Rookie Erik Källgren pitched Toronto’s first shutout since New Year’s Day in his first NHL start, while a reinvigorated John Tavares tallied a goal and an assist as the Maple Leafs beat the Dallas Stars 4-0 on Tuesday night.

It was a game worth watching for Leafs fans tonight — not just because the home team picked up a convincing win, but also because it was a new-looking lineup: new forward lines without Auston Matthews in the fold, a new top pair, and a new goaltender making his first NHL start.

That combination of factors produced a much-needed victory as the Leafs allowed fewer than four goals for the first time in the month of March.

Your game in 10:

1.  We have to start with the story of the night: the performance of one Erik Källgren. In his first NHL start, the Swedish goalie stopped all 35 Dallas shots he faced and completed a shutout to earn his first win in the bigs.

Despite what the score may show, with only three combined goals scored before a net went empty, this was not a low-event slogfest. The Leafs‘ defense wasn’t terrible (in your author’s opinion), but Källgren still faced plenty of shots and chances.

The big story with Toronto’s goaltending analytically has been the disastrous 5v5 save percentage against scoring chances and high danger chances. Entering tonight, since the beginning of 2022, the Leafs‘ team 5v5 save percentage against scoring chances was an NHL worst .801, and the situation with high danger chances was even worse: an also NHL worst .729 (miles worse than second-worst, Seattle (.774)!!!!).

Tonight Källgren faced 29 scoring chances at 5v5, including 13 high danger chances at 5v5, and stopped them all. Just what the doctor ordered.

Källgren made a save on a 2-on-1 in the game’s early moments (one of only a few odd-man rushes conceded tonight), and that seemed to help him settle in. The highlight of the night was this stop on the snakebitten Radek Faksa:

Källgren’s positioning was excellent, tracking the puck well and knowing where he was in his crease. Deflections have been a major problem against Maple Leafs goalies in recent weeks, but Källgren had no problem against one of the great deflection artists in the league in Joe Pavelski.

If there’s one critique, it would be rebound control, as Källgren let a few too many harmless shots turn into juicy rebounds. He recovered well in all of those situations, though. The scoreboard doesn’t lie, also.

It’s often too easy to be hyperbolic about a rookie goalie’s first NHL start (remember Garret Sparks?), but Källgren gave the Leafs what they needed tonight. He has earned a chance to start against Carolina on Thursday.

2.  With superstar Auston Matthews out of the lineup due to the controversial suspension over his cross-check in the Heritage Classic, all eyes were on the changes in Sheldon Keefe’s lineup. John Tavares slid into the 1C role centering Matthews’ usual wingers, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting. That line didn’t seem to miss a step.

Sure, it hurt to not have the NHL’s best goalscorer, but what the Leafs got in Matthews’ absence from that line was a rejuvenated captain. Tavares played his best game since his heroics against Washington a couple of weeks ago, picking up a goal and an assist in the first period alone.

He scored his goal off of a deflection on a William Nylander shot while posting up in front of the net:

Tavares also had a nice pass to Ondrej Kaše on the power play that Jake Oettinger shut down and was far more noticeable throughout the game than he has been ordinarily in the last couple of months. The analytical result from his efforts? 2.41 xGF while on ice at 5v5 and more crucially, a stingy 0.24 xGA while on ice at 5v5. As a percentage, that’s 90.98%.

The Leafs have been looking for ways to get more out of their $11 M captain, and perhaps playing him with Marner and Bunting is the answer.

3.  The top line didn’t miss a beat, and neither did the third line, which just keeps humming along with ruthless efficiency. All three members of the line, Ilya MikheyevDavid Kämpf, and Pierre Engvall, owned at least 65% of the expected goals at 5v5 while on the ice tonight.

Though Mikheyev was able to net an empty-net goal, it is a testament to the goaltending in the opposing net that these three didn’t produce more goals. Engvall and Mikheyev were shut down on a 2-on-1 in the second period followed by a speedy Mikheyev rush down the wing that he was stoned on (Engvall couldn’t snare the rebound). The entire line also produced a couple of chances (Kämpf hit the post) in the game’s final minute.

These three have now played 133:16 together at 5v5 this season and have owned 68.9% of the expected goals, 66.7% of the scoring chances, and 64.3% of the high-danger chances while on ice. The Leafs may have a suddenly dominant checking line in their ranks.

4.  The other two lines didn’t grade out as well, although I thought the second line with William NylanderNick Robertson, and Alex Kerfoot had some moments.

Robertson put together a tenacious sequence on the forecheck while hounding his brother on Dallas, Jason:

Nylander also had a smart deflection that seemed destined for the back of the net until Jake Oettinger made a wicked glove stop:

Unfortunately, Nylander was also beaten defensively by Radek Faksa on the big Källgren save and the line didn’t seem to have a firm presence on ice, just appearing periodically in memorable moments. I would be very curious to see what this line could do with Auston Matthews centering it instead of Kerfoot.

5.  Sheldon Keefe said after the game that he is going to stick with the top pairing of Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lubushkin for another game. Many in the Maple Leafs community are applauding that idea, but interestingly, the analytics were not polite to those two at 5v5. Rielly and Lyubushkin were on ice for 1.32 and 1.78 expected goals against at 5v5 in just 15 and 14 minutes, respectively, in Evolving Hockey’s numbers. That’s … not ideal.

However, I think Leafs fans are not off-base in their assessment that the eye test was kinder than the numbers, and it’s worth getting a little bit larger of a sample.

