The Toronto Maple Leafs returned from the break with a complete-ish effort as they defeated the Nashville Predators by a score of 5-2 on Monday night.

First Period

The game started with the Predators on the front foot, establishing puck control and winning the majority of the puck races in the early stages. Somewhat against the run of play, William Nylander took off for an airmail play that Rasmus Sandin read and executed perfectly for his third assist in three-and-a-bit games since his recall.

That’s quite the way to establish a new career-high for William Nylander (23 goals), as he forewent the deke option that has let him down frequently when one-on-one with the goalie this season and confidently buried past Pekka Rinne with a well-placed finish.

Exactly 40 seconds later, the Predators erased the deficit on an odd-man rush after the Leafs got caught with four below the hashmarks. With Justin Holl already in deep, the Leafs lost their F3 when Auston Matthews took a gamble on the play — anticipating Marner would come out with a 50/50 puck — and lost the bet.

After a few minutes of sloppy play from both sides in their first period back from an extended break, the Leafs generated a strong offensive-zone shift to give themselves a 2-1 lead.

Zach Hyman’s ability to out-battle defensemen and claim prime real estate in front of the net again led to something positive, and the Leafs‘ winger continues to ride a hot stick with 13 goals (shooting 20%) in his first 31 games.

Not long after, the Leafs got a scare when Andersen went down hard in an accidental collision with Frederik Gauthier.

While it was a sloppy first period overall, one Leaf who continued to look sharp right from the get-go was Rasmus Sandin:

With the period drawing to a close, Andersen looked a little shaky as he lost track of the puck on a relatively harmless shot from the top of the circle off the rush.

A returning Jake Muzzin was in the vicinity to collect the rebound, and Andersen got to the first intermission without conceding a second goal, setting the stage for a strong final 40 minutes from the Leafs goaltender.

The Leafs emerged from the opening period with a 60/40 deficit in possession but were leading in high-danger chances, expected Goals, and on the scoreboard.

Second Period

The second period was much better in terms of overall territorial control by the Maple Leafs, as they owned over 62% of the shot attempts, outchanced the Predators heavily (7-1 in high danger areas), and increased their lead to a commanding 4-1 advantage.

Four minutes into the period, the 3-1 goal started with more good work off of the cycle and a nifty play from Nylander, in particular, to free the puck up past two Predators for Alex Kerfoot to take out front. With a nod to Mattias Ekholm for taking out his own goaltender, good anticipation from Rasmus Sandin put him in a position to bury confidently into the gaping net.

In addition to tightening up more through the neutral zone and denying clean entries at the line, the Leafs were coming out of their own zone cleaner in the second period and spent most of the 20 minutes on offense.

Minutes later, the Leafs got a power-play opportunity, where they generated some good looks. While they technically didn’t find the back of the net with a man-advantage, they were able to break through just seconds after the expiration of the PP.

That’s a vintage Spezza snipe into a very tight window over Pekka Rinne’s shoulder.

Pierre Engvall didn’t seem to be fazed by the long rest; he was flying throughout this game at center ice, tracking back hard defensively and bursting through the middle a few times for chances in alone on Rinne.

Despite carrying the lion’s share of the possession, Toronto found themselves down a man after Justin Holl took an extra piece out of Roman Josi along the wall as Josi chipped the puck in deep. On the ensuing penalty kill, Andersen came up with his biggest save of the night.

In the dying seconds of the period, the Leafs kept the pressure up with some quality looks off the cycle.

Safe to say no one is too bent out of shape that Sandin’s entry-level contract has officially kicked in.

Third Period

Early in the third period, the Leafs continued to keep the pace up in possession of the multi-goal lead.

The physicality ratcheted up a notch as both teams got chippy at times. One instance involved Filip Forsberg taking a run at John Tavares, who returned the favour shortly after.

In between some strong sequences in the offensive zone from the Leafs, Andersen stood tall amongst a flurry of scoring chances, with this one his best of the period:

With the game clock ticking down fast thanks to very few whistles and long stretches of solid how-to-play-with-the-lead hockey by the Leafs, Travis Dermott iced the puck and Victor Arvidsson took advantage off the faceoff.

While the Leafs’ wingers could’ve done a better job of closing down off of the lost faceoff, Andersen would’ve liked to hold onto that one versus spitting it out into the danger zone; in his defense, it was a knuckler from Ekholm on a puck that was wobbling on edge.

