There are three truths about this Maple Leafs team that we can probably all agree on by this point:
1. If you count them out as underdogs entering a regular-season matchup, they’ll most often step up and win the game.
2. When they’re playing a game that should be a lay-up W in the regular season, they’ll probably either lose or make it as hard on themselves as possible.
3. They’ll do whatever is required to pull you back into believing in the playoffs before crushing your hopes and dreams.
Let’s hope trend #3 ends this spring, but tonight’s win was a prime example of #1.
It wasn’t pretty by any stretch. They simply battled, rode some luck, and found a way tonight, sticking it to the New Jersey fans in the process. A true character win.
Your game in 10 on a wild night in New Jersey:
1. The final 40 minutes were dodgy at times, but let’s acknowledge a highly-impressive Leafs road period in the opening frame in a tough building: just five shots against, 68% expected goals, 58% shot attempts, and a 2-0 lead through 20 minutes. The Nick Robertson – John Tavares – Mitch Marner line, in particular, was buzzing.
They needed a call to go their way to avoid going down 1-0, which obviously would’ve changed the game significantly, but — just like the other two disallowed Jersey goals — it was the correct call by the book. If the slight contact on the goalie’s skate happens outside of the crease, maybe it’s not called, and who knows what happens upon review if the refs called this one a good goal on the ice and it was challenged by Sheldon Keefe (it needs to be conclusive to be overturned, whatever conclusive means to you!). But contact with the goalie inside the crease, potentially impeding Matt Murray’s pad from stretching to make that save, is textbook goaltender interference.
2. Mitch Marner was the Leafs’ best forward in this game, playing a seriously committed 200-foot game and refusing to give up on a play with his puck pressure all over the ice. He created the 1-0 goal all on his own by harassing two Devils defenders into a turnover and making a quick play out front for John Tavares to bury.
Magic takes a lot of hard work! 👀🪄 pic.twitter.com/qxn2sAP9M5
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 24, 2022
The Leafs needed some huge performances from their leadership group (now sans Rielly) if they were to get a result tonight, and Marner came out like he knew he needed to take ownership and lead. There were tons of great little effort plays all over the ice from Marner that added up to a big difference in the game, both on the PK and at five-on-five.
One 13-game streak came to an end tonight, and it wasn’t Marner’s points streak.
3. Pontus Holmberg’s 2-0 goal in the first period stood up at the game-winner after all was said and done. It was a gift from Tomas Tatar with the giveaway, but there was also a strong pinch by Rasmus Sandin just before to create some pressure. Holmberg finished it nicely through the five-hole.
Holmberg is a little bit of a Kampf-lite or Kampf-in-training — dependable, never cheats, always above his man, moves well out there, and skilled enough to continue sequences with the puck, even if there isn’t much that’s dynamic about his offensive game. Nice to see him take his chance there and get rewarded with his first NHL goal.
GET THE TAPE & SHARPIE READY!
Holmy's first career goal! 👏 pic.twitter.com/3ivtXpAiSL
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 24, 2022
4. With these kinds of wins, it’s always difficult to know how much to criticize the less-than-perfect process of playing with the lead vs. praising the character shown to dig in and simply get the job done by any means necessary. The Devils largely owned the last 40 minutes of the game. The Leafs were outshot 30-10 in the last two periods, with the Devils owning over 70% of the scoring chances and expected goals. It didn’t help that the Leafs won only 38% of draws at even strength in the game and just 29% at even strength in the third period.
The Leafs didn’t protect the lead through possessing the puck in the offensive zone nearly enough, although they generally defended the middle of the ice well (save for one missed assignment on Dougie Hamilton on the 2-1 goal in the third) and largely avoided giving up the big chance against be it an odd-man rush or breakaway.
The circumstances matter. They’re without three of their top four defensemen. Late in the second period, they were down another defenseman in Jordie Benn, who tried to return but couldn’t battle through an upper-body injury. With Mac Hollowell playing in his first game and Benn out hurt, they had two defensemen below 12 minutes on a unit that is already missing most of its top four.
The Devils are a really good team that was fired up to clinch the record, and the building was bumping. Sometimes, you’re just looking for the team to show it’s going to do whatever it takes in those circumstances to protect its defense and goalie and get out of there with the result.
