The Maple Leafs took care of business against the Canadiens, winning by a score of 3-0 despite the constant line shuffling taking place due to injuries to Jordie Benn and Carl Dahlstrom on the blue line.
The Maple Leafs entered this game against the Canadiens with a blue line that was already missing three key contributors. Jake Muzzin is working his way through a back issue and just resumed skating, Timothy Liljegren has already been ruled out for all of camp as well as the opening weeks of the season, and Rasmus Sandin continues to remain unsigned. After one period against the Habs, the Leafs lost two more depth pieces in Jordie Benn and Carl Dahlstrom. The former suffered a groin injury on his first shift of the game, and the latter went down with a shoulder injury after an awkward collision midway through the opening frame.
As a result, Calle Järnkrok and Alex Kerfoot ended up playing defense for the final 40 minutes of this game. That maneuver by Sheldon Keefe meant the forward lines held an even higher concentration of players on the bubble vying for roster spots. In this game, a lot of those players stepped up, elevating the Leafs to a 3-0 win.
Toronto opened the scoring in a flash just under seven minutes in after Mark Giordano took the puck from Matt Murray on a routine dump-in. The veteran defenseman turned up ice and fired a stretch pass to Nick Robertson, who gained the line, a step on the nearest defender, and didn’t hesitate at all when ripping a snapshot between the legs of goaltender Sam Montembeault.
Scoring in the game ceased for a long while after that opening strike, but the Leafs eventually broke through again. In the waning moments of the second period with Toronto back on the power play, Alex Steeves held the puck on the right flank and sent it down low to Kerfoot, who put a one-touch pass into the slot right in the wheelhouse of Denis Malgin, who made no mistake.
The Leafs then added another power-play tally in the third period, this time courtesy of Nick Abruzzese. The puck found its way to the right flank and on the stick of Malgin, who wired a cross-seam pass to William Nylander. After receiving the pass, Nylander pushed a pass in front that ended up hitting some traffic. Abruzzese positioned himself right on the doorstep and was able to knock the puck in as it settled in front to round out the final score of 3-0.
A major factor in the Leafs blanking the Habs comes down to the goaltending. Matt Murray looked sharp in his first two periods of action as a Leaf. He was steady in the crease, showing some strong poise and puck tracking. There was only one real chaotic moment that almost resulted in a goal, but fortunately, Pontus Holmberg was able to help Murray out.
a flurry in front of Murray as he makes some stops
Holmberg has a nice clear at the end of it pic.twitter.com/AnQeqiDeyh
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 29, 2022
Overall, Murray wasn’t tested too heavily, but when called upon, he was up to the challenge, making 16 saves on 16 shots through 40 minutes of action. The same can be said for Erik Källgren, who held up in the third period to preserve the shutout.
Though Källgren faced a few more tests than Murray (11 shots against through the final 20), he was doing a great job of staying with the play and squaring up to opposing shooters. He never overextended himself and always seemed to be in a position to make the save. He was the same steady Källgren Leaf fans became acquainted with last season. There was one close call on a cross-crease play in tight, but Källgren showed some quick lateral movement to get across and take away the angle.
As for a steady performance up front, Pontus Holmberg has looked really solid so far. He hasn’t really leaped off the page with major offensive contributions, but he’s seemingly always in the right spot on the ice. He’s shown an ability to find soft spots in defensive coverage, whether it be on the cycle or off the rush.
Furthermore, Holmberg again made a few really nice hustle plays in this game. The one that stands out the most came mere seconds after he hit the post on a give-and-go play with Nylander when Holmberg raced into a swarm of Canadiens in the slot for another high-quality chance. With John Tavares set to miss the first couple of games of the regular season, the Leafs will have a spot at C to fill. Holmberg is certainly among the candidates to get an audition, and at this point, he seems to be the front-runner.
Speaking of players who always seem to be in the right position, Nick Abruzzese continues to impress with his hockey IQ. He’s a smart player with a knack for always being in a spot to make a play. Translating it into making plays is still a work in progress, but Abruzzese showed more willingness to be physical against Montreal. There were a few instances below the goal line where Abruzzese was doing a much better job of standing up to incoming checks. However, for every instance of him standing up a defender trying to lay a hit, there was an instance of him getting completely boxed out of a battle. The skills and IQ are there for Abruzzese to become an NHL player for this organization, but it’s (perhaps not surprisingly) looking more and more like he needs some seasoning with the Marlies and adjustment to the pro game.
As for someone who is fighting for a more immediate and permanent role on the Leafs roster, Nick Robertson shined in this game. Going back to his goal for a second, Robertson has a great shot — that much is clear — but he can sometimes lean on an exaggerated windup in an attempt to blow it by goalies with the perfect release. On his goal in this game — as well as some other non-scoring-play examples throughout the rest of the night — he was letting the puck fly off his stick. He still was shooting the puck every chance he got, but he was more focused on getting shots off rather than getting the perfect shot off, allowing him to create more offensively and test the goalie more frequently. It’s a necessary adjustment to make at the NHL level, where there simply isn’t as much time and space available before a defender gets a stick or body on the play. Perhaps the early goal went to his legs as Robertson was playing faster and more confidently, especially when skating through neutral ice.
Another player in the mix for a more full-time role with the Leafs is Denis Malgin. After adding another goal and assist in this game, the preseason hype train is taking off.
Malgin has been put in a perfect position to showcase all his strengths, and credit to him for taking advantage of it so far. When he has the puck in space or in transition, the Swiss forward has the offensive instincts to make the right play, as highlighted by his work on the right flank on the power play. Take a player like Malgin and pair him with William Nylander — the best transition player on the team — and it provides an opportunity to shine against weaker competition. Whether that translates to a roster spot and offensive success in regular-season play remains to be seen of course, but Keefe seems to like the looks of the Malgin-Nylander duo so far.
And then there’s the collection of players who seem destined for the Marlies. The first is Joey Anderson, who hasn’t accomplished enough to really force his way into the conversation in a serious way. Alex Steeves — challenging more seriously for a spot as a player who also saw some NHL action last year — has had some nice moments so far in the preseason; against the Canadiens on Wednesday, he had a great scoring opportunity that struck the iron. That said, Steeves hasn’t been quite as consistent as the likes of Holmberg or Malgin in terms of stringing those good moments together.
Lastly, the unheralded Bobby McMann is a fun player to watch. He’s got some size, is always pushing the pace, has generated some good chances, and isn’t afraid of laying the body. He can gain the zone, lower the shoulder, and drive towards the net, but can he improve on his ability to make the telling pass in front or generate a good shot on goal? There are some intriguing physical tools and a highly-competitive temperament present here, but the next step is developing the ability to finish on more of those plays.