Led by Nick Robertson’s offensive outburst and Ilya Samsonov’s steady play between the pipes, the Maple Leafs took care of business in Belleville against the Senators with a 6-3 win on Friday night.
While some of Ottawa’s top players featured in this game, Toronto elected for the opposite approach on the road. Aside from Ilya Samsonov in goal and a few of their established NHL forwards, Toronto had a lot of skaters destined for the Marlies taking to the ice in this game.
Not only did it not hold the Leafs back in this game, it resulted in a few standout performances from players trying to make the roster. A theme in this preseason so far has been the sense of urgency that’s been created by so many players having a real shot at a roster spot. That trend came to pass once again on Friday night, resulting in a lot of offense for the blue and white.
It started just under eight minutes into the first period. After the Leafs opened the game strongly and generated chances early, Denis Malgin sent a pass to the high slot to Nick Robertson, who corralled the puck and let a shot go on net that went off the post and past a Pontus Holmberg screen.
The 1-0 goal was the first of three within a two-minute stretch. The second came courtesy of Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, who buried a rebound as he crashed the net on an odd-man rush with Zach Aston-Reese. The third came via a Victor Mete blast after the puck was sent right down main street into Mete’s wheelhouse.
After the 3-0 goal, Ottawa called a timeout to settle the game down. The Senators picked up their play afterward and were able to claw their way back into the contest. They first got on the board after a puck skipped past Samsonov’s stick behind the net, resulting in a quick centering pass for a one-timer in the dying moments of the opening frame.
Ottawa struck again midway through the second on the power play on a pretty tic-tac-toe goal that ended with a Drake Batherson one-timer from the slot.
The scoreboard stayed quiet for a while after that. It took until nearly the halfway point of the third period for the next goal as Toronto extended its lead. Justin Holl carried the puck deep into the Senators’ zone, circled the net, and swung the puck back to the point to Filip Král. The Czech defenseman sent it across to Robertson, who unleashed an absolute bomb that rang off the post before settling in the crease for Malgin to poke home.
Robertson wasn’t finished there. A few moments later, the Leafs found themselves on the power play, where Robertson took matters into his own hands.
Robbie Rips ™️ pic.twitter.com/VhGkofR0DC
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 1, 2022
After Justin Holl added an empty net goal on a moon shot from below the goal line in the defensive zone, the Senators added another marker in the final minute to arrive at the final score of 6-3.
If there was a point where Nick Robertson planted his flag as full-time NHL-ready, this might’ve been it. He was electric on Friday night. Having an NHL-ready Robertson in the middle six on the left wing providing offense at even strength and a shooting threat on the secondary power-play unit (which no longer has Jason Spezza on it) is the ideal scenario if Robertson goes out and earns it this camp/preseason. Tonight was a big step in the right direction.
Another player making a serious case for an opening night lineup spot: Pontus Holmberg. He’s doing all of the little things right, even if he doesn’t have the same flash as a Robertson type. Every preseason appearance has followed the same trajectory: Holmberg will always be in position, make a few nice plays at both ends of the ice, and get a few high-quality chances working off of plays from his teammates. His consistency and ability to play all situations appear to give him the edge to open as a bottom-six center on the roster until John Tavares returns to health.
Holmberg and Robertson’s linemate, Denis Malgin, has also done a lot right in the preseason so far to improve his chances of making the team. He has provided a bunch of offense, highlighted by his play off the rush and with the puck in space, and he’s also finished a lot of his chances. The big question: Is there roster space for all three of the forwards on that line tonight? Keep in mind Robertson and Holmberg are both waivers exempt while Malgin is not.
Another trio that appeared in this game is just as noteworthy for a different reason. As of now, it seems like a relatively safe bet to say that the line of Zach Aston-Reece – David Kämpf – Nicolas Aubé-Kubel will stick into the regular season. The Leafs‘ checking line looked awfully strong in this game, both literally and figuratively. All three players are responsible in their own end, always in position, and make plenty of plays defensively. The defensive-zone play resulted in the Aubé-Kubel goal, creating the breakout that led to the odd-man rush the other way.
Aston-Reece and Aubé-Kubel were also playing with violence along the walls. Both of them brought the physicality you want to see out of a checking line, which frustrated the Senators a lot in this game. While this line’s offensive contributions will be more occasional than regular, Sheldon Keefe is going to absolutely love the ability to throw this line out nearly every defensive zone faceoff with full confidence.
Speaking of confidence, how about Ilya Samsonov? He certainly wasn’t perfect — two of the three goals he would absolutely want back — but he still looked sharp in this game. In the third period especially, there was a five or six-minute stretch where he made at least three highlight-reel saves, including this flurry on the penalty kill.
good Samsonov stops on either side pic.twitter.com/GRGUd09bXb
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 1, 2022
The second save in that clip is especially noteworthy for the discipline he showed in the crease. As he slides over for the first save, Samsonov doesn’t panic by overextending himself on the one-timer; he calmly shifts over and makes the save. As a result, he doesn’t have to waste any time getting back into position or readjusting his angle in the crease; he’s simply able to stand back up and remain in position.
When the time comes for him to be more aggressive after the puck moves to the other side, Samsonov is able to make the adjustment easily. His athleticism and ability to move laterally allows Samsonov to make an aggressive maneuver to square up to the shot and make an impressive save look pretty easy.
Obviously, we need to see it translate to regular season play, but Samsonov’s performances through five periods of preseason action have shown reason for optimism.