The Maple Leafs opened the preseason with a 4-1 win over the Senators in the first of two split-squad games on the docket for Saturday. It was a team effort that saw Toronto control the pace of play for a majority of the game, with several players fighting for roster spots getting a chance to shine.
With training camp now underway, the race is on to fill out the depth spots on the Leafs’ roster. In the first split-squad game of the day on Saturday, the Leafs had several players competing for a bottom-six role playing up and down the lineup.
As a result, the sense of urgency was apparent for much of the game. Toronto dominated play for the majority of the game, finishing the 60 minutes with 62% of the shot attempts, 72.73% of the scoring chances, and 75% of the high-danger chances (data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick).
Despite Toronto controlling play, Ottawa drew first blood. A little over halfway through the opening frame, Tim Stutzle received a stretch pass at the Leafs’ blue line. Stutzle was able to catch Mark Giordano flat-footed and edge him out to create a breakaway. As Stutzle cut towards the net, Erik Källgren got caught leaving the short-side post early and got beat on the Senators’ first and only shot of the opening frame.
In the second period, the Leafs really started to tilt the ice in their favour. They got things started on a great shift from the makeshift line of Zach Aston-Reese, Fraser Minten, and Wayne Simmonds. The puck was cycled Giordano up top, where the veteran defenseman swung it across to Justin Holl, who wired a shot home through a great Aston-Reese screen.
Just a few moments after that, the duo of William Nylander and Denis Malgin finally broke through after generating several chances. Nylander recovered a puck in the neutral zone before turning on the jets and creating an odd-man rush. After out-waiting a sprawling Senators defender, Nylander found Malgin at the back door, where the Swiss forward snapped home the one-timer to give the Leafs the lead.
To cap off the run of scoring, just 18 seconds after Malgin gave the Leafs the lead, Toronto added another one. Once again on a play that saw the puck cycled around the perimeter, this time it was Holl giving a pass to Giordano, who wired it towards the net. The shot deflected off Alex Steeves in front, where he successfully got body positioning on the defender to deflect the puck into the net.
Toronto finished off the afternoon with another Steeves goal. He buried the empty-netter after the Leafs were able to work the puck out in the aftermath of a 6-on-4 penalty kill to reach the final score of 4-1.
A big factor in why the Leafs were so dominant had a lot to do with the play of the stars in this one. All three of Nylander, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner looked excellent. Nylander was flying around the ice and taking the puck to the net every chance he got.
Because Nylander was so effective, it made it easier for his linemates to stand out as well. Malgin was doing an excellent job at reading off of Nylander and working his way to open areas to receive a pass. Malgin also had a few nifty plays of his own, including outracing two Senators to the puck behind the net in the offensive zone and sending a quick backhand feed out front to a wide-open Nylander. That duo was doing a good job in open space and in transition, with Nylander doing the brunt of the puck carrying, as he’s known to do. When Malgin did have the puck on his stick, he was making smart decisions in the offensive zone as well.
Another newcomer who was given a great opportunity was Adam Gaudette. While Gaudette does not possess the skill necessary to flash in the way Malgin did, he was able to showcase his tenacity all game. Any time he headed into a battle along the boards, he emerged with the puck. Gaudette also had a few great takeaways away from the puck when hounding opposition puck carriers.
For as good as he was without the puck, Gaudette was more of a mixed bag with the puck on his stick. He had a few nice moments — putting a few shots on goal or sending a nice cross-ice pass to an open teammate — but for every nice pass he made, there was an instance where the play would die on his stick.
As mentioned earlier, Zach Aston-Reese played a really solid game. His play was exactly what everyone expected out of him. He was physical, throwing his body around every chance he got and winning battles along the boards at both ends of the ice. Whether it was continuing a cycle for the Leafs or ending one for the Senators, his defensive positioning was also really solid all game, especially when he was F1 in the defensive zone.
Aston-Reese is precisely the type of player any coach likes to have in their bottom-six — a physical presence who is solid defensively and can kill penalties. There’s not much not to like about Aston-Reese’s game. He looked right at home on a line with David Kämpf.
Mentioned him in the write up yesterday – Filip Kral is flying under the radar but he can play. Bit of a good at everything, great at nothing player. Just consistently makes good reads with/without the puck. Got on both the PP and PK in the preseason game, so Leafs see it too.
— Anthony Petrielli (@APetrielli) September 24, 2022
Sheldon Keefe Post Game: Leafs 4 vs. Senators 1
On the team’s performance:
It took a bit for our game to get going and the guys to get comfortable. Both teams looked like there was a big adjustment early on, especially this early in camp and playing a game early in the afternoon. It took a little bit.
At the start of the second period, we started to find our legs. You could see some of the skill and speed of our team start to take hold. Overall, I was happy what we got out of the game both collectively and individually.
On Denis Malgin’s performance:
I think he has been good. It was nice to see him play in a game here today. It is hard for a guy like him to really pop in the practices. He is a highly skilled guy that makes plays and can make a difference offensively.
I think he was good in the first two days. I thought he was excellent here today. I thought every time he touched the puck, it seemed like something good was happening with it. He played with Willy and Holmberg, and those guys were also good.
Willy makes people better, but I thought Malgin partnered with those guys really well today. He scored a great goal but also made a number of really good plays. He plays with so much poise.
On whether there are differences in Malgin’s game relative to when he was last with the team a few years ago:
It is too early for me to say that at this point, but what I do think has changed — if anything — would have to be the situation and scenario. He is a player who had some success in the league and it was starting to get away on him. He was trying to recapture it. He didn’t quite do that. He went away, and now he has come back and is really just trying to earn his way back into the league. That perspective is different.
In terms of his game, I think he is older and more mature. There is natural development and improvements that come with that in and of itself. I think we are seeing some of that perhaps. All I know is that I have liked what I have seen from him so far.
On Fraser Minten’s performance on a line with Alex Steeves:
Steeves put himself in a good spot to score a goal. Minten is a really young guy coming in here, but he has been really impressive right from the first time I met him and his family at the draft all the way through development camp and the prospect tournament. He is an impressive guy. We wanted to give him a good opportunity here today.
I thought he did well with some really, really strong moments in the game. For a young player, the intangibles, the detail in his game, and the intelligence, to go along with some size and competitiveness and a good skill set, we have a real nice prospect there.
It was nice to have him in the game today competing with the guys.
On Zach Aston-Reese’s performance:
A lot of his game is not really going to jump out to you unless you are really watching closely for the detail and structure that he plays with. I thought he had a real strong game today.
On the performance of the Gaudette – Tavares – Marner line:
I thought they were good, especially the veteran players that were coming to play in this game. John and Mitch we are not evaluating too much; we are just getting them reps and getting them going. I thought those guys were good.
I liked Gaudette especially as the game wore on. He had some real strong moments away from the puck earning the puck back — good sticks and good contact. Those are the kinds of disruptions you want to see him make to earn the puck back for his linemates. I was really encouraged by that.
On Wayne Simmonds’ situation in regards to a roster spot this training camp:
Simmer is himself all the time in terms of his attitude and approach. I do think he has a real clear understanding, though, of not just his situation but what we are looking for from him. He knows where he is in his career.
I think there is always an adjustment period for a player that they have to go through when they reach a stage in their career where they have to make some changes to be able to stay in the league and stay a productive player. I think Wayne went through some of that last season. For that reason, he comes back a better player for us this time around.