William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot each scored twice — each tallying a goal at even strength and on the power play — and Nick Robertson stayed hot with a three-point night as the Maple Leafs coasted to a 5-1 win over the Canadiens.
As the Leafs took to the ice in Montreal Monday night, the lineup Sheldon Keefe deployed looked a lot closer to the one he’ll use in the regular-season opener. The opportunity for depth players to push for roster spots is dwindling as players who look closer to roster locks begin to jockey for roles.
Because the Leafs played their stars as well as a number of key contributors, they were able to roll over the Canadiens from the jump. In the opening frame, the Leafs controlled 62.5% of the scoring chances, 100% of the high-danger chances, and 70.92% of the expected goals en route to building a 2-0 lead (data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick). Those goals came courtesy of William Nylander on the power play and Zach Aston-Reese, who ripped home a puck off of a broken play after a turnover deep in the Canadiens zone.
In the second, Nylander added another goal after Nick Robertson went to work on the forecheck to steal the puck back and feed it out in front. Nylander, with all the time in the world, made no mistake on the backhand.
The 3-0 score held for most of the rest of the game. Montreal started to control the pace of play a lot more, though, as they tried to climb back into the game. The push was aided by multiple power-play attempts, including a five-on-three in the third period, but the Leafs were able to hold strong thanks to the stellar play of Matt Murray, who went the distance in this one and turned aside 29 of 30 shots.
The Canadiens did eventually break through on a late power play with about six minutes to go in the third when Jonathan Drouin buried a rebound after Juraj Slavkovksy created some chaos in front.
As the game drew to a close, Alex Kerfoot added a pair of late tallies to pad the score to the final of 5-1. His first came off a shot that beat Jake Allen from a weird angle — a routine shot that Allen had no business letting in. Kerfoot’s second goal came on the power play, where he buried a rebound off of a Robertson shot from distance.
Before the game, Sheldon Keefe mentioned that Nick Robertson was coming off of two of the best performances in a Leafs jersey. He successfully built on the momentum tonight and did not let up at all in his push for a roster spot. Robertson’s hustle was the most noticeable aspect of his game on Monday. In all three zones at 5v5, he was an absolute puck hound, earning his marks on the scoresheet.
Impressive effort from Nick Robertson to set up this goal.
He outworks everyone here. pic.twitter.com/tNedIJQi6W
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) October 4, 2022
Great recovery defensive play from Nick Robertson pic.twitter.com/T8nbe7JPtS
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) October 4, 2022
As far as an audition goes, Robertson certainly made his case to start on the second line alongside Kerfoot and Nylander. At this point, the player seems to have made the decision for the coaching staff in regard to the opening-night lineup. From his offensive game coming to life to his work rate and competitiveness away from the puck, Robertson has done everything in his power and more to win a job.
Another standout performance came between the pipes. Matt Murray played a full game this time around and looked just as sharp as he did in his previous preseason action. In the latter part of this game, Montreal generated several high-danger chances, but Murray was fully up to the task.
Whether it was Sean Monahan breaking in with speed and cutting across the net, or the Canadiens whipping the puck around on a power play to set up one-timers for Mike Hoffman, Murray had no issues with sound positioning or efficient lateral movement in this game. Consistently square to the shooter, Murray looked every bit of his six-foot-five-inches in the net and was as steady as can be in the crease.
Now, as mentioned in reference to Ilya Samsonov after his impressive 60-minute effort on Friday, these are warm-up games for veteran players more than they are anything to make solid conclusions about. However, given the anxiousness about the position in the market and the fact that they’re both acclimating to a new organization, system, and teammates, it’s been an ideal exhibition season in net for the Leafs so far.
Speaking of winning a job, it certainly appears as though Pontus Holmberg is going to open the season as the fourth-line center. On Monday, he played between Zach Aston–Reese and Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, a line that gave the Leafs good minutes in this game. Holmberg specifically wasn’t especially noteworthy, but that’s sort of who he is as a player. You might only notice him a few times per game, but he does his job and the coaching staff trusts him to provide safe minutes. As a fill-in for a few games to open the year before John Tavares returns, the Leafs could do worse.
His linemates’ performances were more noteworthy. Aston-Reese and Aubé-Kubel complement each other well, especially on the forecheck, where they make life uncomfortable on opposing defenses by running around and hitting everything in sight. The fact that they are also reliable defensively and can both be used on the penalty kill is a bonus. You never want to get too far ahead of yourself in the preseason, but the pieces seem to be present on this roster to form a fourth line that actually has a clear identity this season rather than the muddled mess it was for much of last year (a problem that arguably extends back much further than that, but I digress).
As for the roster bubble players, there’s a lot of unknown here. Denis Malgin has had a really strong preseason and manufactured some good moments in this game where he was able to find some open ice and attack. The same finish from previous games eluded him and he didn’t string together as many good moments, resulting in more dropbacks to the point or simply dumping the puck in behind the net.
There were a few instances where he tried to attack the net more directly, but it didn’t lead to as many scoring chances or sustained pressure as games previous. That’s probably not a surprise given his opportunity in the lineup was downgraded; Robertson played up next to Kerfoot and Nylander, and Malgin serving as a line driver/primary threat on a unit with Gaudette and Steeves is a much bigger ask.
Whether Malgin is a part of the opening-night lineup may depend on Pierre Engvall‘s status as he works his way back from injury.
Speaking of Adam Gaudette, he is another player whose status is up in the air as preseason nears a close. Gaudette did not really impact the game in any meaningful way tonight. The feistiness he showed in his first preseason action wasn’t as visible and he looked a little uncomfortable as he works his way back from injury — any time off at this time of year, in a competitive camp environment like the Leafs‘, can really put one behind the eight ball. Right now, it’s very difficult to pencil him into any of the four lines up front. It’s conceivable that Gaudette ends up as the 13th forward to start, but there is also a challenging cap/roster squeeze ahead and Gaudette is not waivers exempt.
Game Highlights: Maple Leafs 5 vs. Canadiens 1
Sheldon Keefe Post Game: Maple Leafs 5 vs. Canadiens 1
Sheldon Keefe after a 5-1 win over the Habs in preseason: "Matt Murray was the highlight of the game for me."
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) October 4, 2022