Lyubushkin laid the boom in the neutral zone on this hit:

Rielly’s best moments came on the power play, first leading a coast-to-coast zone entry that set up a chance for Tavares, and then netting the primary assist in setting up Ondrej Kaše’s blast:

Rielly also helped dig the puck off the wall and made the first pass to Mikheyev on the empty netter, garnering two assists in the box score. Perhaps it was just those big moments tricking our eyes, but it didn’t feel like these two played as poorly as the advanced numbers suggest.

Lyubushkin and Rielly are definitely a fascinating pair to put together: Lyubushkin is an extremely productive defender at suppressing chances against, but he can’t drive play offensively at all, while Rielly is the exact opposite.

I’ve been intrigued about this possibility for a while, and I don’t think we got a definitive answer on whether this pairing can work or not tonight. I agree with giving it a second try on Thursday.

6.  The pair that was definitively terrific tonight was Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. It’s been a bit of time since these two were together, as Sandin dealt with an ailment that held him out of the lineup and Liljegren received a stint on the top pair, but the two young Swedes have been tremendous when together on the third pair all season long.

Tonight was a banner night for Sandin, personified by the game’s opening goal:

He began the play by tying up his man in the defensive end — allowing Liljegren to get the puck and lead a clean exit — and then he flew up ice, took the pass from Marner, and finished it on the backhand. Sandin later made a great pass diagonally across the offensive zone to set up Robertson with a good look. He was all over the place on the ice, creating offense with ease.

Liljegren was not quite as sharp, but I didn’t have major complaints with his game. Both owned >65% of the expected goals at 5v5.

There’s a lot of discussion about the Leafs trading for a defenseman at the trade deadline, but right now, I feel pretty confident that this could be a great third pairing regardless of what happens in the top four.

7.  It was a quiet night offensively from the TJ Brodie and Justin Holl pairing, but I thought they had another solid night. That group has been leaned on by Keefe to be Toronto’s shutdown pair since Jake Muzzin‘s second concussion, and I think there’s something to work with here. They are very steady defensively and have seemed a little more involved offensively when apart from their usual partners.

Holl, in particular, was Toronto’s best-performing defenseman at 5v5 according to xGF%, and I didn’t write down a single negative note about his game tonight. In fact, he saved a goal on the penalty kill:

I feel like it’s time that the fanbase needs to re-consider some of the narratives around Holl considering how much better he’s looked away from Muzzin. Since Muzzin’s first concussion took him out of games on January 18 (he’s played only six games since then), Justin Holl has flourished analytically: he’s owned 58.97% of the expected goals at 5v5 while on ice.

Perhaps more important for the problems that have plagued the Toronto defense recently, Holl has owned 64.23% of the high danger chances while on ice at 5v5. He has been really good lately, and the eye test backs that up. He looks much freer and more confident away from Jake Muzzin and is clearly playing his way into the Leafs’ playoff top four, in my opinion.

8.  It was another good night for the Toronto special teams. The Leafs went three-for-three on the penalty kill, continuing to pad the stats of one of the NHL’s best penalty-killing units. The first and third kills were very sharp, while the second one did cede some good looks, including a whopping seven shots.

Still, David Kämpf got himself a chance while short-handed, and no goals went in the back of the net — in part thanks to Erik Källgren, and also partly thanks to the Holl block mentioned in the previous point.

The power play only got two chances, but it managed to go one for two, with the Kaše blast coming in the final moments of the second opportunity. After tonight, the Leafs’ PP is now firing at 29.6%, best in the NHL, while the PK is succeeding at 84.5%, third in the NHL.

Play at 5v5 is very important since most of the game is played at that strength, but I think sometimes the analytics community has a tendency to underrate how important special teams can be (think about a good Florida team getting ripped apart by Tampa’s PP last playoffs). If nothing else, we can say the Leafs are not overlooking the special teams, and hopefully, the excellence of both units will pay dividends when it matters.

9.  We heard some rumors this afternoon about the Leafs looking at Tyler Motte as a trade deadline target, and I don’t think the fourth line tonight did much to change the idea that a bottom-six forward is something this team could use.

Wayne Simmonds didn’t suit up tonight (he was seen chowing down on popcorn, though), but the line of Ondrej KašeJason Spezza, and Kyle Clifford did nothing to inspire. All three created 0.4 expected goals or fewer at 5v5 while on ice tonight, and the problem of a lifeless, identity-less fourth line continues.

The central problem is largely that most all fourth line combinations that Toronto can put together include at least two veterans (two of Spezza, Clifford, and Simmonds) that don’t have a ton left in the tank. I can see the argument that Spezza is saving his energy for the playoffs (2021 is a good piece of evidence for that), but I’m not sure how much Clifford and Simmonds have left to give in the NHL, and a regular-season Spezza with one of those two just isn’t moving the needle.

Whether the Leafs need to bring up a college prospect after the NCAA season ends (Abruzzese? Knies?) or pick up a forward at the deadline to try and juice this unit, I’m not sure, but I can’t say I’m optimistic about the current names turning things around.

10.  This doesn’t pertain to the Maple Leafs directly, but I thought we ought to give a proper shoutout to Jake Oettinger of Dallas. The Stars’ goalie was terrific tonight, which is a rather unusual thing to say for someone who allowed three goals. Oettinger did allow the three goals, yet finished the game-saving 1.85 goals above expected in Evolving Hockey’s numbers.

That matches the eye test. He came up with a handful of huge stops, as this was a really impressive offensive effort from Toronto. It could’ve been a much more lopsided score with a different goalie in the opposing net, but you could say the same about it being a much more even game with a different goalie in the Toronto net.

A good night for goaltending all around, but kudos to Oettinger, who is a very promising young NHL goalie. 

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 4 vs. Stars 0