs record when you look at how they fare after scoring the first goal in games. Including last season, Toronto has scored the first goal in 47 of their last 71 regular-season games, or a league-leading 66 per cent of the time.

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The Leafs, however, have gone on to lose 18 of those 47 games, putting them on the low end in that stat leaguewide.

In contrast, they're a pretty strong team coming from behind, using offensive weapons like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf to win nearly 50 per cent of the time when they give up the game's first goal.

On Saturday, Toronto got its only goal in regulation from David Clarkson at the game's halfway point and was on the verge of winning 1-0 before Caps star Alex Ovechkin broke through with his 20th of the season with only four minutes left.

Between the two goals, the Leafs were outshot 2-to-1 and didn't carry a lot of the play, allowing Washington to press for as many potential chances as they could. And, as can be the case in the NHL, the one Ovechkin scored was a weird one, as he hammered a bouncing puck that teammate Mike Green had fluttered into the offensive zone off the post and in.

Once the game was tied, the balance of play was once again basically equal, with both teams trading chances late in regulation and into overtime before Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul scored the shootout winner.

"They definitely had some quality scoring chances," Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser said. "In the third, they had us in our zone a lot more than we wanted. We're never going to tell you that we want to give up 50. That's probably a few too many for us to be happy with."

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"It's hard to get that under control in that situation," Carlyle said of their third period struggle, which saw the Caps outshoot them 19-4. "Because people are tired and they're receiving the game and the other team is pinching and putting pucks in. That's when I think the shot total really got out of hand."

The biggest positive in the win, meanwhile, could ultimately be how the Leafs lone goal was scored.

Toronto has struggled mightily to generate offence lately – with only 16 goals in their nine November games – and their coach is hopeful that more players follow Jake Gardiner's lead and put more of those long, lofting point shots toward the net in order to get tip-ins like the one Clarkson put past Capitals netminder Braden Holtby.

The Leafs defence has generated only 159 shots on goal this season, well under the average for the rest of the NHL (201).

"We've been preaching and we've been pleading with our players to just direct pucks towards the net and drive the middle lane," Carlyle said. "We're far, far too cute. We just refuse continually to direct pucks and we're not getting that second and third opportunity, that flurry of shots.

"The opposition that we're playing against are doing it to us. They take one shot at net and they get two or three whacks at it where we seem to be one and out. And we're very selective on when we want to shoot. We've got to simplify. Put the pucks towards the net. I would say we have some thick heads."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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