It wasn’t pretty or exciting, but the Maple Leafs finally got the goaltending and the defensive performance they needed while Auston Matthews took care of the rest against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night.
Your game in 10:
1. Offensively, this was pretty much the Auston Matthews show for the Leafs, without much else happening beneath the top line. The Columbus game was not dissimilar in that respect.
Matthews was brilliant in this game and showed what he is all about after he lost his man in coverage puck watching a bit behind the net in the defensive zone for the Wild’s 1-0 goal. He immediately set about making up for the defensive lapse on the same shift.
First, he chased down a puck on the forecheck and tossed a defender off of it, which didn’t lead to anything right away. After a nice D-to-D quick-up by Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren, he then pulled off a brilliant solo effort and a vintage Matthews release — toe-dragged it around a defender’s stick, on and off the blade with such velocity despite almost no space to get the shot off. Special stuff.
No room is still too much room 🚀 pic.twitter.com/MqOFjUgQJZ
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 25, 2022
2. Defensively, Auston Matthews was a puck hound all night, stripping pucks repeatedly and getting his line back onto offense, where he, Mitch Marner, and Michael Bunting continue to sync up seamlessly. They are reading off of each other extremely well and can turn transition plays into dangerous scoring opportunities in a flash. Bunting’s ability to think the game and make plays at a high enough level to really play alongside these two continues to impress me.
The line has given the Leafs all four of their 5v5 goals in the last two games (Alex Kerfoot scored in a 5-on-6 situation; Jason Spezza in a 6-on-5 situation). In their matchup against the Minnesota top line with Kirill Kaprizov and company, they gave up just one shot on goal and three unblocked shot attempts at five-on-five. Matthews was completely dominant in the faceoff circle as well with 17 wins on 19 draws, including a six-for-six showing in the defensive zone.
Matthews was an MVP-level leader tonight at a time when the club needed it.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 25, 2022
3. Similar to the start against Columbus, the Leafs really did not play well in the first period — struggled to get through the neutral zone clean, with not nearly enough offensive-zone shifts and just five shots on goal — but they worked their way into the game and started to exert more control over the run of play in the second half of the 60 minutes. Some of their best segments came when they owned the puck even when up 2-1.
They got more saves along the way than they did against Columbus, and they gave up less off the rush — there was almost nothing of note for Minnesota in that department all game. It made for really boring hockey for most of the night; each team managed under 10 unblocked shot attempts apiece in each of the first two periods, which is abysmally low event.
The Leafs probably needed that kind of game: a defensive chess match, a good start from their goalie, no big mistakes leading to odd-man rushes and breakaways against, as well as solid structure without the puck. It was also more difficult for the Wild to gain access to the high-value real estate in front of the Leafs’ net than it had been for the opposition of late.
4. In order to get back on track, there was likely always going to be a bit of a course correction where the Leafs were a little more conservative and safe with the puck; i.e. where they might have tried to fit a pass through a lane when they’re really feeling it offensively, they’re cycling it deep rather than risk a turnover that might catch them out, kind of thing.
In addition to Minnesota playing the Leafs tight all night, it’s probably a natural part of finding your game after a tough stretch where every turnover seems to end up biting you at the other end of the ice and the coaching staff is stressing (even more than usual) puck management, staying above your man, and so on. But the team’s offense — with a fully healthy forward group right now — obviously needs to find another level.
5. In behind the top line, it remains a work in progress. It was a low-event game generally, so I don’t want to blow it out of proportion; plus, Ilya Mikheyev also left the game sick, throwing the lines into a jumble. But the bottom three lines mustered just 10 shots on goal between them, including zero for both Ondrej Kase and John Tavares, so there was not much to note about the other forward lines tonight.
It’s probably not a great game to judge Kase’s fit on Tavares’ wing, though, given they played just six and a half minutes together at 5v5 due to the line shuffling in Mikheyev’s absence.
6. William Nylander and John Tavares did get 11 and a half minutes together at 5v5, though, and it’s interesting that even as Sheldon Keefe works to shake things up among his middle six lines, he can’t bring himself to detach the two. I’ve never found their chemistry to be all that irresistible in their time together over the last few years.
If we look at their sample size dating all the way back to 2019-20, they’ve played over 1,400 5v5 minutes together and outscored the opposition just 69-67, and it’s obviously gotten worse this year as they’ve been outscored by five at evens.
On the one hand, I understand why Keefe looks at it and goes, “our team is built to have two elite forward lines, and an $18 million combination of a left-handed center and right-handed winger can surely figure this out together… and we sort of need it to if our team is going anywhere.”
Marner and Matthews’ numbers are off the charts and it is not a fair standard to ask of them — 109 goals for and 65 against from those two in the same period — but with the top line drawing the bulk of the matchup attention, is this really adding up to enough?
7. I am not sure where this Travis Dermott came from in these last few games, but he looks more assertive and confident with and without the puck, and he’s stepped up his physical game since re-entering the lineup. He’s getting in the way in the defensive zone with subtle picks and rub-outs, battling hard on pucks, and being generally harder to play against for attacking forwards. It would be nice if he could sustain it, but we’ve seen tantalizing flashes from Dermott before…
Dermott and Timothy Liljegren led the team in possession share with over 65% of the shot attempts. Overall, the Leafs’ defense pairs had a good night, and they were better set up for success by the forward group.
8. With both Justin Holl (scratched) and Jake Muzzin (LTIR) out tonight, I was curious to see how the defense minutes on the PK would shake out. Timothy Liljegren, paired with TJ Brodie, saw a huge spike in PK responsibility at nearly five minutes shorthanded in this game as the Leafs’ PK went four-for-four — a key to this win that should not go overlooked in a game where 5v5 offense was so hard to come by.
The Leafs would love for Holl to figure his game out at even-strength so they don’t have to lose him on the PK — it’s one area where he remains quite solid; he can get himself in shooting lanes (which he is good at), box out, and clear his lines without having to settle himself down and make a play with the puck, which is where he’s struggling this season.
The Leafs’ forward pairs led by Marner did a good job of disrupting things up ice and on the entries, but it’s impressive Dean Chynoweth felt comfortable enough to lean on the rookie defenseman that hard, and I liked how Liljegren cleared the sightlines for Mrazek in front, got his stick on a few pucks, and tied up sticks around the net. He honed that part of his game with the Marlies over the years to the point where he has stepped right into the league and is quite competent there.
9. It’s clear that Dean Chynoweth has given Ilya Lyubushkin encouragement to involve himself in the game offensively when the opportunity presents itself. He’s been more engaged on the offensive side of the puck than you might have expected. He jumped up a number of times in the Columbus game, including one play where Bunting almost found him at the backdoor for a goal. He wasn’t afraid to pinch in and get involved again tonight.
It’s definitely not always pretty with the puck on Lyubushkin’s stick, but he’s got some instincts for jumping in a little bit and he has the skating legs to do it and recover just fine. Are we going to see him suddenly produce more offense as a Leaf than he ever has in the league? Probably not — although it’s a low bar — but the team’s approach on offense demands five skaters be active that way, and he at least doesn’t look totally clueless about what to do or where to be in that area of the game so far.
10. You have to go back to Petr Mrazek right away if you’re Sheldon Keefe. They need to get a goalie in a groove as they try to settle their defense down here.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts