This game was much closer than it should’ve been when the score was 2-1 late in the third period.
The Maple Leafs should’ve been up 3-0 or 4-0 after dominating the opening 40 minutes, but they weathered the 2-1 Tampa Bay goal without any signs of panic in the final frame and put an important two points in the points column without too much stress thanks to two empty-net goals.
In terms of a high-quality performance in a key divisional matchup, this stacked up similarly to the Leafs’ 2-1 win over Boston back in November: a complete performance built off of really sound team defense that convincingly shut down an elite opponent and ended their winning streak.
Your game in 10:
1. Jon Cooper’s quote after the game ripping his team’s no-show effort is interesting when paired with Sheldon Keefe’s comment that the game “wasn’t nearly as physical or intense” as their two recent losses on the road against the Rangers and Capitals (seemingly a reference to Tampa not bringing their usual standard to the game, competitively speaking).
For their part, the Leafs did a great job of giving up almost nothing cheaply or easily that would’ve woken Tampa up and invited them into the game. There were practically no odd-man rushes conceded; they broke the puck out efficiently and managed the puck well through the neutral zone, giving Tampa next to nothing to feed off of in transition. The Leafs’ forwards tracked back diligently, allowing their D to gap up aggressively and frequently preventing Tampa from breaking the zone with the control, time, or space to make plays. Inside the defensive zone, the Leafs protected the slot very well, defending in layers as connected five-man units and rarely letting Tampa get off the wall or access the middle ice.
Here is the shot-location heat map comparison between the two teams tonight:
There is no doubt that these are two high-end teams, but that’s a visual representation of one team really on its game and one really off its game. William Nylander outshot the entire Tampa team 5-4 in the first period as the shot clock read 15-4 Leafs, and Toronto proceeded to run the tally up to 28-6 at one point in the second period.
2. There was one play in the opening minute where Auston Matthews — who was brilliant defensively for the rest of the game — lost track of Brayden Point as Point got himself loose from coverage by looping up high outside of the Leafs’ blue line, taking a pass from Nikita Kucherov, and breaking in through the middle for a big save by Matt Murray. That was Murray’s most important stop of the game given how little he needed to do the rest of the way.
The 2-1 goal in the third came off of a mistake on a defensive-zone faceoff play by Conor Timmins. Otherwise, there was very little given up by the Leafs in this game in terms of clear-cut, grade-A scoring chances. Against a team that was scoring over four goals per game in December, that’s another feather in the cap for the Leafs in the first half of this season where their numbers have been elite defensively.
3. The Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – William Nylander line was very much driving the bus for the Leafs in this game, outshooting Tampa 8-1 at even strength in the opening 20 minutes alone.
We’ll talk about Bunting specifically in a second, but Nylander (eight shots on goal!) jumped on Mikhail Sergachev’s lackadaisical play up the wall to set up the Bunting 1-0 goal. Nylander then drew the penalty that led to the Matthews goal early in the second period on one of many plays where he threatened to break in behind the Tampa defense (he capped his night with an empty-net goal where he burned Victor Hedman in garbage time).
Matthews was a 200-foot monster in this game, and Sheldon Keefe didn’t worry too much about manipulating the matchups to keep Matthews away from Tampa’s top centers — both excellent 200-foot players in their own right — in Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli on account of it going so well in the first period after the first shift.
Cirelli’s most frequently forward matchup: Matthews (6:37 head to head). Point’s most frequent forward matchup in the game: Matthews (7:54 head to head). He roughly tripled them in shots on goal dring those minutes.
There was one occasion in the first period where Keefe went with the Matthews line against Tampa’s fourth line, who iced it before Keefe loaded up the top line with Marner on the ensuing offensive-zone faceoff. But for the most part, Matthews was out there tilting the ice against Tampa’s two high-end centermen tonight.
4. Without going back through every goal location, the fade-away high-slot one-timer by Michael Bunting for the 1-0 goal struck me as the furthest out from the net he’s scored a goal for the Leafs that I can remember. It was a perfect shot.
Bunting is obviously going to do the vast majority of his goal-scoring in the greasiest areas of the ice — and his shot isn’t really a beat-elite-goalies-clean kind of weapon typically — but he really caught that one and placed it perfectly. A highly impressive six-shot game amid a great recent stretch of hockey from Bunting.
🔥 SCARBOROUGH SCORCHER 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ZahlvkUPXZ
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 21, 2022
5. A thought that occurred to me frequently throughout the first 40 minutes before Rasmus Sandin left the game injured (thought to be precautionary at this time): Sandin and Timothy Liljegren hardly even factored into the Tampa series last playoff, and here they were in the first period playing excellent hockey in tough-matchup situations against the Lightning just six months later. Sandin broke up a couple of opportunities for Point and Cirelli with a good defensive stick in the first period. Liljegren made two good, hard defensive plays on Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov.
