This HNIC rivalry game was full marks for entertainment value and probably deserved overtime.
With an 11-point gap and two games in hand for Boston after their 4-3 game-winner late in regulation, I am not saying the Atlantic Division title race is already over at the halfway point, but the fat lady is at the side of the stage running her scales.
Your game in 10:
1. There was a major turning point in the Leafs‘ favour in the first five minutes of this game. 1:30 in, three Leafs — Michael Bunting, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly — were committed to a puck battle along the defensive-zone wall above the hash marks, and William Nylander started to cheat a little on the side of leaving the zone for a potential fast-break opportunity. When David Pastrnak won the battle off the wall and played a pass through the middle, it was suddenly a 2-on-1 against Conor Timmins. Timmins didn’t defend it well, and there was a wide-open backdoor pass to Brad Marchand. Matt Murray absolutely robbed him blind with a point-blank glove save.
A few minutes later, the Leafs went to the first power play of the game after Calle Jarnkrok drew a tripping call off of Charlie McAvoy, and they took full advantage. Immediately following an entry, it was a great individual play by John Tavares, who looked to be out of room to the left of the net against the out-stretched stick of Brandon Carlo, but he was poised and skilled enough to hang on and delay before looping a pass around Carlo and out front to Michael Bunting, who made no mistake.
GOOD WILL BUNTING! pic.twitter.com/pJuKNaNhDH
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 15, 2023
It was a big swing and a dream start for the Leafs on the road. The goal ended an 18-for-18 run for the Bruins’ number-one penalty kill.
2. It was clear early on in this game that we had a rare treat in store for a January regular-season game. There was a charged atmosphere in the TD Garden, there were regular scrums around the nets, and there was a marathon of a donnybrook between Wayne Simmonds and Nick Foligno just three and a half minutes in. We later flirted with a bench-clearing brawl after the second intermission buzzer sounded.
It felt a bit like game one of the playoffs (complete with a crushing Leafs loss in Boston). There was a frenetic pace to the game — as is often the case to start a series — and it was a chancier game at both ends than in the first meeting in Toronto due to some turnovers both ways. As the game wore on, both teams settled a little more into the caginess we’d expect from two high-end defensive teams, but the emotions, pace, and skill on display made for good looks at both ends of the rink as both goalies were tested plenty.
3. It wouldn’t be a playoff-like atmosphere in Boston without an officiating controversy. The Bruins’ tying goal in the first period came immediately after Linus Ullmark appeared to throw his stick during a scoring chance for Mitch Marner. Whether Ullmark was trying to dive across and simply lost the handle or if he was throwing his paddle hoping it might stop an incoming shot is debatable, but there was no call forthcoming. Inside the defensive zone, it would’ve resulted in a penalty shot for the attacking team if it was deemed an intentional stick throw.
Just prior to that incident, the Leafs were buzzing in pursuit of a 2-0 goal. Dryden Hunt set up Wayne Simmonds for a chance on the doorstep that he should’ve done better with than to redirect straight at Ullmark, and Michael Bunting set up Matthews for a chance in tight as well.
4. The Bruins’ 1-1 goal came off of an avoidable Leafs mistake and was something of a freebie, which became a theme in the game for Toronto.
After John Tavares was partially stripped by Patrice Bergeron in the neutral zone, Morgan Rielly was in position to make a play on the puck, but Bergeron got a little extra poke in with his stick just as Rielly tried to fire it D-to-D. That resulted in a partially-deflected pass off the mark, and Conor Timmins panicked on the play by chasing after the loose puck up high, taking himself out of the play. From there, Marchand and Bergeron set up a bang-bang goal that was far too easy for them.
5. The Leafs took back the lead early in the second period on a solo rush from — you guessed it — Pierre Engvall.
He made a nice play off of the defensive-zone half-wall to recognize he had the time and space to turn into the middle, skate around the first forechecker, and burst through the neutral zone with speed before firing a low hard shot that handcuffed Linus Ullmark.