There were too many sacrifices made to mention them all — by the entire defense core and many of the forwards — in terms of getting shooting lanes or withstanding contact to make plays and get the puck out. The Leafs really dug in and ground one out.
5. If you could debate the first one a little, the second and third no-goal calls on the Devils were unequivocal. You can’t cut in between a goalie and his path back to his net, knock him down, and then have the goal count. And anyone watching could identify the distinct kicking motion on the third disallowed goal (that was a real let-off on the power play by the Leafs before that disallowed shorthanded goal, with Kerfoot, Robertson, and Nylander just letting the Devils skate around them).
As for the circus that transpired after the third disallowed Devils goal, fans throwing debris on the ice in protest — when it’s so widespread to the point where a clean-up crew has to come out for 10 minutes — should be a delay-of-game penalty assessed to the home team.
6. Shortly before Mark Giordano nearly ending the game on an empty netter from his own zone, Zach Aston-Reese made one of a couple of good defensive plays in critical moments in this game to strip a puck loose. The fourth line came through with good defensive plays in those critical late moments, including David Kämpf showing strong composure at one point to settle a puck down in the high slot, take a few strides, and get it out.
Keefe leaned on the fourth line and Alex Kerfoot – John Tavares – Mitch Marner in the final five minutes, with none of Auston Matthews, Michael Bunting, William Nylander, Calle Järnkork, Pontus Holmberg, or Nick Roberston touching the ice.
On defense, the silver lining to any injury situation like this is the exposure certain players are going to receive that otherwise might not have happened over the course of a season. With no Rielly, Brodie, Muzzin, or Benn, it was left to Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to kill out the final 30 seconds in a playoff-like game and atmosphere, and they were out there blocking shots and battling. Those kinds of experiences are invaluable.
7. What else can we say at this point about Mark Giordano‘s contributions as the injuries continue to pile up on the blue line? He played 25 all-situations minutes and recorded six shot blocks in this game, and there were numerous examples of him disrupting dangerous scoring chances by getting a stick on a puck or a piece of a pass through the slot when the Leafs were in desperation mode defensively. He also nearly iced the game with a clear from the defensive zone that rang the post from 190 feet out with 1:30 left.
His celebration at the end showed the fire that is still burning within him to lead the team and do whatever it takes to win games. And the Toronto native is doing it all on a league-min contract. This guy’s jerseys should be flying off the shelves.
8. As for Mac Hollowell’s NHL debut, you can’t really ask for much more than simply hoping he isn’t too overwhelmed by an atmosphere like this one tonight. It was hilarious (and a little scary) when he took off to create the 2-on-1 with ZAR with 10 minutes left in the third in a 2-1 game (Kampf and Engvall needed to not get caught up ice there as the next layer; good play by Justin Holl — who impressively logged 25+ alongside Gio — to break up the danger). Hollowell actually thought about taking off again with six minutes left in the third and thought better of it at the last second. He didn’t seem intimidated, that’s for sure.
9. It goes without saying it was Matt Murray’s best game as a Leaf so far. Of the 34 stops, he made a number of good ones, and he also made a lot of saves he couldn’t have known much about — off of deflections through traffic in front, etc. — but was in a position to make because he was consistently big and square at the top of the blue paint. He was battling all night and maintaining good depth in his crease. Since returning from injury, he is now 3-0-1 with a .942 save percentage.
10. Where does it go from here with the blue line if Jordie Benn is out headed into Minnesota on Friday? We’re potentially looking at a six-man group consisting of Mark Giordano, Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, Victor Mete, and Mac Hollowell unless the Leafs are comfortable immediately inserting Conor Timmins into the lineup (which is possible given the circumstances). That sort of speaks for itself. It’s going to be tough, but the team seems to be relishing the adversity right now by coming together and battling hard for one another, with a foundation defensively (and the calibre of goaltending) that is allowing them to always be in the fight.
It’s a much different look from the Leafs than their reputation of past seasons, and it’s good to see them winning games in all sorts of ways during this 7-1-3 stretch in November even as the offense still isn’t cooking.
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts