Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After a chaotic Saturday night in Detroit, the Maple Leafs got the steady goaltending performance and the strong team effort on the road they were looking for in Washington on Monday night.

Despite losing the special teams battle 2-0 (one shorthanded goal against — their first of the season — and a power-play goal against), the Leafs generally controlled the game and earned the edge at five-on-five and four-on-four en route to a satisfying 5-3 victory.

Your game in 10:

1.  I really liked how the Leafs immediately responded to the adverse moments in this game. We’ll talk about the third line’s response after the 1-1 goal in a minute, but after Tom Wilson’s 3-2 goal, the top line went right over the boards and produced a really impressive shift.

Auston Matthews charged into the offensive zone and bowled Nic Dowd off the puck, Mitch Marner even threw in a little cross-check, Michael Bunting won a few puck battles, Rasmus Sandin took some punishment pinching in to extend the cycle, and Matthews threw his weight around a bit a few more times during the offensive-zone sequence. No shots on goal came out of it, but it was a true workmanlike shift from the top line; the kind of shift that sets the tone for the rest of the lines when it’s the likes of Matthews and Marner leading the way.

2.  With the game tied at 3-3 and the Capitals desperate for points amid a bad stretch of form, they really ramped up the physical factor for a few shifts in the third period, which is in keeping with Washington’s identity. John Tavares got thrown to the ice by Tom Wilson after a whistle (no response from his linemates) on the same shift Wilson ran over Ilya Lyubushkin, and Garnet Hathaway then buried Morgan Rielly along the wall on the next shift.

These are leaders on the Leafs getting run over, and the Capitals were briefly succeeding at turning the game into a choppy affair played at their preferred tempo. It was good to see Wayne Simmonds come up with a response by going after TJ Oshie with five minutes left in the third period.

We all know the Leafs — aside from the odd Bunting exploit — aren’t going to be the instigators in this aspect of the game, but at a minimum, it’s necessary to have some form of pushback. It’s also clear that if the Leafs can get a power play or even two minutes of four-on-four action out of the antics that follow, it plays to their strengths as a team and hurts the other side where it really counts, as it did tonight for the game-winning goal at four-on-four.

3.  I thought this was one of the better showings we’ve seen from John Tavares’ line amid an inconsistent stretch of games.

They generated some dominant shifts where they got pucks in deep, won battles, started cycles, and really built their offense from below the goal line and out, which plays to Tavares’ strengths. As Anthony’s article detailed earlier today, the issue with the chemistry of this line is often that Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander like a fast game off the rush that doesn’t play so much to Tavares’ strengths, but when they’re using their speed to recover pucks, buzz around the offensive zone, and cycle, it allows Tavares to set up in his office down low and around the net more often.

Tavares set up the 2-1 goal by Nylander from there after beating his man on the wall. The line nearly won the game for the Leafs with six minutes and change left in the third period on a similar play from the goal line after an extended cycle, this time with Tavares setting up Kerfoot in the slot.

They did get caught out there for one goal against and came out of the game even at 5v5 statistically, but the eye test and the possession numbers liked their game tonight.

4.   In our glimpses of it so far, I’ve really liked the looks of the third line when it has both Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall on it. With David Kampf in the middle, it’s three players with plenty of pace and length to their game, and it’s hard for the opposition to break out clean and get through the neutral zone against them with their defensive awareness and ability to get back on top of the opposition so quickly. They are able to transition fast the other way, where it can be a handful to break the cycle against them in the offensive zone. Kampf also most often has his line starting with the puck with his ability in the faceoff circle.

The third line led the Leafs tonight with a 72% possession share and an even more lopsided share of the expected goals (78%).

5.  After the 1-1 goal, Keefe went to his third line — well, not straight to them, as there was a strange interlude where the linesmen contradicted each other on an icing by the Leafs’ fourth line and needed to reset the draw at center ice. After that, though, a good offensive-zone shift from this line set up the top line to come over the boards next, which is exactly the kind of response you’re looking for from an energy line after a goal against.

In the larger sample (although it’s still not particularly significant), Engvall – Kampf – Mikheyev is a 69.5% Corsi For and a 74% Expected Goals For in 68 minutes of 5v5 ice time.

6.  A trustworthy third line helps Sheldon Keefe balance the ice time and roll the lines a little more at 5v5, especially in a situation where he is without the last change on the road. All of the Leafs’ top nine forwards fell in between 11:16 and 13:46 tonight except Engvall (10:30) and Bunting (14:13) — a tighter distribution than we’re used to seeing in seasons past. It’s worth noting that Marner’s even-strength ice time is down nearly two full minutes per game this season (Matthews’ is down 45 seconds/game).

