The Maple Leafs went down by two goals on four separate occasions but still fought back to earn a point in a 6-5 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues to kick off the 2023 portion of their schedule.
There was plenty to dislike about tonight’s performance, but as Anthony wrote in his excellent notebook this morning, this Leafs team is almost never out of a game — especially when the top line is rolling like this.
Your game in 10:
1. The first 30 seconds of this game went according to plan, as the third line took a quick shift, put a shot on goal via David Kampf, and then the top line came over the boards for the offensive-zone draw; they buzzed a little and created a one-timer from the top of the zone for William Nylander — a sign of things to come later in the game.
However, a two-on-one conceded the other way in the first minute was also a sign of things to come in this high-event game. With three Leafs in deep — including Morgan Rielly — as Auston Matthews circled up high outside the blue line, he can’t take a low-percentage lunge at the puck along the boards instead of staying above on that play.
The Leafs needed a couple of big early saves from Ilya Samsonov on that two-on-one and on a subsequent grade-A chance in front off of a turnover by TJ Brodie up the wall (it hit the official’s skate). They then had a chance to take control of the game with the first power play of the night, but it backfired.
2. It’s easy to blame the five-forward experiment for the 1-0 shorthanded goal, but Mitch Marner didn’t do the worst job imaginable on the 1v1, and it really should’ve been saved by Ilya Samsonov along the ice (the five-hole vulnerability is becoming a bit of a pattern).
Sheldon Keefe stuck with the five forwards on the next power play a few minutes later. Marner broke up a rush against at one point, and they generated a few good looks (so did the second unit to follow it up).
The question the coaching staff needs to answer as they collect data over a decent sample size, both in terms of the video clips and the analytics: To what extent does the five-forward approach net out positively in terms of chance generation versus the vulnerability created by leaving Marner or another forward to defend 1v1s or 2v1s? Most teams use good forwards on the penalty kill capable of hurting you off the rush if they can isolate a forward as the last man back. It’s just one goal and it might’ve happened if a defenseman was back there anyway, but we have seen that there is (an obvious) degree of risk associated with this, and it needs to be worth it (against Washington, for example, Marner oddly laid down in the crease and let Evgeni Kuznetsov walk around him untouched for a point-blank chance).
Depending on what the data and video suggest in terms of the risk-reward calculus as the sample size grows, it might prove to be something the Leafs use a lot or only situationally — for example when trailing late in a game. Either way, we’ll learn something, and there is value in that.
3. The 2-0 goal from St. Louis on the power play came after a really soft hooking call on Michael Bunting. The goal itself came off of a wild, unlucky double deflection late in the power play, but it was one of those goals that stemmed from too much time spent in the defensive zone in the final 1:05 of the penalty kill — after a lost faceoff, they lost a few 50-50 puck battles, Alex Kerfoot flubbed a clearance, and it allowed them to fall victim to a bad bounce.
On the other hand, the 3-1 goal early in the second period — stemming from a John Tavares high-sticking penalty in the offensive zone — came off of a breakdown where the Leafs‘ PK seemed really out of sorts. TJ Brodie was throwing himself all over the ice instead of just playing his position properly, and the structure came apart as the Leafs collapsed into a heap of bodies. Out of the crowd, the Blues fished out the loose puck off of a rebound and shot it into the net.
Not a banner night for the Leafs’ PK.
4. Three special-teams goals against in the first 23 minutes of the game created a situation where the Leafs were behind eight ball facing a multi-goal deficit and needed to start taking some chances against a Blues team seemingly happy to trade chances and play run-and-gun hockey. It made for a wild middle frame where the two teams took chances up the ice and fed each other’s transition games by making plenty of high-risk plays through the middle of the ice. Both goaltenders were fighting off routine shots and kicking out rebounds like pinball paddles. All told, there were six goals in the middle frame, including three inside a span of 1:17.
The 3-2 goal for the Leafs came off of a now-familiar play from the top line: Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews were working the cycle, and William Nylander got lost high in the zone for a one-time opportunity, which he wired past Jordan Binnington.
WILLY WIRED IT! 💣 pic.twitter.com/Z8C02iuZCH
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 4, 2023
We can see this top line looking for this play a lot lately; it tried it again just prior to the 5-4 goal, but the pass was slightly off and Nylander ended up returning the puck to Matthews, who buried it short side.
5. That 5-4 goal, by the way, was one of Auston Matthews’ nicest of the season. William Nylander wired a slap pass at Matthews that was slightly behind him, and Matthews managed to corral it — despite it popping up a little off his blade and rolling on edge — and rip it into the top corner in one smooth motion while skating downhill.
New year, same Papi 🥶 pic.twitter.com/FsXDs9zHAF
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 4, 2023
It followed an earlier goal by Michael Bunting where Bunting was again in the right place at the right time in front of the net to pick up a fortunate bounce at the net from a TJ Brodie point shot.
The top line scored three of the Leafs’ four five-on-five goals, in addition to Bunting’s power-play goal, and finished with over 72% of the expected goals.
Believe it or not, on a team with Mitch Marner and Matthews on it, Nylander now leads the team in both points (45) and goals (22) through 38 games after tonight’s three-point effort.
