The Toronto Maple Leafs ran up a 3-0 lead, gave it up, and found a way to win anyway against the President’s Trophy frontrunners on Monday night, marking their eighth win in their last nine games.

Tonight’s takeaways:

Opening 20 minutes one of the Leafs’ most impressive periods of the season

There wasn’t much going on in the first five minutes of the game — just two shots on goal from either team (both from TB), lots of 50-50 shifts, a couple of icings, and a few off-sides. But starting with 13-14 minutes left in the first, the Leafs established a rhythm across all four lines that had the league’s top team reeling.

From Auston Matthews and William Nylander absolutely flying and combining for the 1-0 goal, the Nazem Kadri line generating a couple of dominant shifts with Victor Hedman’s pairing on the ice, and line four keeping the pedal to the metal, the Lightning were struggling to keep pace. It was among the Leafs’ most impressive periods this season; an example of the team operating at the peak of its powers when it comes to rolling four lines at the opponent.

The response was inevitable from the Lightning side of things, and they controlled the better part of the final 40 while mounting the 0-3 comeback. When the Lightning made it 3-2 early in the third, the 3-3 goal felt completely inevitable on the very next shift as the Leafs tightened right up and stopped playing. Babcock summed it up like so after the game: “By no means are we a poised, veteran group who does it right. We still have these emotional swings in a game because we get off track. In saying all of that, they’re the best team in hockey and I thought we can skate and play with anybody.”

There’s a lot to be said for how the Leafs recomposed themselves and found a way to win in a game that seemed to be slipping out of their grasp against the best team in the NHL.

toronto maple leafs vs. tampa bay lightning corsi for

Auston Matthews & William Nylander now a truly dominant duo at 5v5

I’ve wondered aloud before why the Leafs don’t turn to Auston Matthews and William Nylander for bigger minutes on the power play, or “load up” a unit – especially as the PP has slowly fallen back into the middle of the pack as the season has progressed. But I’d bet a big part of Mike Babcock managing their man-advantage minutes is the Leafs head coach wanting to develop them into dominant 5v5 players who don’t wait around for power plays. I’m thinking more of Nylander here, as he was something of a PP specialist last year as far as the percentage of his production that came on the man advantage (42.6% of his point production versus 15.9% this season).

Knowing how Babcock has approached power play usage with Morgan Rielly and his development goals in the past, the theory doesn’t seem far-fetched. He’s playing the long game.

As far as the results, the 5v5 numbers with these two on the ice are astonishing this season: After tonight’s two goals, with Matthews and Nylander on the ice, the Leafs have outscored the opposition 42-14. They’ve been on the ice together for just nine power play goals total, with one shorthanded goal against.

At the end of last season, with Nylander and Matthews on the ice, the Leafs out-scored the opposition 24-22 at 5v5 and 29-1 on the power play.

The other point worth touching on here is how it affects William Nylander’s prospects of playing center in Toronto in the long run. Forget about whether or not Nylander could do it (to me, there’s no doubt he could in time) — how do you split up a duo that dynamic and dominant?

This was much better from Matthews and his line in a marquee matchup situation vs. the Steven Stamkos line, including a dominant period and a bit, although there were a few teaching moments, too, later on – Matthews lost positioning in front and fell into Andersen on the 3-3 goal, and overplayed his shot block attempt in the slot in the final seconds, losing his man (Tyler Johnson) alone with a point-blank scoring opportunity in front. As Anthony showed in the Nashville clip in the notebook this week, there are some things to clean up defensively here, but it’s all part of the process for a 20-year-old player.

Final note here: Loved Matthews’ quote, “We expect to win every game,” after beating the best team in the league.

JVR Comes Up Big Again

One was a bit of a blowout game vs. Ottawa, but with tonight’s game-winner, James van Riemsdyk has now recorded the deciding goal in three consecutive games, continuing a pattern of JVR scoring important goals at important times – and against some good teams – this season.

Just from memory:

  • The late tying goal versus Colorado in the late December OT loss
  • The late tying goal versus Boston in November
  • The late tying goal versus Chicago in October
  • The 1-0 goal + shootout winner versus the Nashville Predators
  • The game-winning goal in the third period of a measuring stick game versus the Tampa Bay Lightning after coughing up a 3-0 lead

We know what JVR isn’t: A top-line player that’s trusted in big minutes against tough competition. But he buries his chances and comes through at key times, even if he’s been next to invisible for most of the game. A 33-goal (pace) player and PP specialist stored away on your third line? That’s a pretty good weapon to have going into the playoffs.

Frederik Andersen Outduels Vezina favourite Andrei Vasilevskiy

Frederik Andersen out-duelled Vezina frontrunner Andrei Vasilevskiy tonight by coming up with the big saves late in the third period, but putting tonight’s game aside for a second, I’d argue the early Vezina debate should be closer than many are letting on.

Vasilveskiy has been lights out; he’s also playing behind a stacked, more experienced team with an enviable defense core. Andersen is tied for second in the NHL in wins (28) behind Vasilevsky’s 33, and is tied for sixth in save percentage (min. 30 starts) with a .921. He’s also started 48 of 58 games and has faced 130 more shots than the next busiest goaltender, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. The Leafs are currently bottom five in shots against per game (33.7).

The Vezina voting should of course take into account wins and save percentage, but to me, there should be a lot of weight placed on which goalie is the clear MVP on his team. For that reason, I’d have had Cam Talbot much higher on the ballot last year than most others seemed to given the workload he faced in terms of games played (73) and shots faced (2,173). With his numbers regressing and injuries factoring in this season, we’ve all seen what’s happened in Edmonton.

The Leafs are a much deeper team than Edmonton and are proving they’re no one-year wonder, but they’re still inexperienced and inconsistent defensively. When the team was playing its worst hockey in December and January – and was without Auston Matthews for stretches – Andersen held them in game after game as the team ground out points. For me, he has been the Leafs’ MVP. Vezina voters should take note.

Game In Six