The Toronto Maple Leafs bought themselves at least 48 more hours of life with a tenacious win over the Florida Panthers Wednesday night.
Now, trailing 3-1 in the series, trying to turn Game 5 into a Game 6, they can relish the opportunity to get a lift from…home ice?
It’s supposed to work that way, right? And yet, for the core Leafs of the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner era beginning in 2016-17: Scotiabank Arena, previously the Air Canada Centre, hasn’t represented friendly confines. The Leafs have played 25 home games over the past seven postseasons and gone a shocking 9-16 compared to 12-12 at home. The bizarre splits are magnified to the extreme this postseason, with the Leafs going 1-4 at home and 4-1 on the road.
Is the problem as simple as feeling too much pressure playing in such an obsessive home market? Do the data suggest the Leafs play differently on their own turf?
After Toronto dropped its fourth home game of the playoffs last Thursday, I asked coach Sheldon Keefe straight up if he felt his team played differently at home in the playoffs. He cited that the team just hasn’t shown the same ability to “find its way back” at home compared to on the road.
Is it true that there’s some intangible mental block altering Toronto’s personality when it plays in front of a fan base so desperate for success that it can barely contain itself? Or is there reason to believe the home struggles are actually a caused by a reversible, tangible problem? Let’s look at a few metrics from Toronto’s 2022-23 postseason to date, split between five home games and five away games, to see if we can find the cause.
THEORY 1: The Leafs have simply played worse at home at 5-on-5.
Here’s a direct comparison of Toronto’s 5-on-5 play-driving data at home versus on the road in the 2022-23 playoffs, including their share of shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances, high-danger chances and expected goals.
Across the board, the Leafs have been the superior play driving team at home versus on the road. Now, one could wonder if the win-loss records correlate with chicken-and-egg scenarios during games. If the Leafs are 4-1 on the road, and their opponents have been trying to catch up, isn’t that why the play driving favors the opposition in those games, and vice versa at home? Not when we consider that, of Toronto’s four road wins, each were by one goal and three came in overtime. If we adjust those the 5-on-5 stats for the score and venue, the road metrics actually stay pretty much the same, while the home metrics do get a bit worse. Still, at worst, even with the stats adjusted, the Leafs have driven the play at least as well at home as they have on the road.
THEORY 2: The Leafs’ special teams have gone cold at home.
Is there more panic in Toronto’s game in front of its own fans with the opportunity of a power play or pressure of a penalty kill? Setting aside the traditional stats, here’s a look at how they’ve fared on a per-hour basis at generating and converting looks on the power play.
The Leafs’ power play has been significantly more dangerous – and the Leafs have had more opportunities – at home than on the road in the playoffs so far. Cross that off the list of potential problems. What about the penalty kill?
So for the most part, the Leafs have actually done a better job at preventing scoring chances, especially of the high-danger variety, at home versus on the road. How, then, are they giving up more power-play goals on the road? That leads us to theory No. 3.
THEORY 3: The Leafs have gotten inferior goaltending at home.
After getting shelled in Game 1 of the Leafs’ opening-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ilya Samsonov spoke about feeling some nerves in front of the Scotiabank faithful in his first home playoff start as a Leaf. He came up huge in the clutch for the Leafs on the road in that series, stopping all 10 shots he faced across three overtimes.
Here’s a look at Samsonov’s home/road splits in parts of nine appearances during the 2022-23 postseason – at all strengths.
Night and day. Samsonov has been notably worse at home in the postseason. He has made the single biggest difference for the worse in Toronto’s play at home versus on the road.
We can’t judge everything by the data – and we aren’t, to be clear. It’s not all on Samsonov. The Leafs have made some key blunders in puck management and defensive-zone coverage at pivotal moments in games on their home ice, especially versus the Panthers. But when the actual play-driving data don’t make sense and suggest the Leafs haven’t been a worse team at home? It’s fair to dig for an explanation. Samsonov appears to be it.
And guess who won’t be tending goal for the Leafs in Game 5? Samsonov, who has been shelved with an upper-body injury since the second period of Game 3. It’s Joseph Woll’s net now. Theoretically, given how poorly Samsonov has played at home, there’s nowhere to go but up. In a small regular season sample of 11 career games, Woll has almost identical home/road splits. At least so far, he hasn’t hinted at playing differently depending on the city. And he has carried himself with the poise and battling mentality of a No. 1 netminder since entering the series, especially in the do-or-die Game 4.
The change in the Leafs’ net is thus as good as reason as any for them to be hopeful about ending their home slump this Friday night.
Advanced stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
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