6. The Blues’ 5-3 goal by Brandon Saad was one of the two they scored at five-on-five, and it came on a missed coverage on the backcheck by Calle Järnkrok and the John Tavares line (along with the Ramus Sandin – Timothy Liljegren pair, which could’ve defended the initial rush better). That brings the Tavares line to one five-on-five goal and two against in the last five games, and they’re hovering just above break-even in terms of shot-attempt share.
It’s something to monitor. This team had a formidable two-headed monster rolling back in November, but it is cooling off in the last month; Tavares individually has eight points in his last 14 games, and the five-on-five dominance isn’t there as consistently from his line of late. We’ll continue to assess in the next two months, but I know where I am spending my deadline assets and cap dollars today if I am Kyle Dubas…
7. The Leafs partially redeemed a completely disastrous night on special teams with a 5-5 power-play goal in the third period that came as a result of more Michael Bunting antics to cap off another effective game from #58 in blue.
Bunting initiating contact and snapping his head back when he was pushed in the chest to draw the initial call, then proceeding to bury a power-play chance in the slot to tie the game up, is the type of stuff that absolutely infuriates the opposition. Love or hate him, every team could use a rat this effective.
BIG MIKE!! 😤 pic.twitter.com/DIftDoXNq3
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 4, 2023
Back-to-back two-goal games — plus a nice assist on the William Nylander goal — brings Bunting up to 23 points in his last 22 games. It’s understandable that Kyle Dubas would be sending out feelers to Bunting’s agent knowing a negotiation following a potential 20+ goal, 60+ point season at this rate isn’t the most appetizing prospect, but let’s leave tomorrow’s problems for the GM.
8. It didn’t necessarily show in the numbers — they were on for a goal against, and their expected goals were below 20% — but the fourth line is showing some flashes of life with Dryden Hunt on it. The fourth line manufactured a good high-energy pushback shift after the Blues’ fifth goal.
Hunt, in particular, showed good speed — although less-than-good finish — to take off on a breakaway at one point in the game, and he also had a nice sequence where he looped around the offensive zone with the puck on his stick and threw it on net.
Zach Aston-Reese also went on a nice rush in the first period, and then he drew a penalty later on and nearly set up Morgan Rielly at the back post on the power play. Pontus Holmberg has flashed plenty of encouraging moments of skill with the puck this season, but it was nice to see his linemates possess the puck and make some positive plays with it as well.
9. They didn’t win it in three-on-three OT, but I really liked the process for the first few minutes of the extra-time period. David Kampf started with TJ Brodie and Timothy Liljegren, the Leafs won the draw and took possession, and then they made a quick change. They really controlled possession for the duration of the first couple of minutes, taking care of the puck, making line changes in possession, and patiently picking the Blues apart. It culminated in an Auston Matthews open-net opportunity, which you’ll take every time; he just fanned on a pass that was slightly into his feet vs. in his wheelhouse.
OT devolved into some sloppy exchanges eventually — that’s inevitable at three-on-three — but the process was solid from the Leafs for the first half of the five minutes, and they were nearly rewarded.
Matthews really should’ve had a multi-goal game tonight, but he’s still waiting for his second of the season after 38 games (that’s not a bet I’d have ever made). Far be it from me to tell one of the best goal-scorers in the world how to do anything on the ice, but there has been a strange sort of pattern with his one-timer where he’s making poor contact on quite a few of them. He’s probably left five goals on the table that way this season (as in clear empty-net or partial empty-net opportunities).
Nitpicks aside, Matthews became the fastest Leaf to hit 500 points tonight and just the fifth active player to achieve it in fewer than 450 games. We are not worthy.
10. I suppose I didn’t mention the shootout yet, so here goes: screw the shootout.
All in all, the three special-teams goals against in the first 23 minutes blew this game open for the Leafs, who began to trade chances with the Blues as they chased the game for most of the night. The play of the top line, in particular, and the resilience shown despite falling behind by two goals four times was impressive.
None of their defense pairs looked as steady in this kind of run-and-gun environment, although partly that may be due to the old-but-still-new pairings that they’re reassembling. Ilya Samsonov also fell somewhere in between being a victim of the play around him and needing to be better individually; he should’ve come up with a couple more saves, particularly on the first Blues goal.
There is plenty of reason to believe these current defense pairings will settle in over time, and the Leafs’ top line looks unstoppable right now. There are also encouraging signs on both of the bottom-six lines of late.
My focus at the moment in terms of areas of concern/improvement: getting the Tavares line rolling again, and discovering where the level watermark is for the Leafs’ goaltenders now that the unsustainable hot start is behind them (.885 in the last five for Matt Murray, .850 in his last four for Ilya Samsonov). It’s nice to have two options instead of one — this wasn’t the case when Jack Campbell hit the skids for an extended stretch last season — but the recent track records, in this case, aren’t quite as reassuring.
The next few weeks will be telling. Does one goalie start taking over the crease (right now, Matt Murray looks more likely, but things can change in a hurry), do both find their way back to above-league-average play inside the even-split rotation (the ideal scenario), or… We won’t even mention the third possibility yet.