Matt Murray pitched a 44-save shutout, Mitch Marner extended his points streak to 20 games, and the Maple Leafs penalty kill went seven-for-seven in an imperfect but impressive 4-0 road win over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night.

Your game in 10:

1.    While the shot attempts and shots don’t reflect too favourably on the Leafs in this one (39% share of shot attempts at five-on-five, which basically held from the start of the game to the end), the expected goals battle was around even or slightly favouring the Leafs for significant spells of the opening 40 minutes as Toronto built their 3-0 lead.

They did not possess the puck inside the offensive zone enough when they weren’t killing penalties, and some of that is due to all of the special teams time affecting the game’s momentum and the flow of the bench. In the first period, some of it was the result of their issues getting out of their zone cleanly when bogged down by a physical Stars forecheck. They also conceded a few too many odd-man rushes in the middle of the opening frame that Matt Murray took care of for them. But once inside the offensive zone, the Leafs did an effective job of making good on their zone time by getting to the inside and challenging the net aggressively, which was reflected in the xG numbers.

2.   The 1-0 goal by John Tavares came after Nick Roberston battled, took some punishment, and rolled off of his check to get to the edge of the crease, forcing the defenseman to turn and impede his own goalie prior to Tavares banging home the rebound.

On the Rasmus Sandin 3-0 goal, Auston Matthews drove across the crease before Tavares ended up in a heap in front of the net while tangled up with two Stars defensemen, creating the numerical advantage and the opening for Sandin to bury.

This game was really the exact opposite story of a lot of the frustrating losses early in the season where the Leafs’ possession numbers would look dominant while they spent a lot of empty-calorie shifts inside the offensive zone making the other team’s defense and goaltenders look good by not challenging the interior of the offensive zone or driving the front of the net enough. They’ve done a much better job of it during this stretch where the offense has come alive to the tune of nearly four goals a game during their last six.

3.    The unconscionable number of penalties in the second period — six minors, with one four-minute high sticking call and a 1:30 five-on-three — were difficult to even nitpick let alone complain about from the Leafs perspective. Pretty much all of them were automatic — four minutes for drawing blood with a high stick by Pierre Engvall, a blatant too-many-men bench minor, firing the puck into the crowd by Mark Giordano, and Justin Holl fully closing his hand on the puck and throwing it down the ice. The discipline has to be better there.

Right now, though, it feels like every turn of adversity the team encounters is just another opportunity to dig in and show another level of their resilience. Toss in Mitch Marner breaking his stick on the five-on-three and their two most important penalty killers on defense sitting in the box, and the Leafs still found a way. Rasmus Sandin came up with a couple of huge blocks. Marner laid down for a big block without his stick. There were multiple big saves from Matt Murray, who was extremely strong post-to-post.

‘Whatever it takes to get it done’ seems to be the team’s motto right now. From the outside looking in, the culture of the team seems to be in its strongest ever state in the Matthews era. The leaders are taking an approach of committing themselves fully to whatever is required in the given moment or game — blocking shots, taking or giving hits, hustling back on defense, filling in on the PK when the personnel is stretched — and it’s infectious for the rest of the team, especially when the commitment is translating into tons of wins.

4.   While the Leafs struggled to exit the zone and possess the puck enough in the first period before the second period became one big PK fest, I thought the Leafs managed the third period up 3-0 quite well. Matt Murray made a couple of good saves where he was strong on his post, as well as one where the Leafs turned it over below the goal line and he stopped Mason Marchment in the slot, but he didn’t need to sweat nearly as much as in the first two periods.

The Leafs simplified their game with clean and simple plays to get out of the zone to prevent the Stars from getting on top of them for consecutive shifts. They limited the Stars to just two shots in the opening nine minutes, which pretty much took Dallas out of the game at 3-0. Due to the early injury to Victor Mete, they were also doing it with just five defensemen, one of which was fairly limited in ice time in Conor Timmins (14:49).

5.   A seven-for-seven night — including a double minor and a lengthy five-on-three — on the penalty kill against a top-five power play is impressive, to say the least. While the gutsy five-on-three kill will (deservedly) be the subject of much post-game chatter, I was most impressed by the four-minute kill from the standpoint of how little the Leafs gave the Stars in terms of zone time and scoring opportunities.

In both the Tampa game and the Dallas game, we could see the clear difference when Mitch Marner was in the box for a penalty versus on the ice for the kill. The Stars buzzed on their first power play with Marner in the box and generated a bunch of good looks, building on that momentum back at even strength to control the start of the game. On that four-minute kill in the second period, Marner was able to take a couple of shifts over the duration of it, and he was incredible in terms of winning loose pucks, clearing pucks, applying pressure up ice, and keeping possession while shorthanded. The Leafs made it 3-0 — effectively putting the game out of reach with how Murray was playing — two minutes after the end of that kill.