I wrote before the season that the addition of David Kampf could help Keefe shave down some of their minutes, preserving them a little more and making the Leafs a little more balanced of a team overall. It’s not just about shaving their minutes but doing it in an optimal way — in other words, reducing their workload a little bit without detracting from their level of offensive opportunity. That’s precisely what is happening.

Marner and Matthews’ defensive zone starts per 60 have fallen notably from 9.6 and 8.3 in 2020-21 to 6.6 and 6.3, respectively, in 2021-22. Their offensive zone starts per 60 have risen from 11.6 and 11.0 in 2020-21 to 13.7 and 11.7, respectively, in 2021-22.

It’s not as though Kampf is a matchup shutdown center — he wasn’t expected to be, and the ice-time distribution such a role would entail would make no sense for a team with $22+ million invested in the two centers inside of its top six. But giving Keefe an additional center he can trust to spot in for defensive zone starts (Kampf is bottom of the league in offensive-zone start percentage, minimum 500 minutes played) has helped to optimize the forward group and balance the minutes out more reasonably.

7.  Petr Mrazek didn’t have to be spectacular tonight (just seven high-danger chances and 1.32 expected goals for the Capitals at 5v5), but he stopped 30 of 33 and gave the Leafs a chance to win. I didn’t think any of the goals against were on him — one was a tough deflection right in front of him, one was a perfect redirect in the slot on the power play, and another was Tom Wilson picking his spot at the far post as a right shot positioned just inside the left faceoff dot on a shorthanded rush.

You’ll take that netminding performance right now if you’re the Leafs. It’s fair to erase the two goals he allowed versus the Red Wings from the memory bank — it was an impossible position for him to be in — and call it two solid games in a row from Mrazek versus Minnesota and Washington. I’d go back to him on Wednesday to see if he can continue building momentum.

8.  A second game for Justin Holl next to TJ Brodie, and another excellent performance.

Holl is doing a better job of keeping attackers in front of him — and when one nearly got past him early in the game, he disrupted the rush chance nicely with his reach. He’s also executing the simple plays well. Coming out of the healthy scratches, it’s impressive to see the confidence offensively as he’s rattled off five points in two games.

It was a good read of the situation to bring extra numbers to the net-front with no time left on the clock, leading to his 3-1 goal at the end of the first period. It was also a heads-up play by him to take a beat and pick out Rasmus Sandin for the game-winner at four-on-four late in the third period.

We can’t declare that he’s out of the woods yet after just two games, but this is exactly what the Leafs needed after the Jake Muzzin injury (and general uncertainty on their bottom pairings): Ilya Lyubushkin generally settling in well, and the team starting to actualize the internal-improvement opportunity provided by Holl remembering how to play hockey again.

Timothy Liljegren next to Morgan Rielly isn’t the long-term solution, and the Leafs are starting to look for additions in the defense market with Muzzin’s status so up in the air. But the new pairings we’ve seen tried out in these past few games — splitting up Brodie and Rielly, their two most consistent defensemen this season — has helped to stabilize things overall and collect some valuable data about the different options on the blue line.

9.  By the way, any contextual factors you might be able to point to in terms of usage, deployment, or on-ice save percentage fall well short of explaining a gap this big when comparing Justin Holl with vs. without Jake Muzzin:

Justin Holl w/Jake Muzzin437:18172441.4650.3549.1253.61
Justin Holl w/o Jake Muzzin282:5821872.4156.6253.9257.62


10.  Nick Robertson’s stat line tonight:


In light of Dubas’ quote about leaving Robertson down to dominate the AHL and force their hand on a callup, this is coming off as strange.

Initially, it seemed like it was perhaps an acknowledgment of all of his hard work recovering from injury and hitting the ground running again with the Marlies.

Or maybe they thought there was a good chance multiple players, including potentially Tavares, were going to miss out on one of these games with the nagging illness working through the team, which might have shuffled things around enough to afford him a real opportunity on a scoring line for a game or two.

Maybe they’re saving those remaining available days on the NHL roster for the temporarily waiver-exempt Brett Seney and Joey Anderson (both cleared waivers in October), both of whom have been highly productive for the Marlies and are perfectly fine options for limited minutes on a fourth line.

Maybe they’re seeing Jason Spezza’s even-strength production crater this season and are wanting to give him some offensive skill to play with on the fourth line.

Who knows? But so far this just seems like the inferior option in terms of his development objectives compared to big all-situations minutes on the Marlies.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 5 vs. Capitals 3