The Maple Leafs’ recent physical game can propel them to great things

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When we were looking at the stats from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-4 loss Thursday night to the Arizona Coyotes, a series of numbers jumped off the page (or more literally, off the screen). In that loss, 74 hits were recorded in the game, including 42 by the Maple Leafs. That’s 24 more hits than their average of 18 hits per game this season.

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In fact, 42 hits is the most hits the team has had in a single game in more than two years. According to quanthockey.com, the last time they had 42+ hits in a game was on December 28, 2019 against the New York Rangers. That night the team had 47 hits, but it was Christmas time and they were obviously in the spirit of giving.

Where does the high number of visits come from?

The weirdness of this stat has us wondering why, seemingly out of nowhere, this desire to hit came about? We really can’t see this being part of the Maple Leafs’ larger game plan to stop a strong Arizona offense, although the Coyotes scored plenty before they got to Toronto. (They had scored 17 goals in the previous two games.)

Petr Mrazek left too many goals against the Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs
(Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The only thing that made sense was the simple fact that the team was angry, mostly at themselves for their terrible start to the game and the fact that they were losing to a team that they should be able to beat with more ease than she had.

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The game just wasn’t going well and players had to blame someone. And going after Petr Mrazek wouldn’t have been the answer.

Remembering a past Chicago Blackhawks game

There was a game earlier this season that reminded us of Thursday’s game. On October 27, the Maple Leafs visited the Chicago Blackhawks, after tripping over the blocks to start the season. They had lost four in a row, including a 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes’ game was one that Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe considered one of their best games at that time, despite the loss.

Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)

The Blackhawks scored the first two goals to lead 2-0. The Maple Leafs stormed back in that game to beat Chicago 17-7 in the third period and won the game 3-2 in overtime. Checking the hitting stats for that game, the Maple Leafs had 32 hits. Again, that’s a high number for the team.

This game was notable as it was the first win in a 25-game series that would see the Maple Leafs compile a 20-4-1 record. The game against Arizona did not end in a win, as the team gave up the goal in overtime to lose 5-4. Again, even more anger ensued when, in most people’s eyes, a penalty should have been called when Auston Matthews was so clearly detained.

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However, the Maple Leafs took the game against the Coyotes and scored three third period goals to tie the game. Could the Coyotes’ game have a similar effect on the team as the Blackhawks’ previous game?

Will the anger continue? Can Matthews channel it?

After the Coyotes scored the game-winning goal, it was obvious Matthews was crazy and wanted to hit something. Because he was held but didn’t shoot a penalty just before the Coyotes scored in overtime, the thing he wanted to hit had scratches on it. In the post-game, he had tempered this anger, at least outside.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)

We were waiting for Matthews to get angry and lose control a bit. I know why he lets himself be fooled without answering or taking a penalty. But, just once, we’d like to see him do a Mark Messier and use his size and strength to get really physical with an opponent.

It will be interesting to see how this team might direct the anger they showed on Thursday. It will be interesting to see if this anger carries over into their next game. Will the Sabers become the victim? This game was also embarrassing.

The common theme was losing to an inferior team

The common theme that drove the Maple Leafs was that the team was embarrassed about which team they should beat, and they obviously weren’t happy about it. It looks like they’ve vented their anger by improving their physical game.

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Out of curiosity, we checked the box score from the recent 5-1 loss to the Sabers. In this game, the Maple Leafs seemed more apathetic, indifferent and anything but mad. Oddly enough, they only had nine hits that game.

By the way, where do the hits of the Maple Leafs come from?

Going back to the Arizona game, if anyone is wondering where the hits are coming from, John Tavares led the team with seven. TJ Brodie had five. Nick Robertson and David Kampf had four hits apiece.

The Matthews, Marner, Bunting line had nine hits, split evenly among the three. Marner had perhaps his biggest hit of the season, if not his career, in that game as he completely tied a Coyotes player in the Leafs’ area in the game.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right-winger Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

If there’s a moral or point to that, maybe it’s that the Leafs should play angrier more often.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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