I am not sure when other teams are going to learn not to make drop passes inside their own zone around him, but Marner will keep gobbling them up in the meantime.

6.     The 3-0 goal by Rasmus Sandin was the third goal in three games that was created off of Michael Bunting recovering possession with a strong forecheck and putting the puck into a good spot. Bunting quietly has a six-game points streak going, has 11 points in his last 11, and he’s a +11 over that stretch. It’s not the most meaningful stat, but he’s actually leading the team in plus/minus now at +12, and basically all of his pluses have been piled in this recent 12-game points streak by the Leafs.

7.    The opportunities created by the injuries on the blue line have provided the platform for Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to show their evolution into trustworthy, physically-mature, well-rounded defensemen, and this game is among the best of the bunch since they were united and thrust into the top four. Liljegren played a career-high 25:57 (a career-high by three minutes!) while Sandin also played a career-high 23:26.

We’ve seen them out there protecting leads late in games, and we’ve seen them take on significant penalty-killing duties as required. Tonight, with Giordano and Holl in the box, we saw them out there blocking shots and battling to kill off a 5-on-3.

Sandin scored in this game, made some key shot blocks, and also had a number of strong physical moments. He threw Ty Dellandrea to the ice to initiate a zone exit in the second period. Early in the third period amid a Dallas offensive-zone shift, he shoved the big and strong Roope Hintz off the puck, leading to a change of possession and a Leafs zone exit.

Sandin and Liljegren are both up to +9 in their last nine games while averaging over 20 minutes a night, and Sandin has five points (two goals) in those games as well.

Morgan Rielly plays a lot of minutes for the Leafs and gives them great production, but he’s not a Victor Hedman figure, and this isn’t a Leafs blue line that is constructed to lean overly hard on any one player or pairing. It’s a unit whose strength needs to be its three solid pairings that can be trusted to defend, move the puck efficiently, and activate into the offense. With Rielly and Brodie back in the fold eventually, Rielly – Brodie / Giordano – Holl / Sandin – Liljegren gives them that type of six-man unit, and to me, there isn’t really a huge need to add to it. The only way the unit could be significantly improved is by adding a true needle-moving top-pair stud that clearly isn’t affordable or workable under their cap or in terms of trade cost right now, if one were to even be available.

8.    Shutouts in 4-0 wins don’t get too much more hard-earned than this one from Matt Murray, who picked up his first clean sheet as a Leaf. The Leafs took seven penalties, including a double-minor and a 1:30 five-on-three. They conceded 44 shots on goal. The Stars missed the net a lot, but he was also in their heads pretty early in this game and was forcing them to try to find the top corners to beat him. He was never out of the fight during any of the flurries by the Stars with how sharp he was tracking pucks, how big he was in the crease, and how strong he was post-to-post. He came up with big, timely saves in the first period as the Leafs were outplayed and conceded some odd-man rushes against.

There have been a few instances in the last few games where bodies have been thrown on top of him by the other team and he’s gotten up favouring one part of his body or another, which makes all of us wince knowing durability over the 82 games remains the big question mark. But he is giving the Leafs truly elite goaltending right now. Only one netminder has started more than five games since the start of November and posted over a .940 save percentage, and it’s Matt Murray.

9.    It was a tough start to the game for Conor Timmins, who was either nervous/rusty or had a skate blade issue that forced him to fall over several times, one leading to an odd-man rush. But he settled in as the game progressed, negating some entries against by maintaining a tight gap — at one point, he impressively stood up a charging Jamie Benn at the blue line — moving the puck efficiently enough, and firing one semi-dangerous shot on goal.

The other debuting Leaf, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev never got a chance to get going in the game. His longest puck touch was a second-unit power play shift where he broke the zone and then threw a blind drop pass to the other team for a shorthanded odd-man rush against. So much shorthanded time and then the Leafs protecting a lead in the third led to just 7:16 in time on ice, a minute of which came on the power play.

10.   I fully recognize that we have fooled ourselves into thinking this team was showing clear signs it was different than years past around this time in the schedule before — that this time its regular-season success is more translatable in the playoffs based on a November-December hot streak. But it sure feels like it’s the case right now.

After a 2021-22 season in which the Tavares-led second line was really ordinary at 5v5, the Tavares line has been more consistently impactful than the Matthews line, and the Leafs have two first lines rolling right now (which is the dynamic the entire team is constructed around!), including both of them scoring in the first period of this game to make it 2-0. Their team defense concept and commitment have been excellent; in a game where they led for the vast majority, they blocked 27 shots tonight. The goaltending at the present time — with the obvious caveat about it being early in the season and needing to see health hold up — is as good and deep as it’s ever been in the current era.

It feels like no matter what kind of game they’re faced with, the Leafs are finding ways to win, and that’s exactly what a team like Tampa has been so effective at doing during its three straight trips to the Cup finals.

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts