Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs concluded a six-game road trip at UBS Arena, the new facility of the New York Islanders. While this had all the markings of a “trap game” – narratives flowing, a non-playoff team on a hot-streak with motivation attached to the night, the end of a grueling two weeks – the Maple Leafs gained a 3-1 lead yet again, and this time, kept it in place and avoided the whole blowing leads thing.
Perhaps the most important story from last night’s game comes between the pipes. Specifically, it was Petr Mrazek’s fifth game tending the net for Toronto, and easily his best. Playing the full 60 minutes, Mrazek stopped 27 of 28 shots, holding the fort the Islanders put up over half of their full-game volume in the third period, as score effects typically tends to create.
One can grant that it wasn’t the most impressive barrage of pucks to the net that came his way – the Islanders played their typical stifling style for most of the game and still lost the scoring chance, high-danger attempt and expected goals battles – but he still faced 2.26 of the latter and only conceded one, so it was a great night out in the office for him.
Mrazek was signed by the Maple Leafs in the 2021 offseason and many hoped that he could be, at minimum, Jack Campbell’s 1B. So far, that hasn’t been the case, as Mrazek has played just five games to Campbell’s 29. Mrazek still remains a game behind the combination of the team’s 3 and 4 options (Joseph Woll and Michael Hutchison). Part of this is due a lower body injury after his first game and a groin injury not long after his second. But after returning to the lineup on December 11th, it took the team four games to let him back into the lineup, and two more after that loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
In a way I understand it – Jack Campbell has been incredible for much of the year and Mrazek’s first few games weren’t great. Sure, he wasn’t the reason they lost his debut or the game against Arizona earlier in this road trip, and he did pick up two wins in between, but before last night he had yet to put up a single 0.900 or higher performance. Both wins were in nine-goal games, and when the available goals shrunk, so did his assistance until last night.
At the same time, Toronto is in a pretty unique position right now, where they more or less have their playoff position locked in. Barring a monumental, long-term collapse, they’re headed to the playoffs, and it’s likely only a matter of where they seed. The Eastern Conference (especially Toronto’s own Atlantic division) is very top-heavy this year, and as it stands, Toronto is on pace to finish 32 points ahead of the outside team that’s closest to drawing in.
Jockeying for position with the Florida, Tampa, Boston gauntlet in the division could create benefits in terms of drawing home ice advantage throughout the playoffs, but one could also argue that if the team doesn’t pull ahead sooner than later, there’s a risk in burning out player health and energy ahead of the playoffs for a slighter edge. In no position would this be more apparent than goaltending. The last thing one wants is to have an injured or burnt out starting goaltending heading into the playoffs, and Campbell’s 0.893 save percentage in the six games since coming back from the COVID-19 pause (during which he himself was infected) gives a good glimpse into what could happen in a bad situation. Campbell, who rarely gets shelled, has allowed 18 goals in his past four games and could really use a break.
This is especially true with the recent re-scheduling of games, which crams the opening third of the season’s lost games into the rest of the schedule. Toronto plays 44 games in their next 83 days, a rate that won’t be exclusive to them in the league-wide picture but will offer very little in the form of rest compared to their 38 games in 103 days thus far. Continuing at the same rate will mean that, even if accounting for some injury time, Jack Campbell plays 62 games on the year, or double his career high – even exceeding his junior or minor league highs. That’s simply not a good strategy if you want him to put his best foot forward come late April and beyond.
Mrazek has proven himself to be a capable goalie when healthy in the past, including three years and 92 games of above-average performance in Carolina prior to his signing. That’s part of why the Maple Leafs brought him in to begin with. If they feel him to be healthy now, this would be the perfect time to give their starter a rest and their backup, 1B, whatever you want to call him, an opportunity to build back confidence in his game and body. The stakes are relatively minimal as far as playoff odds go, and the upside to having a second goalie in rhythm would be massive. One can hope that last night’s win was the start of the balance the team originally sought before opening night.