Auston Matthews’ hat trick and Jack Campbell’s strong performance helped the Maple Leafs deliver a statement 6-2 victory over the twice-defending champion Lightning tonight in Tampa.

It was an MVP-caliber performance tonight from AM34, who recorded three goals and a primary assist as the Toronto top line struck four times against the NHL’s most feared goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Meanwhile, a solid defensive effort from the Leafs and a stellar night by Jack Campbell in the Toronto net helped limit Tampa’s offensive output to just two goals. Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot also chipped in goals, while Mitch Marner enjoyed a three-point night as well.

Oh, and Toronto did this all without their fourth-leading scorer, William Nylander.

This may be the best game that the Maple Leafs have played all season, and they’ve now beaten each of the three other Atlantic Division titans in the last eight days by multi-goal margins, affirming their place among the NHL’s top Cup contenders.

Your game in 10:

1.  Plenty of storylines to discuss tonight, but we ought to start where it all began: the Swedish giraffe scoring on a breakaway. Old Friend Zach Bogosian took an ill-advised shot right into the legs of David Kämpf, springing Pierre Engvall loose for a breakaway under two minutes into the contest. He cleanly beat Andrei Vasilveskiy blocker side:

That’s now 13 goals on the season for Engvall in 65 games. Anthony Petrielli noted in his weekly notebook how the Leafs‘ improved scoring depth has allowed Sheldon Keefe to play Matthews and Marner less, keeping them fresher for the playoffs, and this was exhibit A of that. Engvall has grown as much as any player over the past calendar year, blowing by his career highs in goals, assists, and points while using his speed and defensive ability to play a crucial role on the third line.

Tonight, the effort from Engvall was even more important with William Nylander missing due to an illness. With Nick Abruzzese suiting up as the third cog on that line, the trio solidly won their minutes at 5v5 in the xG numbers via Evolving Hockey, and Engvall was the engine there.

2.   Tampa equalized the score not too long after that thanks to a shot right off of the faceoff from Nikita Kucherov that solved Jack Campbell:

I’m not too bothered by that shot going in, to be honest. Shots that quick off the draw are not easy, it had plenty of mustard on it, and it came off of the stick of one of the better shooters in the league. Campbell more than made up for it at other points in the game (more on that shortly), so it is what it is.

I know this piece is supposed to be a coronation of Auston Matthews‘ greatness — and it sure will be later on — but if there’s one nit we could pick tonight, it would be in the faceoff dot. Matthews was a woeful 22% on faceoffs tonight, and that play was one of the rare instances where a faceoff does have a significant impact on the game. Stamkos wanted to win it to set up Kucherov and he won it clean, exactly as he intended.

This is not typically an issue for Matthews, who is still winning over 55% of his draws on the season, but it was an uncharacteristically poor night in the faceoff circle, and when it leads to a goal, it’s worth pointing out.

3.   I thought that the Leafs did a good job to deny controlled entries at the blue line tonight, but they weren’t good enough denying cross-zone passes early on. Sure, Tampa has several players who are savants at those (*cough* Kucherov *cough*), but those passes that force the goaltender to slide side to side are the most dangerous you can allow. There were a couple of not-great ones allowed — especially early on — that Jack Campbell came up big on.

This one was created by very poor defense in the neutral zone by Morgan Rielly, and then Ilya Lyubushkin was not able to stop the pass across from Kucherov to Corey Perry:

Here was another one from Kucherov, this time to Brayden Point:

Those were critically important stops in determining the flow of the game. A goal in any of those situations to give Tampa the lead turns this into a very different hockey game, but the freshly-healed Maple Leafs goalie stood tall.

4.   The Toronto top line combined for two goals in each of the second and third periods, but let’s start in the second, where the wizardry of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner was something to behold.

The first goal is a testament to the greatness of #34’s wrist shot. He slows up ever-so-slightly to give himself a bit of space in the circle, and then picks the far corner on a filthy snipe where he changes the angle seamlessly during the release:

The second goal was more a story of Marner’s incredible play, although it is Matthews who grabbed the tally. Michael Bunting battled along the boards, Tampa attempted to clear it, Marner stepped into the lane to take it, and then he made a pass that only few in the NHL can make:

Surrounded by three Bolts, Marmer made the pass through Mikhail Sergachev’s legs right onto the tape of Matthews, who tipped it into the top shelf. Give Matthews credit for a perfect deflection that Vasilevskiy had no chance on, but that play is made possible by Marner breaking the game open (and helped by Stamkos losing Matthews in front).

I have been one of several Leafs writers to critique Sheldon Keefe’s insistence on keeping 58-34-16 together, but tonight was a good bit of validation for Keefe and a window as to why he’s fought so hard to have that line stay intact. Against a top-tier team and an elite goalie, they tore the Tampa Bay Lightning apart to the tune of four goals and >60% xGF% at even strength.

5.   Sandwiched in between those goals was a tally from Tampa. They entered the zone, quickly got it to the slot and the stick of a jumping Jan Rutta, and the big defenseman’s backhander slid along the ice and through Campbell’s five-hole:

Not a great goal for Campbell to surrender, but I know Keefe won’t be happy about Justin Holl allowing that screen in front by Anthony Cirelli go completely uncontested. Holl has to know Cirelli is behind him, and then he either needs to commit to blocking the shot or go help clear the net-front. Instead, he did neither, and Campbell attempted to clear the screen himself, which leads directly to the goal.

If you pause the above video, you’ll notice Campbell had his hands on Cirelli’s back when the shot is released by Rutta, which caused him to be a little slow getting down and closing the wickets. I’ve liked Holl’s game since the Muzzin injury a lot and have defended Holl against the anger for much of this season, but that wasn’t a great moment from him. It’s worth noting that Holl led all Leafs defensemen in TOI tonight and the team handily won those minutes by CF% and xGF%.

6.   We talked about the scoring depth of the Leafs with Pierre Engvall‘s goal earlier, and the second period brought a chance for Alex Kerfoot to show out as well. He used his speed to get around Rutta, cut in on Vasilevskiy, and then flipped the puck off the Russian goalie’s blocker and into the net:

The central stylistic matchup in a Toronto/Tampa game is the heavy game and physicality of the Lightning against the speed of the Leafs. Supplementing the brilliant skill of Stamkos, Point, Kucherov, etc. is that the Lightning are a very difficult team to play against. They boast a gang of hulking defensemen, with all six of Tampa’s blueliners tonight standing at least 6’2″ tall and tipping 200 lbs. on the scale. That has its advantages around the net and in the corners, but can also leave your team susceptible to being burnt in transition defense.

The Leafs boast a lot of speed between Marner, Engvall, Mikheyev, and Kerfoot, and if those players are going to keep finishing the rush chances they get, the Maple Leafs become a matchup nightmare for a team like Tampa to keep up with. This goal is created by the speedy Kerfoot creating a rush chance for himself (around the plodding Rutta) and then finishing it off.

7.   On that note, the game did get physical tonight, and the Leafs came prepared with a fourth line of Colin Blackwell centering Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds. Not a ton happened while those three were out there in terms of chances, but they mixed it up and helped provide some of the sandpaper that the Leafs are looking for.

Simmonds was sent to the box pre-emptively (with Pat Maroon), apparently for jawing too much while sitting on the benches:

That’s the second time in three games that Simmonds has been assessed a pre-emptive penalty for jawing. The truth is that if the Leafs are going to receive depth-scoring contributions from the Engvall and Mikheyev types and the first line sizzles like this, they’d be content with the fourth line simply existing to add physicality, especially if they don’t get caved in defensively (which they didn’t tonight).

8.   The third period was a showing of the Toronto Maple Leafs at their best. The goalie didn’t allow a goal, chances against (especially before the game became non-competitive) were limited, and the top line poured in two more tallies.

First, we have the hat-trick goal from Auston Matthews:

The greatness of Matthews as a goalscorer was shown off in this game as he collected a hat trick of goals scored three different ways. One was a wicked wrist-shot creating a goal on a rather innocent-looking play, one was a deflection off of a great Marner pass, and this one was a case of cleaning up the loose change by being in the right spot. He then bolstered his Hart case with this dandy setup:

That’s a tidy stick-lift on Rutta followed by a pass to Marner that left Vasilevskiy with no chance. The game was mostly wrapped up by that point, but that goal was the cherry on top that christened the most impressive win of the season.

At this point, it’s worth recognizing that Matthews and Marner have reached new levels this season not yet seen in their careers. Matthews has now scored 47 goals in his last 47 games, meaning there is an outside chance he could achieve 50 in 50 — a previously unthinkable achievement in this modern NHL (even with scoring on the rise).

He’s now tied Rick Vaive’s franchise record for goals in a season and sits six shy of 60. Matthews is on pace for 65 goals, which would tie Alex Ovechkin’s astonishing 2007-08 mark. #34 has been a great goalscorer since he entered the NHL — one of the very best in the league for a couple seasons now — but this season he is embarking on a campaign for the ages that will take its rightful place in the annals of NHL history, next to those of Ovi, Bure, Hull, Lemieux, Gretzky, Bossy, and Esposito.

As for Marner, he is up to 84 points in just 60 games. At the time of this writing, he’s seventh in the NHL in points despite playing 7-10 fewer games than the players in front of him. On a per-game basis, Matthews and Marner are third and fifth in the NHL in points this season, but that doesn’t account for how productive Marner has been in 2022.

Since January 1, Marner has 63 points in 36 games (1.75 per game), first in the NHL by a wide margin. Who is second? Matthews. Like Matthews, Marner has been a very good player since he entered the league — and an elite passer for years — but this season he has become the kind of player who could be a serious threat to win the Art Ross next year if he plays a full 82 games.

9.   Matthews and Marner will dominate the headlines after tonight, but I would make the case that the play of Jack Campbell in his second start back from injury was far more important to the trajectory of the season. For better or worse, the fate of Toronto’s season likely rests in Campbell’s hands, and the play of the starting netminder in April is the top storyline to monitor.

Campbell played like a goalie who can beat an elite team in a seven-game series. He stopped 32 of 34 shots (.941 SV%) and saved 0.91 goals above expected by Evolving Hockey’s numbers. He made the aforementioned huge saves early on and then added a couple more for the highlight reel once the Lightning made a late push in the third period.

In his two starts since returning from his injury, Campbell has posted a save percentage above .900 in both. Why is that so important? He’s done that only one other time since the first week of January. If he can do it in a third consecutive game, it would be the first time in the calendar year 2022 for him.

Campbell played very poorly in January and February, but he’s looked much more like the Campbell of the fall in these two starts, and tonight they needed him to be. I would start Erik Källgren tomorrow night but then put Campbell right back out there on Thursday and maybe again on Saturday to get him in a rhythm. He looks confident and composed, which is just what Sheldon Keefe, Kyle Dubas, and all of Leafs Nation were begging for.

10.   I thought all three defensive pairings were fine tonight, which is why I’m curious to see what Sheldon Keefe shifts around in order to get Jake Muzzin back in the lineup tomorrow night against Florida.  Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren have been rolling, and the same can be said about Justin Holl and TJ Brodie. You’re not going to play Muzzin with Rielly, so something has to change about those two configurations.

I definitely agree that a player of Muzzin’s pedigree needs and deserves to get back into the lineup just to see what he can add to this team, but it is awkward that it comes at a time when it feels like Keefe has figured out three-plus defensive pairings. It’s a blessing for the Leafs to have eight NHL defensemen (when Sandin is healthy), but that sometimes can lead coaches to over-think the personnel decisions.

If nothing else, I hope that if Muzzin does not play better than he did in the first half of the season, Keefe isn’t afraid to scratch the veteran and roll with these three pairings. It’s hard to move away from a group of tandems that just held Florida, Boston, and Tampa in check.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 6 vs. Lightning 2