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3 ways teams are shutting down the high-powered Maple Leafs

Mark Blinch / National Hockey League / Getty

A month into the season, with the shine wearing off and a superstar shelved, the Toronto Maple Leafs look human.

Sure, they're 8-4, good for top spot in the Atlantic Division, and they're averaging 3.5 goals per game, seventh in the NHL. Nonetheless, red flags have sprouted over the past five contests. The offense is beginning to sputter, producing goal totals of zero, one, four, three, and one. Monday's loss to the Calgary Flames - Toronto's first of many games without the injured Auston Matthews - might have been their worst performance of the season.

Courtesy of the Flames, St. Louis Blues, and Pittsburgh Penguins, consider this a guide to shutting down the high-octane Leafs at five-on-five, with a few play clips as examples of how each strategy worked.

Force dump-ins, break out with support

In a pregame chat with theScore, Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin described an ideal situation in which Calgary would close neutral-zone gaps, forcing Toronto attackers to dump the puck.

"You don't want to give them the blue line,” he explained. “You don't want them to be able to come over the blue line and make a play. You want to be tight on them, so ... they're chipping pucks in and we can start our breakout."

Mike Smith, the NHL's top puckhandling goalie, is the X-factor for Calgary's breakouts. If he keeps his puck retrievals simple and completes the first pass consistently, the Flames are in business.

And business was good Monday night, as variations of the above sequence played out a handful of times over the course of the Flames' 3-1 victory.

A Leafs player feeling the pressure of a tight gap dumps the puck in; Smith intercepts the curling puck and finds a defenseman idling in a safe spot; the defenseman shuffles the puck to a well-positioned forward; the forward hits a teammate heading north.

Here's another example of a successful zone exit. This time, Calgary opted for an overhead toss that spanned the entire neutral zone - ironically, a move the Leafs pull off regularly when they're humming - and it led to a scoring chance.

Whether it was the top line centered by John Tavares or the rarely used Frederik Gauthier trio, the Leafs were outplayed for about 55 minutes by the Bill Peters-coached squad. They turned the puck over far too often, and when they didn't, they struggled to get a shot through to the net. As Toronto coach Mike Babcock put it, the Flames "sailed out of their zone and beat us up the ice," playing with structure.

"I thought we did a good job keeping the gaps (small)," Flames center Mikael Backlund said. "And when they did get into our zone, I don't think they came with enough bodies. It was usually just one or two guys. It was easy for us to break the puck out."

Protect the house

At last Saturday's morning skate, St. Louis Blues defenseman Colton Parayko talked about the importance of limiting the Leafs' access to the middle of the ice.

"It's going to be a game of making sure we're on top of them, making sure we make it tough on them to generate chances," the towering defenseman told theScore. "If we're over top of them and don't let them generate speed and generate opportunities, it's going to be helpful because they seem to always find ways to make things happen."

The outcome of effectively deploying this strategy? A 4-1 Hockey Night in Canada win for the Blues, who guided the Leafs into low-percentage areas throughout the game. Toronto only recorded seven five-on-five shot attempts from the slot/net-front area, and just three came off the stick of a top-six forward (an attempt each from Matthews, Tavares, and Kasperi Kapanen).

Check out this Jake Gardiner point shot from the closing minutes of the first period:

Because one-timed slap shots are aesthetically pleasing and there's some chaos brewing within the frame, Gardiner’s shot looks like a quality chance. Zero in on the details, however, and it's actually nothing special.

Parayko's work on Zach Hyman is critical; his body positioning and active stick keep the feisty winger on the perimeter and prevent him from getting a firm handle on the puck. Disrupted and pressured, Hyman guesses on a pass to the slot, which misses Tavares and ends up in Gardiner's wheelhouse. However, the shot is relatively harmless - it's about 50 feet from the net, goalie Jake Allen is unscreened, and the Leafs aren't well-positioned to capitalize on a rebound, Tavares having been dumped on his way to the goalmouth.

The Maple Leafs have been excellent overall at occupying prime scoring areas, generating 13.4 high-danger shot attempts per hour through 12 games - the fifth-highest rate in the league entering play Tuesday. Before facing the Flames, Toronto owned the third-closest average shot distance (all situations) at 32.4 feet.

The Blues seemed well aware of this early-season trend and adjusted accordingly.

"You have to protect the middle of the ice and let them make their seam passes and expose guys," St. Louis center Ryan O’Reilly said. "We were just committed to it, we were prepared, and we knew what they can do."

Disrupt and attack in the neutral zone

Of course, having Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby to offset Matthews and Tavares was extremely beneficial for the Penguins, but coach Mike Sullivan challenged his squad to both engage physically and protect their blue line.

"The best game plan for us is to get our offense from defending," Pittsburgh rearguard Jack Johnson said hours before puck drop. "I don't think we want to get into a 10-9 game … It's about being committed to being hard to play against."

The Leafs' willingness to attempt stretch passes has been well-documented. It's kind of their thing. The Penguins tasked themselves with flipping the script by not overcommitting on offense and putting themselves in a favorable position to pressure the Leafs into making quick decisions in transition.

Here, Kapanen is forced off the puck by Riley Sheahan. Matt Cullen eventually scoops up the debris and hits the streaking center. At the Leafs' blue line, Sheahan feeds Jamie Oleksiak, who lobs the puck on net. The rebound is pushed all the way to the top of the left circle, where Cullen fires a quick wrister at Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.

The Penguins didn’t convert on that particular play. They did, however, reverse the course of a potentially dangerous neutral zone wind-up by puck pursuers Kapanen and Matthews, as well as a trailing Patrick Marleau.

Below, Tavares is poke-checked at the red line. The Penguins gain possession, regroup with poise, and enter the Leafs' zone with the puck. Easy peasy.

Taking away opponents' time and space is a common concept at all levels of hockey. Yet it's not always realistic, especially against a Leafs team that feeds off quick strikes.

"We tried to play as much as we could in the O zone," Penguins winger Bryan Rust reflected following the 3-0 win. "D-men were pinching, keeping pucks alive. I thought we were backchecking all night. I think it all helped."

Calgary, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh all benefited from solid goaltending, timely scoring, and maybe a little bit of luck in their triumphs over the Leafs. But so did the Ottawa Senators, the only other team to defeat Toronto. What sets the first three teams apart is a sense of control.

The Flames, Blues, and Penguins all developed game plans that, in slightly different ways, allowed them each to smother Toronto's skilled forwards and force the Leafs to defend. Not only did these teams reap the benefits, but they also showed the league that a goal-scoring giant can be cut down to size.

John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

(Statistics courtesy:,, and

3 ways teams are shutting down the high-powered Maple Leafs
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