Despite an immediate timeout call by Sheldon Keefe — who tried to nip any self-doubt among his group in the bud coming off of some ugly losses before the break — that goal gave the Predators some real life, and the Leafs sagged a little too much for the coach’s liking. The Preds turned up the heat with a barrage of scoring chances that Andersen and a little puck luck around the goal managed to keep out. After a sustained full-court press from Nashville, Auston Matthews put it away with his third career empty netter — his second in his last four games.

Post-Game Notes

  • While the first period was sloppy at times and the finish could’ve been cleaner, this was a good effort overall coming out of the break, especially knowing the team was never going to be at its sharpest execution-wise. They were opportunistic in the first period before dominating the second frame and playing a good third with the lead up until the 4-2 Nashville goal. It wasn’t a perfect 60-minute effort, but there were enough sustained spells of the kind of up-tempo, possession-positive, offensively-threatening Keefe hockey we were accustomed to prior to the recent dip, backed by a cleaner effort in their own zone in protecting the critical areas of the ice and — at least from the second-period onward — denying the defensive blue line more successfully/aggressively.
  • Rasmus Sandin was among the Leafs’ best players on the backend, showing off his patience with the puck all night long, making heads-up plays at both ends of the ice, and potting his first career NHL goal. Playing alongside Cody Ceci, the duo combined for an impressive 64.29 CF%, 62.50 FF%, a 76.84 xGF%, a 73.33 SCF%, and a 77.78 HDCF% at even strength. With this being his 10th NHL game of the season, the first year of his now entry-level deal kicks in and he will become an RFA after the 2021-22 season. The Leafs shouldn’t be concerned about ELC seasons as much as the RFA window; knowing Morgan Rielly will return before the end of the season, Sandin likely won’t play in the 30+ games required to make that a consideration (40 GP are needed to accrue a season for free agency purposes) — although who knows if Sandin keep this up, especially knowing there are going to be no shortage of important games down the stretch.
  • Countryman William Nylander also had a strong performance, doing most of the heavy lifting for his line. Him, John Tavares, and Alexander Kerfoot combined to record a 52.38 CF%, a 50.00 FF%, a 56.93 xGF%, a 54.55 SCF%, and an 83.33 HDCF% at 5v5. Nylander did a great job jumping on loose pucks, generating quality looks off he cycle and using his wheels to set up chances off the rush. He got rewarded with a nice goal that set a career-high in that category, and he could’ve had two or three. Many were anticipating a bounce-back season for Nylander, but a new career-high in goals by game #50 is probably surpassing even those expectations. After some rough outings in the week prior to the break, the Tavares line had a much better go of it tonight, albeit without a real ‘marquee’ center to contend with like the McDavids and Toews of the world.
  • The Marlies conditioning stint looked to be a wise choice for Jake Muzzin: He led all Leaf skaters with over 22 minutes of ice time and didn’t look behind the pace in his first game back by any means. The d-core looked to be back into more of a natural configuration with Muzzin next to Holl for the heavier lifting, with Dermott – Barrie slotted in behind those two. Trevor Moore, meanwhile, provided good legs and needed to fill in for Kasperi Kapanen for some shifts with the Pierre Engvall line after Kapanen left the game with an arm injury (which doesn’t sound too serious as X-rays were negative).
  • No one on the Leafs roster needed a big game more than Frederik Andersen, and he delivered with one of his best performances in the month of January. He finished the night with a .944 SV%, a 2.01 GAA, a .750 HDSV%, and stopped 34 of 36 shots against. After some early jitters, Andersen settled in, looked calm and poised in the crease, and made some big saves, including a momentum-stopper on the power-play where he stretched post-to-post to deny Kyle Turris on a backdoor play. Side note: Andersen’s new pads look incredible, and I hope he keeps them on for the remainder of the season.
  • Sunday’s shocking news of Kobe Bryant’s death shook the sports world and beyond to its core. As Sheldon Keefe alluded to, it was tough news to process and it made for a difficult practice on Sunday. Visible in the comments from the likes of Muzzin and Auston Matthews, it’s clear Kobe made an indelible impact not just within the sport of basketball but on multiple generations of aspiring professional athletes and big dreamers of all kinds all over the globe. He was also an inspiring family man who while intensely professionally-driven, always made sure to put his kids above all else. Rest in Peace Kobe and Gianna Bryant, Alyssa, Kerri and John Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah and Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.

Clips of the Night

Notable Stats

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Locations

Condensed Game