Three goals against at the start of each period had the Toronto Maple Leafs chasing the game the whole night before a late push fell short as the Dallas Stars prevailed by a score of 3-2 on Thursday night.

First Period

For the second game in a row, the Leafs were trailing before the game really got started after an unsure play up the wall by Alex Kerfoot and John Tavares led to a turnover in the Toronto zone. With Justin Holl jumping up to join the breakout prior to the turnover, Denis Gurianov was in all alone to trickle it through Frederik Andersen’s five-hole on his first shot against in his first game back.

Unsurprisingly, once the Stars were in possession of the lead, the period became a defensive battle and the Leafs struggled to generate many quality scoring chances. The inability to get through Dallas’ tight neutral-zone structure cleanly was an issue for the Leafs throughout the opening 20 minutes; Stars defensemen standing up the blue line, with strong back pressure from the Stars’ forwards coming back, forced the Leafs to cough up possession or put pucks in bad spots, disrupting their rhythm offensively.

The Leafs then lost Andreas Johnsson to yet another injury, as Johnsson left with a knee problem and never returned to the game.

While it took nearly half the period for the Leafs to put their first shot on net, they did manage to generate a little bit more in the latter stages of the opening frame.

Late in the period, Jamie Oleksiak got just enough of Auston Matthews’ one-time shot to deflect it wide of the mark to keep the score at 1-0 Dallas through 20 minutes.

Second Period

On the opening shift of the middle frame, the Stars took advantage of a missed assignment by Auston Matthews after a Tyson Barrie pinch.

The initial support was there, but Matthews didn’t identify the developing situation quickly enough and got beat up the ice by Radek Faksa. The five-hole remained the target for the Stars when in alone on Andersen.

As Toronto’s game continued to stagnate offensively, Kyle Clifford dropped the gloves for his first fight as a Maple Leaf and successfully turned the momentum of the game.

Clifford likely knew a fight was in the air tonight based on his interactions during warmup, and he found a willing combatant in Jamie Oleksiak.  The Leafs responded immediately as they turned up the pressure and generated a number of great looks offensively after Sheldon Keefe reunited the Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander line:

After a few minutes of relentless pressure in the offensive zone turned into a drawn penalty, Toronto took full advantage of their first power play of the game:

What else can be said about Matthews’ release at this point? His ability to hide his tells — he’s looking away from the goaltender until the last instant, while deceiving with his body language and footwork — had Bishop unable to read where this shot was going as he buried it around the shot blocker into the far side.

Late in the period, Mitch Marner took a debatable penalty after a long shift spent hemmed in his own end. Kapanen undid the damage with this great effort shorthanded:

On the ensuing four-on-four play, the Leafs created the better looks and nearly squared the game before the end of the second period.

Third Period

The first minute and a half of the period again sunk the Leafs in the third, as a John Tavares tripping penalty put the Leafs down a man. While Toronto won the initial draw, Justin Holl lost the puck battle and the Leafs’ PK unit didn’t fully get set before the puck was in the back of their net:

After grabbing the insurance marker, the Stars were in full trap mode through neutral ice, rarely brought numbers into their attack, and were largely content to clear and change while leaning on their defensive structure and Ben Bishop in goal. There were still some glorious looks for the Leafs when they managed to break through:

On a rare Stars counterattack following a Leafs turnover, Andersen came up with a big breakaway save and Toronto nearly closed the gap immediately after.

The Leafs showed a good amount of hunger and intent in their late push, including Auston Matthews throwing his weight around:

With the goalie pulled, the Leafs survived a few long-distance shots at the empty net from the Stars off of broken plays in the offensive zone before they pulled within one with a minute and change remaining.

Zach Hyman’s excellent offensive form continued thanks to some more great net-front play and lack of quit until the whistle. After his initial screen had Bishop lost on where the puck was, Hyman forced it loose from under the pad and buried his 17th goal of the season.

The Leafs tried their luck again in the final minute of regulation but were unable to solve Ben Bishop a third time despite a couple of scramble plays around the net.

Post-Game Notes

with notes from Alec Brownscombe

  • This was Frederik Andersen‘s first start since his injury last week, and he looked rusty — not overly sharp in his reads or rebound control, and you’d like a save on at least one of the two five-hole finishes by the Stars. At the end of the night, he gave up three goals on just 18 shots. Sheldon Keefe was quick to mention the team made it too challenging on him by giving up a clear-cut chance on his first shot of the game; fair enough, and probably a wise answer given the media’s desire to brew up a goalie controversy in this market, but the Leafs needed one more save than they got tonight. The reality of the back-to-back this weekend means the Leafs will be splitting the starts anyway, so Andersen really needs a solid showing vs. Ottawa (presumably) to quell the upswell of question marks surrounding his recent play. There is something to be said for the fact that it’s hard to win games when you score just twice, but the Leafs probably played well enough to at least earn a point tonight.
  • Sheldon Keefe tried out the loaded Auston Matthews line again, and while it created some solid zone time, it wasn’t able to generate much of note before Keefe reverted to the Hyman – Matthews – Marner / Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander lines in the second period. Matthews himself had an excellent game at both ends of the ice basically from start to finish, with only the one blemish on the 2-0 Dallas goal early in the second. He finished the night with an impressive 70.21 CF%, a 71.43 FF%, a 56.94 xGF%, a 71.43SCF%, and a 76.92 HDCF% at even strength. Additionally, Matthews hit his inevitable career-high in goals with his 41st of the year and even mixed it up physically late on. His leadership by example has been unimpeachable so far down the stretch.
  • Beyond Matthews, though — and with credit to the Leafs’ refusal to go away at 3-1, as they generated a credible push late on — there wasn’t enough happening for the Leafs offensively for much of the game without Matthews on the ice, partly because playing from behind against a defensive Stars team is a bad recipe for generating offense. Matthews, Nylander and Marner was a worthwhile experiment and a combination to keep in mind for later, but it seems likely Keefe will go back to Matthews – Marner / Tavares – Nylander this weekend. Kerfoot – Tavares – Hyman gave the Leafs a couple of really good games and Matthews is dominant no matter who he plays with; however, it feels like Tavares could use Nylander more than Matthews needs both Marner and Nylander right now.
  • On the topic of balance, ice time distribution will be interesting to watch in the back-to-back this weekend after the Leafs burned out in the third period against Montreal last Saturday. Tonight, Matthews played over 27 minutes (a career-high) in a game with limited power-play time, while Marner was over 26 minutes. When the Leafs picked up some momentum off of the Kyle Clifford fight and scored their power-play goal, Keefe was as aggressive as we’ve ever seen him (which is saying something) about getting Matthews on the ice to maintain that momentum, giving him all of a 30-second breather after the power-play goal and then maximizing his minutes with double shifts after TV timeouts. Matthews and Marner also played the entire three-plus minutes with the goalie pulled.
  • Another player who gave the Leafs really good minutes in this game was Kasperi Kapanen. He was a real threat on the penalty kill, and he created space in a game where space was at a premium, stretching the Stars defense throughout the night, including a couple of great rushes with the puck.
  • In his recent notebook, Anthony Petrielli made note of the Leafs starting a different defense pairing than their usual — instead of Muzzin-Holl, it was Dermott-Barrie — and how it led to a goal against the Muzzin – Holl pairing on the second shift of the game against Arizona. The same thing happened tonight. It will be interesting to see what Keefe does to start the game vs. Ottawa.
  • The injury bug will not go away: Sheldon Keefe reported after the game that Andreas Johnsson‘s knee injury isn’t going to be short-term. Suddenly, there is an opening in the Leafs’ middle-six. Maybe they try to move Pontus Aberg up the lineup and insert Dmytro Timashov or Frederik Gauthier, maybe Kyle Dubas looks to the Marlies (Petan, Korshkov, Agostino, Marchment), or maybe he adds another item to his shopping list ahead of February 24. In any event, Dubas’ plate just got even fuller.

Clip Of The Night

Notable Stats

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Locations

Condensed Game