Liljegren finished the game with 21:17 of entirely even-strength minutes and was on for two goals for, zero against, and 87% of the expected goals. He was on the ice with Mark Giordano when the Leafs iced the game with the 3-1 empty-netter via Pierre Engvall, making a good little play under pressure along the end boards — followed up by a strong/smart play to protect the puck by Giordano — to get it out of the zone.
We’re seeing Liljegren blossom into a legitimate top-four defenseman before our eyes. After tonight, he currently leads the Leafs’ defense at +15 on the season (top 10 in the NHL among defensemen).
6. Speaking of Swedes, the Pontus Holmberg-led fourth line didn’t show well in the shot attempt numbers, but it had some nice moments in this game. It nearly put the game away at 3-1 off of a strong forecheck by Joey Anderson to strip a puck and set up Zach Aston-Reese alone in front. Holmberg showed a good burst of pace down the left wing and hit the post in the third period as well.
In a game where the Leafs were protecting a lead, Sheldon Keefe felt comfortable enough to give Anderson five shifts in the third period and the line came as close as any to putting the game away before the empty-netters sealed it.
7. There has been a lot of talk about the five-forward setup on the Leafs’ power play — which was looking to end a zero-for-eight slump — but it was actually Rasmus Sandin at the top and Mitch Marner in the total opposite position to the point — i.e. providing the screen in front — that led to Auston Matthews’ 2-0 power-play goal.
A Papi Classic pic.twitter.com/XabYrHplbf
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 21, 2022
The second power play featured five forwards with Marner at the top, and it was a really effective shift despite not scoring. Matthews nearly scored a similar goal to his first, but it hit the knob of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s stick. Marner and Nylander nearly broke in alone on solo rushes. Marner also set up a Matthews one-timer that was dangerous.
Having Marner dance and slide around at the top of the zone, try to draw in PKers, and slip passes over to Matthews or Nylander to take one-timers or skate downhill and rip shots on goal can be effective as a mix-it-up option in Morgan Rielly’s absence. But I also think that when the Leafs’ top unit is moving the puck with pace and urgency, and Matthews is really taking command of it as he was tonight, the specifics of the setup don’t really matter all that much.
8. It’s pretty hard to believe that Auston Matthews is 33 games into his season and only has one multi-goal game. He had six by this time last season. He certainly deserved one tonight (six shots on goal).
Of late, most of it is down to luck. I do wonder if a small fraction of it is mindset as well. Watching him play, I never get the impression that the slower goal-scoring pace — still excellent at 42 goals, but well behind last season’s otherworldly pace — is affecting his approach in the slightest. He looks like a player who is taking a lot of pride and joy in playing impeccable 200-foot hockey and piling up wins with his teammates than he is showing any concern about taking advantage of “point night” opportunities for the sake of individual trophies, scoring races, or other personal accolades. There is rarely any sign of him forcing anything or cheating.
He’s arguably never looked more committed to tracking back deep into the defensive zone to break up plays and support his defensemen. You can see him highly engaged and motivated by the challenge of smothering other elite players in his matchups. He looks like a player whose sole focus is on winning games and executing the habits that are going to make the difference if and when this team finally breaks through at playoff time. Silly goal totals would obviously be fun — and may well still be in store the rest of the way — but I am getting plenty of enjoyment out of watching the total commitment to detail all over the rink in the vast majority of Matthews’ games this season.
9. As for Calle Järnkrok’s return, it was a pretty quiet night for his line alongside Mitch Marner and John Tavares, but he played nearly 13 minutes, fired one fairly threatening one-timer, and picked up an assist on William Nylander’s empty-net goal.
With the bottom six in a decent spot at the moment, I think it’s worth taking a look at a solid run of games with Järnkrok in this lineup spot. It may not be the long-term solution looking ahead to the playoffs, but it makes more stylistic sense as a fit to me than the recently-departed Denis Malgin did. It’s a simple role involving winning pucks back for Tavares and Marner, being around the net, and getting himself open for his linemates; Järnkrok possesses a solid shot and can get it off his stick in a hurry.
Some combination of Marner, Tavares, and Järnkrok produced three goals in the four games prior to Järnkrok’s groin injury.
10. Far more important than anything else in this review, my thoughts are with Victor Mete and his family tonight — as well as the other families affected — after the passing of his grandfather, Vittorio Panza, and the four other victims that lost their lives in the recent mass shooting in Vaughan. It’s a completely shocking and senseless tragedy that has robbed these families of their peace and joy this holiday season. Our thoughts are with everybody impacted.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts