Auston Matthews, Maple leafs
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What started as a comfortable lead turned dicey before the Maple Leafs leaned on an Auston Matthews hat trick to beat the Seattle Kraken 6-4 on Tuesday night in Toronto.

As far as the divisional race is concerned, the Maple Leafs couldn’t afford to lose this one after dropping games to Vancouver, Montreal, and Buffalo in the last couple of weeks. They were able to get the win, although it wasn’t always pretty.

Sometimes it helps to have multiple superstars when your opponent has none.

Your game in 10:

1.  The Maple Leafs have been looking to get the power play going again, and tonight represented a step in the right direction. While they boasted the NHL’s best man-advantage entering tonight, it hadn’t scored in seven before striking off the rush against Vancouver on Saturday, and then it went zero-for-one in Columbus.

Against the Kraken, the Leafs scored three times in six attempts, with the first strike coming at the start of the game. A crisp cross-seam pass from William Nylander to Auston Matthews set up the opening tally of the game:

The second PPG was a soft one allowed by Seattle goalie Philipp Grubauer to Nylander, who beat him five-hole with not much of a screen provided at the tail-end of what had been a Leafs five-on-three:

The final PPG will be discussed more at the end of the piece, but it was a step in the right direction for Toronto’s power play, which moved the puck well — and was helped by poor goaltending in the opposition net.

2.  The first period was a very strong one for TJ Brodie, which set the tone for a night in which he really shined. Brodie showcased his passing ability in that first period with a dagger pass from the defensive zone to the opposition blue line, hitting Pierre Engvall right on the tape and setting up John Tavares for a breakaway chance, which he converted on:

Is that TJ Brodie, or Patrick Mahomes? Brodie also collected a primary assist on the Nylander PPG, and he has quietly amassed seven points in his last 11 games.

Brodie led the Leafs in TOI tonight by nearly a full two minutes, logging heavy time alongside Justin Holl tonight in the closing minutes with the lead. To their credit, that pair was stellar. Both finished at ~76% xGF% at 5v5 tonight, and the scoring chance/high-danger chance data was also really strong. The ice was tilted in Toronto’s favor with Brodie and Holl out there.

3.  The goal from John Tavares was his first at even strength since Jan. 29 against Detroit. He broke the goal-scoring drought on Saturday on the PP, but it was nice to see him finally crack through at 5v5.

Despite all the talk about the struggles of the second line, Tavares still has 14 points in his last 15 games counting tonight’s 1-1-2 line. There still need to be some changes made to that line (unless Nick Robertson really pulls through), but keeping things in perspective on a talent like Tavares is important. Even when he is slumping, he is still a mighty fine hockey player. Hopefully, two goals in his last three are positive movements toward breaking out of the slump.

One note on Robertson: I thought he was too timid to shoot the puck tonight. He was on the second power-play unit again tonight and he passed up the chance to shoot through a screen at one point that had me frustrated. Robertson seems to be focusing on the team-based aspects of the game (passing, defensive play) — which is understandable — but I’d like to see him be a bit more greedy, especially with the shot he possesses.

4.  The second period presented plenty of lowlights for the Maple Leafs as a defensive unit. Goaltending merits discussion in the first and third periods, but sandwiched in between was a very poor effort in the second that left Jack Campbell out to dry. The first goal was a rough one from the third pair of Travis Dermott and Ilya Lyubushkin — a bit of a comedown for a partnership that had posted strong underlying numbers in some of the preceding games.

Lyubushkin, in particular, ran into trouble on this play, stepping up in the offensive zone only to hammer a shot into bodies and then moving up in the neutral zone to pressure Jordan Eberle, a play that accomplishes nothing as Eberle makes an uninhibited pass. Since Lyubushkin stepped up on Eberle, he was too late to cover a streaking Alex Wennberg.

Dermott did the right thing in laying out to stop the pass, but he couldn’t get all of it, and the tardy Lyubushkin watched as Wennberg tapped in the easy goal.

Lyubushkin and Dermott graded out as the worst pair for the Leafs analytically, and you wonder if one will be bumped back out of the lineup when Rasmus Sandin returns.

The second goal allowed in the period was a shorty. William Nylander‘s brain went missing on a terrible pass after entering the zone, creating a potential odd-man rush against, and then Morgan Rielly appeared to try to do as little as possible to stop the Kraken from scoring. He neither pressured the puck carrier nor obstructed the pass across, creating a virtual 2v0.

After not allowing a shorthanded goal until the end of February, the Leafs have conceded two in eight days.

5.  Another line that deserves recognition is the checking unit of Ilya Mikheyev, David Kampf, and Pierre Engvall. Only Engvall showed up on the score sheet (the primary assist on the Tavares goal), but this line was what it has been all season when put together: a fast, aggressive unit that controls play.

They logged 7:22 TOI at 5v5 tonight and scoring chances were 6-2 for the Leafs, with the shot attempts finishing at 8-4. Keefe must keep these three together when they’re playing like this. Amid a slumping second line and a fourth line still looking to find more oomph, the checking line is clearly Toronto’s second-best right now, and that continued versus the Kraken.

6.  Now is a decent time to talk about Jack Campbell. The numbers are not kind to Campbell (again) — .867 SV% and Natural Stat Trick had him at -2.12 GSAx — but I thought the eye test cut him a bit of slack.

Those two goals mentioned in the previous point are ones that we can’t expect the goalie to stop. The other two are a bit murkier, with the “floating shot through bodies” continuing to be Toronto’s kryptonite. It struck for the fourth Kraken goal:

I think it can be simultaneously true that deflections are difficult for a goalie but also that the Leafs need their goalies to make a few more saves on deflections. The first goal, from possible trade target Carson Soucy, was a very nice shot off of a rebound that never got through to Campbell:

I’m not a goalie scout, but I think that between those two goals, you’d like Campbell to stop one of them. This wasn’t November Campbell, but it also wasn’t Full Meltdown Campbell, which at this point in the season is a win.

It’s probably best to go back to Petr Mrazek on Thursday, but it was still a step back towards composure from Campbell, as low of a bar as that is.

7.  When it came time to tie the game up in the third period, the Leafs turned to the services of their top line. Some have complained about Toronto turning into a one-line team as of late, and while it’s true they need the Tavares line to shape up, if you could pick any line in the NHL to be your “one line,” it would probably be this one.

All three of Auston MatthewsMichael Bunting, and Mitch Marner were involved in this beauty:

Those three have now combined for 20 goals in their last eight games, including four in this one. The top line played 11:21 at 5v5 tonight and shot attempts were 17-5, scoring chances were 9-3, high danger chances were 4-1, and they owned 81.9% of the xG.

They are fast, skilled, and deadly; the hockey equivalent of a chainsaw, one that no defense in the league has an answer for.

8.  Shortly after the Matthews goal tied it, the checking line drew a penalty and Mitch Marner wasted no time on the ensuing power play to give the Leafs the lead back, combining a silky toe drag to give him space around Joonas Donskoi with an accurate shot to beat Grubauer five-hole:

Marner finished the night with a goal and an assist. He’s now played 41 games since the dreadful start to the season (one point in seven games), and his production in that half-season sample is staggering: 23 goals and 38 assists for 61 points. His 1.49 points per game since October 27th ranks first in the NHL over that span, and the Leafs are 31-9-1 in those 41 games.

Marner has a legitimate shot to hit the 90-point plateau despite missing nine games and being MIA for the first seven games of the season. What he’s done since the end of October offensively, despite injury and COVID, is the best stretch of Marner’s career, scoring goals at a career-best pace and breaking games open through his passing.

This is a dominant offensive player who still brings defense and the penalty killing as a key cog on one of the league’s best lines. In other words:

9.  It feels wrong not to devote a point to Auston Matthews himself since he had a hat trick in this game. Leafs Nation has rallied around Matthews’ Hart Trophy case, and with each new game he dominates, that case only grows stronger.

Comparing a forward to a goalie is difficult when we discuss Matthews vs. Shesterkin, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Matthews is the best forward in the NHL right now. He has now scored 36 goals in his last 37 games (!) and 10 in his last eight. 

Returning to that stretch I talked about in the point on Marner, here is Matthews’ stat line since October 27: 42 goals and 32 assists for 74 points in 50 games. Over an 82 game season, that would be a 69-52-121 pace. Silly stuff.

Even if you want to include the fact he got off to a slow start because of the wrist surgery, Matthews is now fourth in the league in points this season with 75, just four back of Connor McDavid for the lead. When you remember that he plays vastly better defense than the three players in front of him (McDavid/Draisaitl/Huberdeau), the picture becomes clearer: best forward in the NHL.

10.  Last but not least, it’s time to shout out Wayne Simmons, who received his silver stick for playing his 1,000th NHL game before tonight’s contest. He reached 1,000 over the weekend, but tonight was the ceremony and it was a great occasion.

It was awesome to see Wayne’s family out on the ice and the messages from past teammates, as well as the legendary Willie O’Ree. On the ice, Simmons came very close to scoring after a great steal and pass by Alex Kerfoot, but Grubauer was able to deny the gritty veteran. He may have come up empty on the stat sheet, but Wayne was a goalscorer in our hearts tonight.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 6 vs. Kraken 4