That was one of the most entertaining Leafs games I’ve covered.
After two periods, the scoring chances were 30-13 Toronto, yet the score was 2-1 Winnipeg. Connor Hellebuyck was again having one of Those Nights.
The Leafs ended up finally scoring again in the third period, took the lead, lost it, then a crazy play in overtime somehow led to an Auston Matthews breakaway. It was madness, but it was beautiful.
To help wrap my head around things, let’s go through each player. It’s time for some report cards!
Game Puck: William Nylander (LW, #88) — Everyone’s been saying it, so I might as well join the choir: William Nylander just played his best game of the season.
Keefe on Nylander:
"He just looked determined. Determined to score goals, determined to make a difference. Starts the game with a blocked shot in the lane. That's what we've been asking guys to do, is step out of character a little bit, and deliver on what the game calls for" https://t.co/r2KSacIji8
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) March 12, 2021
That sums it up pretty well. After starting his first shift like that, Nylander was flying the rest of the game, using his speed to make dangerous plays off the rush. He officially ended the game with six “scoring chances” (shots from the slot), although he created a few more with his passing.
It felt like one of those nights where Hellebuyck was destined to stop every single Grade-A chance Nylander fired his way. Then John Tavares made his best play of the season.
You could hear the emotion after Nylander scored that one. Pretty cool moment for him.
Mitch Marner (RW, #16) — Matthews’ wrist injury has forced Marner to carry more of the load offensively. This is three games in a row now where Marner has generated five shots on goal.
He’s obviously looking to shoot the puck more often, but that didn’t stop him from pulling off creative passes most players wouldn’t even think of trying. Here’s a quick example.
If you ever got a chance to watch Marner when he was on the London Knights, tonight’s game had a lot of flashback moments. He looked dangerous offensively as a penalty killer; he was connecting on east-west passes in the OZ; he even stepped up defensively in 3-on-3.
Auston Matthews (C, #34) — We all know he’s playing through some pain right now in his wrist, which has really impacted his ability to get much power on his shot. Despite all that, he still managed to generate seven chances from the slot.
His last one was the sweetest.
His wrist looks fine to me!
John Tavares (C, #91) — That’s right, we’re giving each of The Big Four some big-time praise tonight. Tavares was absolutely buzzing in the third period, making high-skill plays with the puck on his stick. The most obvious example is his coast-to-coast assist on the Nylander goal, deking his way into the slot before whipping a cross-ice pass to the snakebitten Swede.
Morgan Rielly (LD, #44) — There are times he can drive me insane (i.e. giving up odd-man rushes unnecessarily). Then there are nights where he absolutely takes over the game as a puck carrier, dictating play in transition as the fourth forward. This was one of those nights.
When the Leafs get everyone moving around in the offensive zone, that’s where Rielly’s skillset really shows up. For example, he beat his man down the wall and behind the net at one point, then feathered a backhand pass into the slot for a scoring chance.
When Rielly was on the ice, the Leafs generated 20 scoring chances and gave up 6. The pros heavily outweighed the cons, including that bizarre 3-on-3 sequence.
Zach Hyman (RW, #11) — For a while there, I thought Hyman was going to end up with the Game Puck again. It felt like he was winning every battle to help his team regain puck possession. That was most noticeable on Marner’s rebound goal, where Hyman stripped Neal Pionk right behind the net.
Unfortunately, Hyman didn’t register a point tonight. I wonder if that will impact his camp’s latest negotiations
with Darren Dreger sorry I mean the Maple Leafs.
TJ Brodie (RD, #78) — He helped create a few dangerous chances with a simple, subtle play. That’s pretty much TJ Brodie for you; simple but effective.
He pulled off a great slip pass in the defensive zone to start the breakout, eventually leading to Jimmy Vesey’s best (and only) chance of the game. Brodie also made a great play off the right wall at the blueline to keep the puck in and get a shot through traffic, which landed on Marner’s stick for an easy goal.
Coaching Staff — It can’t go much better than that. After Thornton-Matthews-Marner wasn’t clicking to start the game, Sheldon Keefe moved Hyman up to the top line. The ripple effect was a top nine that looked like this:
Those lines worked.
I’m not sure how viable that third line would be across a larger sample, but it was nice to see the Leafs test out Thornton on that Tavares-Nylander line. It looked like a good fit to me — certainly worth another game or two to test out.
