Auston Matthews became the fourth player in franchise history to score 50 goals in a season as the Maple Leafs overcame a slow start to power by the Winnipeg Jets in a feisty 7-3 victory. 

William Nylander also dazzled to the tune of two power-play goals and an assist (coming within inches of a hat trick), the penalty kill tacked on a shorthanded goal, Mark Giordano scored his first goal in a Leaf uniform, Mitch Marner snagged three assists, and the fourth line mixed it up physically.

Lots to discuss after this victory at Scotiabank Arena.

Your game in 10:

1.   It’s funny how these sorts of historic achievements work; they force you to re-center the entire focus of the piece. If we were going off the first 56 minutes of the contest, Auston Matthews would not be mentioned in the first couple of points as this was not his best game holistically. But when you score your 50th goal of the season, even in an empty-netter fashion, it naturally becomes the main storyline of the game:

Everyone in Scotiabank Arena knew what was at stake and parts of the arena were standing up when Matthews picked up the puck in a scoring area, but for the first half of the game, it seemed like the early Toronto power plays were too focused on trying to set Matthews up for a chance to score #50. After that, he had several good looks, but Eric Comrie stood tall.

Then the goalie got pulled, Sheldon Keefe opted to put Matthews out with Mitch Marner and David Kämpf, and the entire attention of the arena — and everyone watching on television — turned to AM34. Kämpf’s backhand bid for the empty net slid off the goal post, which breathed new life into the chance that we could see the milestone goal happen tonight. And Matthews delivered.

After Marner flipped the puck ahead, Matthews snagged it, skated just past his own blue line, and hit the cage from there.

Matthews joins Gary Leeman (1x), Dave Andreychuk (2x), and Rick Vaive (3x) as the only Maple Leafs to ever score 50 in a season. He’s the lone one to do it at a time when NHL scoring was not at a historic crescendo, too. And that’s not all that is out there for Matthews. With 15 games left in the season, he still has a real shot for 60, given that his current pace is 50 in only 62 games.

Extrapolated out, he’s on pace for 62 goals on the season. Also of note, this has nudged the Leafs‘ star center back into sole possession of first for the Rocket Richard chase ahead of Leon Draisaitl’s 49.

2.   Had Matthews not scored that goal, William Nylander was going to be the first topic of discussion because he had the best night of any Toronto forward. Nylander, who seems to be playing with more jump in his step since he was moved off the second line, was tremendous. He scored a pair of power-play goals around the net, one off of a Matthews rebound and the other off of a puck delivered at the net from Marner:

It was one of those interesting games where Nylander’s 5v5 analytical impacts were not particularly great (42.53% xGF%), but I think it vastly undersells how good Nylander was. Nylander was flying around the ice, and that picked up later in the game as he hunted for the hat trick.

He fell just short, but not for a lack of trying. Here’s one that probably would’ve been a goal had Logan Stanley not gotten his stick on it:

And then Nylander capped off the night with the primary assist on the final goal, a beautiful cross-seam pass to set up a Timothy Liljegren finish:

The frustration around Nylander’s play is understandable when you watch him play games like this. His offensive toolkit is so robust that he can completely take over games when he wants to, and the last couple of games have featured a seemingly more motivated Nylander. I still don’t think that this current line combo is a great one (David Kämpf is not a great stylistic fit for Nylander), but they have shown a spark because Nylander is driving it. Sheldon Keefe would love to see this continue into May.

3.   After the carnage in Boston, the Leafs‘ defensive pairings were going to look different since Ilya Lyubushkin missed tonight’s game. Keefe chose to completely reshuffle things rather than slide Carl Dahlstrom in on the top pair.

The pairs that were featured were Morgan Rielly with TJ BrodieMark Giordano with Justin Holl, and Timothy Liljegren with Dahlstrom. The combination of Giordano and Holl did not do particularly well together, which is a bit of a bummer because that is a combination I had been wanting to see after the trade with the Kraken went through. If Lyubushkin has to miss another game, I’d like to see it get another look, but some questions popped up very quickly.

Giordano is still a very good defensive defenseman, but he is 38, which means the footspeed isn’t what it used to be, leaving him susceptible on plays like this:

The two were also on the ice for the second goal, but I think that had less to do with them and more to do with goaltending (discussed later). Both finished at 39.8% xGF% at even strength tonight, a big comedown from what the Leafs had been doing defensively the last couple of games with the old pairings.

The concern playing Holl and Giordano together is the puck-moving question mark, and to some extent, transition defense like the play above. While I do want another peek at this tandem before it’s playoff time, I’m not going to act like Holl didn’t click much more with Brodie than with Giordano based on the limited one-game sample.

4.   Another point in favor of the old pairings is this: Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren scored a goal seemingly every time on ice they were together. They didn’t get many shifts together in this game, but both that I can recall happened to involve a goal being scored for the Leafs. The first was Giordano’s first as a Maple Leaf:

The fruits of putting a puck in a high-danger area. Giordano was looking for the tip of John Tavares, but instead, it double doinked off two Jets and in. That was goal #150 in Giordano’s career, and it was nice to see Tavares immediately grab the puck for Giordano’s keeping.

The other goal that the Giordano-Liljegren pair scored was the Liljegren one off the Nylander pass clipped in an earlier point. It was mostly coincidental, but it is also anecdotal evidence that Giordano and Liljegren continue to jibe, even when the main pairings are something different.

5.   This was a remarkably productive game for the Leafs defense when it comes to the counting stats. Liljegren and Giordano each had a goal and an assist, while Justin Holl, Morgan Rielly, and Carl Dahlstrom all had assists of their own, meaning that the Toronto defensive corps came away with seven points on the night.

The Leafs are not a team that gets a ton of goal-scoring or offensive production from its defensemen, but tonight was a change of pace. Part of that may have been the rebound control from the Jets’ Eric Comrie. The John Tavares goal was a big juicy rebound off a Dahlstrom shot you’d like to see the goalie contain better if you’re a Winnipeg fan:

That’s a weak shot that hits Comrie sees all the way, hits him right in the belly, and produces a sizable rebound for Tavares to pounce on.

Dahlstrom was not terribly noticeable outside of this play, which is always a good thing about an AHL call-up that you have to insert in the lineup on rather short notice. He and Liljegren were pretty sheltered and won their minutes at even strength handily. That’s all that you want out of a player in Dahlstrom’s position.

6.   It seemed like the Jets came out ready to roll and then grew tired as the game wore on. Winnipeg was flying out of the gate, scoring on two of its first four shots, and creating several more chances before the first period was up. They scored a goal in the second period to go back ahead 3-2 and then just sort of hit a wall after that.

The Leafs scored three more unanswered in that fame to head to the second intermission up 5-3, and by the time the third rolled around, there was no real sense that the Jets had a shot to come back and win it. That’s perhaps best exemplified by the fact that everyone was content with the Leafs trying to set up Matthews with a chance for #50, not remotely worried that the Jets could score twice in the final three minutes.

Playing their seventh game in 11 days, the Jets were coming off a back-to-back with the surprisingly surging Buffalo Sabres, while the Leafs had an off night on Wednesday, so you understand the energy imbalance. Winnipeg was also without leading goal-scorer Kyle Connor due to a positive COVID test, so this was a team that was there for the taking for Toronto, and they took full advantage.

The Jets, like the month of March is said to, went out like a lamb tonight. They finished with just 23 total shots and were thoroughly defeated.

7.   The Toronto power play got plenty of attention for scoring two goals, but the penalty kill was strong as well. The Leafs did cede a PPG, but that one also was more on goaltending (in my book) than on the killers themselves. When asked to make a play, the PKers did just that. Enter Ilya Mikheyev:

Mikheyev is continuing to build himself a contract year to remember, now up to 15 goals in 38 games, blowing past his career-high. His shooting percentage continues to also be a career-high (surprise, surprise), but it does feel more than just a shooting percentage bender. Mikheyev is flying up and down the ice, driving play, and playing extremely confident hockey. He’s shooting more than ever, and shots are going in more than ever.

There seems to be a bit of chemistry between himself, Alex Kerfoot, and John Tavares, as that line had another successful outing. All three were up over 62% xGF% at even strength tonight, and I’m content to let that line keep rolling for a few more games and see what it can accomplish.

Mikheyev had two assists, in addition to his short-handed goal, and he played a role in the Leafs finishing even on the PK tonight. When you add that to the two PPGs, the Leafs were +2 on special teams, which is quickly becoming a key part of how this team will beat you.

