William Nylander celebrates, Toronto Maple Leafs goal
Photo: Nick Turchiaro / USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs set franchise records for wins and points in a regular season tonight with a 4-2 win over the New York Islanders that included solid efforts from William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Jack Campbell.

The Islanders rolled into Toronto on a hot streak — 14-6-1 in their previous 21 coming in — but the Leafs were ready for the challenge, even on the second night of a back-to-back and without Auston Matthews. They erased two separate Islander leads before surging ahead in the second period and shutting the door in the third.

David Kämpf broke his goalscoring drought, the team snapped its power-play skid, William Nylander equaled his career-high in goals, and Mitch Marner matched his career-high in points. The Leafs did all of this while navigating new forward lines and defense pairings that were jumbled around in-game.

Your game in 10:

1.   Shortly before the game began, we were informed that Auston Matthews would not be suiting up due to a “minor” issue he sustained during last night’s game against Ottawa. Call it load management if you want — or perhaps purely precautionary — but the Leafs are not taking any chances when it comes to their objective of getting to the postseason 100% healthy.

The result of Matthews sitting out was a complete re-shuffling of the lines, something rather different than what happened during Matthews’ suspension in early March, when John Tavares simply jumped up a line. This time, Sheldon Keefe fired up the line blender in style:

The new lines automatically became one of the key storylines of the game and there are a few things to note here: Michael Bunting dropped down two lines, Alex Kerfoot lined up at center, and Colin Blackwell jumped up off the fourth line. This put a sense of unfamiliarity in the air that permeated through the Leafs‘ play during the first 10 or so minutes of this game, allowing the Islanders to seize the early momentum.

2.    As the Islanders controlled play in the early going, they got a few looks but were unable to convert at 5v5. After Michael Bunting was guilty of holding an Islander in the offensive zone on the forecheck, New York went to the power play.

During the ensuing man-advantage, David Kämpf applied pressure in the corner but was unable to cut off a pass to Anthony Beauvillier in the circle, who was able to beat Jack Campbell thanks to a hell of a screen from Ilya Lyubushkin:

While Campbell probably should’ve been more aggressive in trying to get out from behind the screen, the goal is on Lyubushkin, who seemed to think he was the one wearing the pads and playing goalie.

He’s not tying anyone up. He’s not going out to challenge the shot. He’s just standing directly in front of his own goalie. A screen that Tomas Holmstrom would be proud of… except Lyubushkin was hurting his own team. He got a talking to from the coaching staff on the bench once he sat back down.

3.    There have been many complaints leveled against the fourth line in recent weeks, but tonight was a spectacular performance. The fourth line scored a goal last night in Ottawa via Kyle Clifford, and Keefe subbed Clifford out and stuck Nick Abruzzese in, who played his best game in a Toronto sweater. Jason Spezza and Abruzzese connected on a pass that got a kid a good look on net:

And then the kid hit the veteran with a pass to set up Spezza with a good chance:

All the while, Wayne Simmonds did his job in bringing the physical edge, fighting Ross Johnston early on:

In all, the fourth line dominated their matchups tonight. Evolving Hockey had them owning 96% of the expected goals at even strength tonight, while Natural Stat Trick had the fourth line owning scoring chances 7-0 and high danger chances 3-0 at 5v5.

They didn’t manage to convert on any of those chances, but that is the sort of effort that Sheldon Keefe is looking for from the fourth line. Abruzzese feels like the most significant takeaway; this was the first game of the youngster’s NHL career in which he was noticeable on most shifts that he played. I am intrigued to see if he stays in the lineup Tuesday.

4.    While the fourth line was succeeding in that first period, the other lines were still looking for traction and Keefe decided to bump Michael Bunting back up with Mitch Marner and John Tavares for a shift. It very quickly resulted in a goal:

Bunting made the pass across to Mark Giordano, who was sliding down for a shot, which kicked out as a rebound. Marner was hovering right in the area to scoop it up and rifle it into the back of the net.

That was Marner’s 34th of the season as he continues to obliterate his previous career-high for a single season, and he has now tied his career-high in points with 94. That matches his 2018-19 total, but the kicker is that he did it in 15 fewer games. For anyone who somehow thinks that Marner is merely a product of Auston Matthews, Marner has two goals and two assists for four points in the three games that Matthews has missed in the past six weeks.

Meanwhile, Giordano picked up a primary assist on that play, showing astute offensive instincts for the second consecutive night. Giordano now has two goals and seven assists for nine points in 14 games for the Maple Leafs, achieving 39% of his point total with Seattle in only 25% of the games.

I assumed that Giordano’s offense would perk up playing on one of the NHL’s top offensive teams (compared to one of the NHL’s offensive blackholes) when I wrote up the trade analysis piece on this site, and it seems to be coming true. Giordano has been as good as advertised defensively while adding a pinch of the offense that once made him a Norris Trophy winner.

5.   The second period saw a pretty similar start to the first period for the Leafs: lackluster entering the zone defensively while committing a few too many icings.

It also didn’t help when — for the second time in the game — a Maple Leaf skater directly assisted the Islanders with a goal. This time, it was Alex Kerfoot:

As Timothy Liljegren had some trouble behind the net, the puck was picked up by Josh Bailey, who wrapped it to the NetFront. Jack Campbell poke checked it free and then Kerfoot’s clearing attempt went into his own net.

It was not a great moment for either Liljegren or Kerfoot, and it quickly put the Islanders back in control of the game. The good news is that Kerfoot wouldn’t be in the doghouse for too long.

6.   Before we move on to talk about Kerfoot’s other notable play, we need an interlude to talk about the other development that began mid-game that we can see in the footage in the preceding point: Liljegren was paired with Morgan Rielly. Meanwhile, on a separate pair, Mark Giordano was partnered with Ilya Lyubushkin. This began sometime either in the late first period or early second, with Sheldon Keefe/Dean Chynoweth keeping TJ Brodie and Justin Holl together while mixing up the other two pairings.

I’m not really sure what to make of this other than the fact that the Leafs’ coaching staff has had a propensity to shift defensive pairings for the past month or so. Ever since the Leafs acquired Giordano, the coaching staff has one new pairing seemingly every other game. I suppose the point of this may have been to see Giordano and Lyubushkin together; Rielly and Liljegren have already played together, and I didn’t think anyone’s play was so poor (up to that point) as to warrant a dramatic in-game jumble.

I am of the belief that the Leafs have found their best pairings with the ones that they iced at the start of the game. Rielly and Lyubushkin have played well together, Brodie and Holl (or Brodie and Muzzin) have worked as a defense-first pairing, and Giordano-Liljegren have put up absurd expected goals numbers since being formed. Those three work well together, have been the primary pairs during a stretch that’s seen the Leafs go 11-2-1, and they have the flexibility to work regardless of whether Muzzin is healthy or not.

I am not opposed to continuing to tinker, but I’d like to see Keefe roll with whatever he thinks are going to be the starting pairs for Game 1 when the Leafs play Tampa and Florida this week.

7.    Alex Kerfoot redeemed himself in the second period with a brilliant pass leading to a goal on a 2v1 with Pierre Engvall:

That may look like routine execution at first glance, but look at the way Kerfoot fakes the shot to get Adam Pelech sliding a bit before threading the feed across to Engvall. The effect of that little deception made it so Pelech can’t take away the pass, and the pass was tape-to-tape, allowing Engvall to beat Ilya Sorokin.

However, Kerfoot and Engvall weren’t the only ones doing something right on this play. Justin Holl made the stretch pass to Kerfoot from the defensive zone, and William Nylander tied up his man in the neutral zone, lifting the stick to allow the pass to find Kerfoot. A strong play all around from that line.

8.    The Leafs entered this game in the midst of a prolonged power-play drought, which is something I said on Thursday night was not due to a poor process. Toronto looked close to breaking through then, and after coming up empty against the Senators, they finally busted the door down:

Morgan Rielly stumbled at the point, nearly losing the puck, and then required assistance from Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting to help secure possession and move it down to John Tavares. The captain swung it across the zone, where William Nylander‘s shot beat Ilya Sorokin to give the Leafs their first lead of the game.

That tally was Nylander’s 31st goal of the season, tying his career-high set back in 2019-20 and continuing to stack on to his point total. His two-point performance in this game brings him up to 74 points in 75 games on the season.

The Leafs would generate more PP chances in the third period, including an extended 5v3. They went with an alignment that saw two forwards below the goal line and managed to create several excellent chances that Ilya Sorokin turned aside.

Even after the first penalty expired, Nylander rang the crossbar at 5v4, and it was not really the fault of Toronto that they were unable to cash in again. Sorokin, quietly one of the league’s best goalies this season, had an excellent showing tonight in a losing effort.

9.    Craig Simpson noted on the Sportsnet broadcast something that I had been thinking about entering the third period: this was a trial run for the Leafs of sorts, protecting a one-goal lead going into the final period. To win in the playoffs, they will need to be able to close games like this one out. I would say that they did so quite effectively.

The first two or so minutes were a little slow again, but then the Leafs dominated the Islanders for about a 12-minute stretch. Over that time span, the Isles were lucky to get out of their own zone and relied on Sorokin’s strong play to keep them in the game.

The Leafs smothered their visitors on the forecheck, creating chance after chance on the cycle. A great way to protect a lead is to never let the opponent have the puck, and that’s more or less what the Maple Leafs were able to do for most of the third period.

The Isles finally mounted a charge with around 6:30 to go in the game and started to register a few chances. I liked the defensive sticks of Kerfoot and Engvall, in particular, to help deny Islander chances, and Jack Campbell rose to the occasion when he was called on.

The goalie had a clean sheet in the third period and David Kämpf broke a 10-game goalless drought with this empty netter:

10.    Let’s conclude with a point about Jack Campbell. The Toronto netminder had his second-best start since returning from injury behind only the win against the Lightning a couple of weeks ago. He stopped 27 of 29 shots and graded out above positively in goals saved above expected (anywhere between +0.1 and +0.67 depending on which site you look at).

We’ve established previously that neither goal against was really on him, and I thought he came up with a couple of big stops. The Leafs didn’t ask him to do a ton, but he was there for the save when they weren’t actively hindering his play. This was my favorite stop of his on the night:

The Leafs may well need Campbell to steal a game to beat a team like Tampa in the playoffs, but for the most part, this team won’t need a 2003 J.S. Giguere sort of effort to go deep in the postseason. What they need as the base expectation, though, is this version of Campbell: rock solid and making most of the saves he is asked to make.

I presume Campbell will get Tuesday night off before we see him for another test against the Lightning on Thursday.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Leafs 4 vs. Islanders 2