Auston Matthews hat trick, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

This is the best I’ve ever seen the Maple Leafs play.

Over this stretch of 15 wins in 17 games, we’ve seen Toronto decisively outplay some of the best teams in hockey: Tampa Bay, Boston, Calgary, and now Colorado.

The final score was 8-3 thanks to some shoddy goaltending from the Avalanche backup, Jonas Johansson, but the bigger story to me was the start-to-finish dominance from the Leafs at 5v5. Even with a multi-goal lead heading into the third period, Toronto kept their foot on the gas, continuing to pummel Colorado with a barrage of scoring chances.

Another key factor in this win was how well Toronto was able to handle Colorado’s speed in transition. They’re probably the most frightening team in the NHL off of the rush with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and company. As a five-man defensive unit, the Leafs did a great job of not getting beat behind for odd-man rushes against.

When they were forced to defend Colorado off of the cycle, Toronto demonstrated excellent structure and patience in the defensive zone, packing the slot with four or five blue jerseys. The shooting lanes disappeared quickly and there wasn’t any room for seam passes through the middle of the ice.

This was supposed to be a measuring stick game — and it was never really close. I can’t wait to break this one down in more detail, because we haven’t even touched on the Core Four’s offensive brilliance.

Are you ready for some Leafs Report Cards? I know I am.

5 Stars

Matthews-Marner Magic — If you ever get the chance to watch these two in warmup together, they’re always practicing quick little no-look passes to each other. They’ll practice them from random areas in the offensive zone, knowing there’s a chance one of them might pick up the puck in a weird spot and immediately want to find the other.

Well, tonight it was Mitch Marner finding Auston Matthews. Twice, Marner was able to get the puck to Matthews in wide open space near the crease, where he had time to out-wait the goaltender and deposit what looked like an easy goal. Matthews followed that up with a hat trick off the rush at 4v4, flying down the left wing and ringing one off the post and in with his patented curl-and-drag release.

With the way these two are able to play pitch and catch with each other in the offensive zone, my guess is we see them paired together for the rest of the season. As special as Matthews is individually, Marner’s passing helped take him to another level last season, scoring at a 65-goal pace.

As much as it pains me to suggest playing William Nylander in a second line role, he seems to be finding success alongside Toronto’s captain.

The Tavares-Nylander Chemistry — It’s so much fun watching John Tavares thread one-touch passes to William Nylander in the neutral zone and then it’s off to the races. Nylander has been Toronto’s most dangerous player off the rush this season, getting behind opposing defensemen with consistency at 5v5, but it certainly helps having an all-world passer sauce you into open ice.

We could go in a lot of different directions here, but let’s stick with the Tavares-Nylander synergy as a passing duo. Their skillsets mesh really well, with Nylander using his speed to fly up the ice in transition and Tavares finding open pockets in the defense without the puck to make himself available for the pass.

These two connected on a few telekinetic passes at 5v5, including a no-look feed from Nylander below the goal line, but my favourite read-and-react play actually came at 5v4.

Good luck stopping that in real-time. The best offensive players know how to play off of each other, which is something Tavares-Nylander appear to be getting even better at these days.

It’s also worth pointing out that Tavares continues to dominate as a net-front presence, deflecting point shots and hacking away at rebounds. That’s how he picked up his 11th goal of the season. He also added two assists in this game, bringing him to a total of 25 points in 23 games.

Point per game John Tavares appears to be back in fine form. Don’t blink, but William Nylander is almost a PPG player too with 23 points in 24 games. Good thing they didn’t trade him away for a second-pairing defenseman.

The Complementary Wingers — It’s obvious when you’re playing alongside two star players that your job isn’t to be The Guy. You have to do all the little things that help make the stars’ lives easier: Forechecking, backchecking, completing simple passes to get them the puck. A lot of the times it goes unnoticed, which is why I wanted to commend the efforts of Alex Kerfoot and Michael Bunting.

Bunting did pick up three assists, so it’s a little easier to appreciate his game. Let’s break those down real quick:

  1. He won a loose puck race on the forecheck prior to Matthews’ first goal.
  2. He got the puck to Marner out of the corner, who promptly fed Matthews in front for his second goal.
  3. He made a gorgeous chip pass off the boards to send Engvall off to the races for Toronto’s eighth goal of the game.

We’ve come to expect energy (and a bit of flopping) from Bunting, but his point production has been surprisingly stellar this season.

Kerfoot didn’t have quite as strong of a night offensively, but he was flying up the ice on the forecheck and made a noticeable impact on the penalty kill. His speed and passing ability in transition seems to be a nice fit with Nylander, so here’s hoping they can continue to make plays off the rush even after Kerfoot’s On-Ice Sh% regression inevitably kicks in.

4 Stars

The Rielly-Brodie “Shutdown” Pair — It’s not often you’ll hear me praise Morgan Rielly for his defensive play, but credit where credit’s due. He and TJ Brodie did an excellent job with their defensive-zone positioning to prevent chances off the cycle, clogging up the shooting and passing lanes.

You’ll notice I listed them as the shutdown pair tonight — because they were hard-matched to the MacKinnon line. Muzzin-Holl drew the Kadri line matchup and didn’t quite fare as well in those minutes, whereas Rielly-Brodie prevented one of the best lines in hockey from generating much offensively.

Now, defending the rush, I wouldn’t say it was a perfect game from Rielly defensively, but he didn’t get burned for an odd-man rush against, which is a plus when you’re up against MacKinnon. You never love watching a defenseman concede space to opposing forwards in transition, but Rielly’s “bend but don’t break” approach seemed to do the trick against a speedy Colorado team.

The Fourth Line — I’m not surprised that Jason Spezza picked up a point in this game. He’s generated slot passes at an elite rate this season and his luck appears to be turning around.

The same can be said for Wayne Simmonds, who’s turned back the clock and continuing to generate lots of chances from in tight. He’s been snakebitten for most of this season, which is why it was nice to see him pick up a primary assist on a deflection in front.

As a side note, does he look more skilled with the puck off the rush to anyone else?

His toe-drags per 60 have definitely gone way up since last season.

Last…and least, is Nick Ritchie. We’re running out of words for his zero goals in 24 games this season. He’s not a player who’s going to provide value with his defense or puck-transporting, so goals were the one thing we expected him to provide from in tight.

They haven’t come yet, despite everyone on the team desperately trying to feed him the puck in the third period. I have confidence they will eventually come — no one shoots zero percent all season (unless your name is Tobias Rieder).

The good news is that Ritchie is still getting chances, like his hard shot from the slot that led to a Simmonds deflection and a Spezza rebound goal. It’s also nice to see him connecting on passes from behind the net, which are high-percentage plays. I also liked seeing him finally use his size advantage on the forecheck when he ploughed Samuel Girard hard into the boards.

Then again, it feels like we’re moving the goal posts a bit here.

3 Stars

Jack Campbell (G, #36) — Why did that last goal have to go in? Campbell was rocking a .920-plus save percentage for the majority of the game before Kadri scored his second of the game, reminding us all that a former Leaf must score a late, meaningless goal in the third period.

For the most part, I thought Campbell did a great job fighting through screens and controlling his rebounds in this game. The one criticism I’d point to is him not reading the cross-ice pass on the Girard goal. He’s usually pretty quick to read seam passes before they happen (i.e. against Colorado’s power play), so that’s definitely one he’ll want back.

The Checking Line — I can’t exactly call them The Czeching Line anymore with Ondrej Kase out of the lineup, so this will have to do. As we mentioned earlier, Pierre Engvall joined in on the fun with a goal of his own off the rush.

In addition, Joey Anderson had a solid debut for Toronto. He was working his way to the net, drawing a penalty on strong net drive and also generating a nice rebound chance on a separate play.

Last but not least, David Kampf was providing some excellent support on the forecheck as the F2 or F3 higher in the zone. Defensively, he did get beat 1v1 by MacKinnon at the end of the first period on the Samuel Girard goal, but he also saved a goal by hooking Nazem Kadri, who was staring at an empty net after a rebound.

The Muzzin-Holl Pairing — I know Justin Holl was lying on the ground as Kadri scored his goal, but if you rewatch the play, it was actually solid defense. I’d argue that one was more on Matthews for not picking up Valeri Nichushkin, who came flying in for the rebound. Overall, I thought Holl did an excellent job defending the rush, although he did get beat on a 3v2 and was forced to take a penalty.

His partner, Jake Muzzin, looked…alright? He had a few key shot blocks and even jumped up offensively a couple times, but defensively, I’d like to see him defend the rush a bit better. That’s supposed to be his calling card.

2 Stars

Travis Dermott (RD, #23) — His Game Score is a bit inflated because of the lucky goal he scored. As I’m sure most readers will know, I’ve always believed in Travis Dermott, but I don’t believe in praising 0.02 xG point shots even if they somehow squeak past a goaltender.

His pairing was by far the weakest Leafs duo in this game, although that wasn’t squarely on him.

1 Star

Rasmus Sandin (LD, #38) — I love Rasmus Sandin and his elite passing ability with all my heart, but he clearly had an off-night. As a team, Toronto did a great job defending Colorado off of the rush. Sandin did not.

He allowed multiple odd-man rushes against, including a breakaway in the third period. Sandin also picked up a hooking penalty when he was unable to win a 1v1 battle against Landeskog in the corner. Coaches remember things like this, so he’ll need to improve in his play in the dirty areas of the DZ if he’s going to earn more minutes.

Heat Map

Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

The Colorado Avalanche broke every 5v5 record there was last season with respect to scoring chances and expected goals. They got crushed in that department tonight, with Toronto controlling 56 percent of the chances at 5v5 and 65 percent of the expected goals.

Talk about a statement game.

Game Score

Game score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to measure single-game performance. You can read more about it here.

That’s a lot of blue (and no red).

Tweets of the Night

“Don’t let the guy with the moustache get open.”

Got it!

This is from March 19th — and he wasn’t wrong.

This had nothing to do with tonight’s game, but it’s the most insightful podcast I’ve heard from an NHL player. Max Pacioretty really opens up about his time in Montreal, his injury on the Zdeno Chara hit, and his transition to Vegas.

My favourite part was when he broke down the importance of using positivity to get the most out of people in pro sports, which is definitely a piece of advice I know I should be applying to my life a bit more often.

Speaking of positivity, remember how much fun this sport can be when the pucks are going in?

Final Grade: A+