The Kerfoot-Engvall-Mikheyev Line — I’ve thought of this combination a lot whenever I’m playing around with the Leafs’ forward lines, brainstorming ways to optimize the lineup. This is what you’re left with when you put Hyman in the top six, and frankly, this version of the third line scares me.
But they played really well in this game.
That’s Pierre Engvall forcing the turnover and Alex Kerfoot passing it out front to Ilya Mikheyev, who actually finished for once. Looks like he might finally start turning some of those xGs into Gs.
As a whole, this line was defensively responsible, effective in transition, and even found a way to create some chances offensively. Is it a third line you’d feel comfortable with going into Game 1 of the playoffs? Probably not, but they got the job done tonight.
Joe Thornton (LW, #97) — Earlier in the game, he had a couple of rebound chances alongside Matthews and Marner. On the power play, Thornton made a great play at the blue line to keep the puck in and quickly pass the puck to Marner, so he could find Matthews backdoor. Surprise surprise, Hellebuyck made the save.
The biggest takeaway from tonight’s game for Thornton is that he fit in comfortably alongside Tavares-Nylander, although they were clearly the ones driving the bus.
The Muzzin-Holl Pair — Let me get this out of the way: that 2-on-1 Nik Ehlers goal wasn’t Justin Holl‘s fault. His forward needs to cover for him there. What’s funny is that Holl was responsible for a different 2-on-1 later in the game, when he arrived late to the bench and Brodie couldn’t hop over the boards in time to get back.
Aside from that, Holl had a pretty quiet but efficient game. Jake Muzzin could’ve done a much better job defending that 2-on-1 pass on the Ehlers goal, but the rest of his game was solid. Specifically, Muzzin made a few really smart pinches in the offensive zone to help his team maintain puck possession.
Frederik Andersen (G, #31) — Sometimes I feel bad for The Other Goalie on nights like these. Hellebuyck was outstanding, so obviously a “decent” performance like Andersen’s is going to pale in comparison.
Ehlers was the superior Danish hockey player tonight, beating Andersen twice with the help of some pre-shot movement. That said, let’s keep in mind that Toronto’s goaltender made a few big saves in this game.
He wasn’t Hellebuyck tonight, but something tells me we’ve been underrating Andersen’s performance lately (myself included).
The Bottom Five — By this I mean the bottom pair (Dermott-Bogosian) and the fourth line (Agostino-Spezza-Vesey). The coaching staff, rightly, shortened the bench as the game progressed, with his Top nine buzzing.
Let’s quickly go through each player:
- Kenny Agostino: The poor guy only played 4 minutes in his debut and barely touched the puck, but at least he went hard to the net?
- Jason Spezza: Despite leading the team in 5v5 Points per 60 (and 5v4 Points Per 60), he wasn’t able to create much offensively tonight other than a nice drop-pass to…
- Jimmy Vesey: Who made a great play to drive the net on that rush chance. Then this happened:
As the third forward in the offensive zone (F3), Vesey needs to cover for Holl there. Keefe agrees — he benched him after that goal.
- Zach Bogosian: Had a pretty quiet night all things considered, but my biggest frustration is that he took an unnecessary penalty with 12 minutes left in a tie game, right after the Nylander goal. Whether or not you believe in momentum, that’s not a good time to be going on the PK.
- Travis Dermott: We’re all thinking about it, so we might as well show the clip.
That’s a great play by Pierre Luc Dubois to bat the puck out of the air, but Dermott needs to be smarter there. It’s worth noting he started to play better in the third period, earning himself a shift with Rielly late in a tie game.
Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
Believe it or not, the Leafs out-chanced the Jets in this game! The final tally was 38-17 in Toronto’s favour at 5v5, or a “nice” 69% scoring chance share if that’s more your thing.
Tweets of the Night
The #leafs have more high-danger chances at evens through 40 minutes (12) than they've had in all but four total games this year.
Connor Hellebuyck, though.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 12, 2021
Would you say he’s a juggernaut?
Jets are very good defensively if you count Hellebuyck as the defense.
— Garret Hohl (@GarretHohl) March 12, 2021
If you don’t count Hellebuyck, yikes.
Leafs are getting hellafucked right now https://t.co/l6xM0LL4Gq
— Devin Sarges (@devin_sarges) March 12, 2021
This made me laugh out loud, apologies to any kids out there.
William Nylander had one of his best nights as a Leaf. Was dominant all game and stayed in the fight. Made the difference in the third.
— Jeff O’Neill (@odognine2) March 12, 2021
Looks like we’ve found ourselves a new Nylanderthal.