After storming out to an early lead, the Maple Leafs spent the majority of the game on their heels as the Red Wings fought back, overcoming the excellent play of Ilya Samsonov to win by a score of 4-2.
Right from the opening faceoff, the odds were stacked against the Leafs’ lineup in this game as it primarily featured players who will be sent down to the Marlies in the next few days. They were up against a Red Wings lineup that included the majority of the established NHL talent that will be playing prominent roles in Detroit this season.
Despite the discrepancy in NHL talent on the rosters, the Leafs came out looking really good. The youthful energy and hunger featured throughout the lineup were evident early, leading to a quick strike to open the scoring. Just under two minutes into the game, Adam Gaudette brought the puck out from behind the Detroit net as Nick Abruzzese closed in from the point and found open ice in the high slot. Gaudette fed a nice backhand feed into the middle, where Abruzzese ripped a snap-shot by Alex Nedeljkovic to open the scoring.
Just a few minutes later, Toronto once again gained control down low. This time, Nick Robertson circled back up the boards with the puck with a defender on his back before feeding the puck to the point for Rasmus Sandin. Early in his preseason debut, Sandin took the pass on the right side, immediately transitioned into a shooting position, and let a low shot fly that beat Nedeljkovic from distance. There was a little bit of traffic in front, but it was certainly one Nedeljkovic would want back.
Toronto maintained a 2-0 lead for most of the first period, but they didn’t make it to the intermission unscathed. As Denis Malgin received a pass in the defensive zone, he attempted to send a one-touch pass to the middle to start a breakout, but a defender pinched and took away possession while maintaining the zone. Dylan Larkin ended up with the puck near the point, where he handed it off to Tyler Bertuzzi, who beat Ilya Samsonov with a beautiful release.
Roughly halfway through the second, Detroit tied the game on a much uglier play after the Leafs were trapped in their own zone for well over a minute. As a result, Elmer Soderblom was able to take advantage of the tired Leafs’ defense by walking right into the slot, where he beat Samsonov on the backhand.
The Red Wings ramped up the pressure in the third period. After an initial blitz in the opening moments of the frame that Toronto warded off, Detroit broke through on a Joe Veleno shot through a screen.
The Leafs tried to even the game up late, but they were unable to generate any consistent pressure in the Red Wings zone. In the final moments, Bertuzzi iced the game with an empty-net goal to round out a final score of 4-2.
It’s hard (and ill-advised) to draw too many meaningful conclusions from the preseason. It’s even sillier to do so when you have one side playing their B-team against the other side’s A-team. Toronto was outmatched in the talent department in this game, which meant a lot of work for goaltender Ilya Samsonov. There were several instances where Detroit was able to generate successive high-quality chances and Samsonov had to flash his athleticism multiple times to keep the puck out.
Ilya larceny!! pic.twitter.com/CZtAXiqr96
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 8, 2022
The box score stats have not been overly impressive from Samsonov in the preseason, but he received two starts where it was mostly AHLers in the Leafs‘ lineup taking on nearly complete NHL lineups, and he kept his team in both games thanks to some big, timely saves. There have been instances in each of Samsonov’s appearances so far where he has stepped up and delivered a big-time save when the team needed it most.
As for the noteworthy skaters in this game, the performances were all rather mixed. Let’s start with Rasmus Sandin, who as mentioned earlier, got himself on the scoreboard with a point-shot goal and also showed a lot of what he has shown so far in the league. Offensively, he was active, jumping up in the play and showing poise when handling the puck at the point (especially on the power play), including on his off-side. Defensively, though, he struggled at times along the boards and when defending the front of the net. There were instances where his ability to turn puck retrievals into quick breakouts shined, but whenever he didn’t have a clean retrieval, there were problems maintaining possession against the forecheck. He also got caught early on when he let a Red Wing forward behind him, leading to a great scoring chance in front (Samsonov bailed him out). It wasn’t a bad night for Sandin, but there is clearly — and understandably — a bit of rust he needs to shake off to clean things up defensively.
Another player who struggled along the boards at times tonight was Nick Robertson. The Red Wings dressed a lot of big-bodied NHL defenders and that proved a stiffer test for the smaller Robertson. When he had the puck in space, he was the same electric offensive player he has been over the course of the preseason, but there were issues with getting into open space on Friday night. Robertson was getting knocked down often in this game, resulting in too many instances where the Leafs gained the zone and immediately lost possession. The shot, overall offensive awareness, and competitiveness are clearly there, but the adjustment to NHL size and strength is still an ongoing process that was visible on Friday night.
The same could be said about Robertson’s linemate in this game, Denis Malgin. At this point, it’s clear what Malgin brings to the table: He is a skilled winger with the ability to transport the puck up ice, sniff out open ice, and find his teammates in good spots. He has also shown that he is competent in making a good first read both on the breakout and when he finds himself in open ice in the offensive zone. However, Malgin, like Robertson, is undersized, which limits his ability to contribute on the cycle. When he has to battle along the boards to keep possession, bigger defenders are able to overpower him and reclaim possession. Defensively, on the first Red Wings’ first goal, Malgin needed to be firmer on the puck as he turned it over on the half wall, lost his balance, and then couldn’t fight through a bigger body to make a defensive stop on Bertuzzi as he skated into the slot.
It’s not a coincidence or a surprise that Malgin’s effectiveness has been reduced significantly when he isn’t paired with a highly-skilled player such as William Nylander. Malgin can competently ride shotgun on a line with more skilled players, but asking him to be the primary play driver is too much to ask of him, and whether he is going to be able to carve a spot/role as a regular on this team — given it has such high-end skill and depth of NHL talent — remains to be seen.
The evaluation of Pontus Holmberg hasn’t really changed much over the preseason. Tonight, he played a majority of the game between Robertson and Malgin. He was only taken out of that role late when the Leafs chased the game and Sheldon Keefe sought a little bit more offense by shifting Semyon Der-Arguchintsev into the role.
Holmberg, though, was flashing offensively more than he has so far in the preseason. He exuded more confidence with the puck on his stick and showed more willingness to take chances offensively as he worked his way into high-danger areas. Keefe is clearly establishing a level of comfort with Holmberg and knows what to expect from him on every single shift. I’ll be curious to see if there is more to uncover on the offensive side of his game as he acclimates to the league.
Game Highlights: Red Wings 4 vs. Leafs 2
Sheldon Keefe Post Game: Red Wings 4 vs. Leafs 2
Sheldon Keefe after a 4-2 exhibition loss in Detroit: “We’re really happy with what we have gotten out of Ilya Samsonov."
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) October 8, 2022