Following their 2-1 win over Buffalo Thursday, the Maple Leafs were enjoying their first win streak of the season. That said, Toronto's players and coaching staff are well aware they're still not where they want to be when it comes to limiting their opponents' scoring chances. And that was their focus Friday at practice as they prepared to host the Vancouver Canucks Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
"The last two games we feel we've given up too many shots," said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, whose team has given up a combined 88 shots in wins over the Sabres and Oilers this week. "A lot of them have been goalie-type shots that are from the outside, but last night, (Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen) had to make four bell-ringer (saves). We'd like to be a little better defensively and continue to press hard when you have the lead instead of kind of getting back into a prevent defense kind of thing, so those are things we've got to continue to work at."
"It hasn't been one of our strengths so far," added winger Matt Martin, who has spoken more than once during the season about keeping opponents' scoring chances at a minimum. "We seem to be giving up a lot of quality chances on Freddie, but he was definitely the reason why we won the game last night. We're happy to get a win, but some things, we need to clean up."
Andersen stopped 42 of 43 shots in Buffalo in the win, and the 27-year-old is now 3-1 in his past four starts with a sparkling .954 save percentage and 1.76 goals against average. He credits the team's ability to prevent opponents from getting second and third scoring chances as one of the keys to Toronto's success of late, and complimented the all-around game of Leafs forward Mitch Marner, who scored both goals Thursday.
"He works hard and he just goes to the net hard, too," Andersen said of the 19-year-old Marner. "For not the biggest guy, he really competes and jumps on those loose pucks. He's got instinct for finding the puck in there, so that's really cool to see."
Another player emerging as a notable contributor for Toronto is defenceman Nikita Zaitsev; the 25-year-old Russian is in his first season as an NHLer after spending his formative years in the Kontinental League, and though he didn't have a normal training camp process to go through - not by any fault of his own, but because of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey that he participated in and that limited his interactions with the Leafs' coaching staff - Zaitsev is proving to his teammates and fans how well he sees and thinks the game, and how seamlessly he's making the transition to the North American style and smaller rinks.
"We always knew that he was a great player and he had a bright future here with this team," blueliner Morgan Rielly said of Zaitsev, who is second on the team in time-on-ice average at 21:59 and who has five assists in 11 games. "Now that he's more comfortable and he's used to what's going on here in Toronto, I think he's been playing great and he's only going to continue to get better. I've enjoyed playing with him, so hopefully we can keep building chemistry and make this thing work for a long time."
"Just the confidence in general in him," added Babcock, when asked what development he's seen in Zaitsev's game as the regular season has unfolded. "It's like any new player coming into a new situation, especially if you're not in (your native) language, even though he speaks English real good. You come here, you're in the World Cup, you didn't have training camp, the coach wasn't here…you're going through a ton of stuff, and you didn't have the eight (pre-season) games to get ready. Then what you do is you tend to over-think - and I think any time you over-think, you're obviously not as good. But he's an impressive player, to say the least."
Toronto turns its attention now to a Canucks squad that, after winning its first four games of the season, has lost seven consecutive games and hasn't scored a single goal in each of its past two games. The Buds aren't taking them for granted, but they're focused on their own development and building on the positive elements from their most recent wins, which boosted their record to 4-4-3 and gave them a 3-1-0 mark at home.
"We're happy with the way we played the last two games, and to get the results that we were looking for, I think it's good for our confidence," Rielly said. "It kind of takes a little bit of pressure off, and it gives us the chance to start playing our game and get comfortable."