8.   Before we finish up on the penalty kill, we also need to recognize Pierre Engvall‘s work on that shorthanded goal. First, he took the puck away from Nikolaj Ehlers (no easy task), then he flipped it by a pinching Josh Morrissey before racing down the boards and passing it to Mikheyev, bracing for the check from Pierre-Luc Dubois in the process:

Mikheyev receives a lot of the attention because more of his shots are going in right now, but Engvall is sustaining an impressive season, too. He’s already at career highs in goals, assists, and points, and still has a shot to finish with 30 points on only 12:46 ATOI.

It may prove tough to keep Mikheyev in the offseason due to his UFA status and the number of suitors after this breakout season, but Engvall is rounding into someone who could be a really solid piece of Toronto’s middle six for the next couple of years.

9.   Happy days are here again for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fourth line. After the lowest of lows just a few days prior (0% xGF% on Sunday against Florida at even strength), they have now stitched together two good performances in a row against Boston and now Winnipeg.

Tonight, it was the all veterans look, with Jason Spezza centering Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford, and they actually showed quite a bit of jump. They created chances on a couple of shifts, and Simmonds had one shift where he threw two big hits within the span of about a dozen seconds. The three finished as Toronto’s best forwards at even strength analytically, all over 67% xGF%.

They also proved useful in this sort of feisty, chippy game. Things got more physical as the night went on and it hit a climax when Clifford fought Brendan Dillon in the waning moments. Simmonds and Mason Appleton were assessed preemptive game misconduct penalties by the referees, who were merely trying to keep control of the game:

I think what the last couple of games have shown is that Clifford and Simmonds can be more effective when they’re not playing all the time. Simmonds started the season decently strong and faded hard as the day-to-day wear of the season began to take its toll on his 33-year-old body (which has played a hard 14 seasons in this league).

The addition of Colin Blackwell (who was scratched tonight) has given Simmonds a bit more rest, and I’d like to see Blackwell back in on Saturday for this reason. I actually wouldn’t mind if we got to see the debut of Nick Abruzzese on Saturday as well just to give Clifford and Simmonds some rest.

When used as spot starters, Simmonds and Clifford can be physical, effective presences who add a jolt to the lineup. Play them too much, though, and they’re going to get worn down. Hopefully, Keefe recognizes this and perhaps gives us a healthy distribution of youngsters (Abruzzese, Knies?) and oldsters (Simmonds, Clifford, Spezza) on that fourth line in the last month of the season so that the veterans can be fresh for the playoffs.

10.   Let’s conclude with a check on Erik Källgren and the goaltending carousel. It was a rather creaky start for Källgren, who was unable to come up with the stop on the Wheeler breakaway after Giordano got turned into a pylon, and then he lost track of a puck behind him, leading to an easy wrap-around goal for Paul Stastny:

From then on, Källgren was much more solid. I thought he made a couple of nice saves in the later stages of the first period, including this one when the Leafs’ defense got sloppy:

The third goal he allowed was the one on the power play. The ever-dangerous Nikolaj Ehlers had the puck on the half-wall with Blake Wheeler posting up as a screen in front. Källgren needed to find the puck and decided to peak through the screen to the far side, leaving the short side exposed for Ehlers to beat him below the glove.

Not the best performance from the rookie, but it was also not catastrophic, either. Källgren graded out at -0.52 goals saved above expected in Evolving Hockey’s numbers, and I think the best thing you can say about him right now is that he’s a steady presence.

Through seven appearances, Källgren is -1.12 GSAx cumulatively, which is pretty close to neutral. His performances have been consistently decent, with one great one (Dallas) and one bad one (@ Nashville), but most are either slightly above 0 or slightly below it in the GSAx numbers. In other words, close to neutral goaltending.

The Leafs will need better than that to win multiple rounds in the playoffs, but for much of February and early March, the team was dying to simply get steady, good-enough goaltending, and that’s what Källgren has given them thus far.

Jack Campbell is close to returning, we were told today, and now the only question is whether “close to returning” means he’ll play Saturday. I have to think that’s what Sheldon Keefe is hoping for knowing the Leafs have a back-to-back with Tampa and Florida early next week. You have to imagine he’d like to have Källgren go one night and Campbell the other, and ideally, that wouldn’t be Campbell’s first start back.

The Flyers (Saturday’s opponent) are much less threatening and would be a decent opportunity to ease Campbell back in. The Leafs’ fate in the all-important playoffs still lies with Campbell, but Källgren’s performance tonight was another tally in the “decent NHL backup” evidence file.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 7 vs. Jets 3