That's a lot of horsepower 🐎💪 pic.twitter.com/Ko22deNGgM
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 15, 2023
Engvall has the reputation of a frustrating player who flatters to deceive and probably always will — he has these kinds of tools, but he doesn’t always show the hockey sense and engagement level to put them all together — but it’s worth noting that he is now on pace to surpass last season’s career-high 15-goal total with nine goals in his first 42 games. That’s despite scoring just once in his first 14 games of the season.
6. It was really clear Conor Timmins was out of his depth in this game and the pairing was about to make a bad night worse in the second period. Five minutes into the middle frame, he lost the handle on a puck behind the goal line that nearly put the Leafs in serious trouble, but Matt Murray turned aside David Pastrnak on the doorstep.
Moments later, Timmins fired an insane no-look, spin-o-rama D-to-D pass at the offensive blue line that was easily picked off by Pastrnak, who went on a rush the other way and beat Murray five-hole. Unlike the first Bruins goal, this was definitely stoppable, but it’s an elite goal scorer flying in at the goalie after a gift of a turnover.
It was hard to feel anything but dread about the prospect of Rielly-Timmins sharing the ice with the likes of the Bergeron line entering this game, and the worst fears were realized early and often. The Leafs were outscored 3-1 and outshot 11-3 in their 12 minutes of 5v5 ice time.
The team really misses TJ Brodie, but in the meantime, Sheldon Keefe and co. chose to at least keep two familiar pairings that they trust intact in the Giordano – Holl & Sandin -Liljegren pairs rather than scrambling all three, while living with the risk created by the Rielly-Timmins partnership, hoping they’d at least move the puck well enough to keep the team on offense. It backfired, and how long the coaching staff stuck by it without an adjustment was also a little head-scratching.
It’s easy to second-guess it now and suggest Jordie Benn should’ve been in or they should’ve scrambled the pairings with Timothy Liljegren next to Rielly, but I do genuinely believe either was the better call than a Rielly-Timmins pair in this kind of matchup on the road.
Timmins is really green and Benn has boatloads more experience in these kinds of intimidating environments; I’d have more confidence that a veteran such as Benn at least wasn’t going to lose the Leafs this game outright, even if he doesn’t offer the same puck-moving ability and offensive instincts (this Rielly-Timmins combo stylistically felt a little bit like a bad Rielly-Barrie flashback).
The point I made a few weeks ago about Timmins amid all of the impressive point production: Just how bad are the bad games when they inevitably arrive? The lows are too low right now, which is really not a knock on his skill set or potential as a player — he’s just played a total of 55 NHL games in his career at a position where it takes lots of time to learn time and place, risk management, and how to cope with the pressure of an intimidating atmosphere against the best team in the league.
7. The Bruins took the 3-2 lead not long after they tied it up after some clumsy play by the Leafs’ fourth line. They had the numbers in place to easily snuff out the play in the neutral zone before anything dangerous transpired, but Wayne Simmonds took a strange route and then ran into Alex Kerfoot, allowing the Bruins the entry.
The Morgan Rielly – Conor Timmins pairing was again on the ice for its third goal against in half a game, and Timmins did obscure A.J. Greer’s release while attempting an unsuccessful shot block. All of that said, this one is mostly on Matt Murray. It’s a weak shot through the five-hole from the top of the circles and needs to be stopped. It was especially tough to swallow after Linus Ullmark made a spectacular sprawling stop on Mark Giordano at the back door just prior.
8. One in-game adjustment Sheldon Keefe is often eager and ready to make is swapping Mitch Marner for William Nylander on the top two lines, which he did prior to the third period in search of an equalizer.
It paid off after Marner’s puck pursuit on the forecheck turned a puck over, Michael Bunting fed a pass into Matthews, and #34 took over with an immaculate finish in tight to lift the puck into the top corner.
PREPOSTEROUS!!! 🤢 pic.twitter.com/AdFo9i5N9P
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 15, 2023
That’s three goals in two games against Boston for Matthews, who also led all Leafs forwards in shot attempt share (59%) and controlled over 70% of the expected goals alongside Michael Bunting in this game. He looked pretty refreshed after a couple of games off, which game result aside, is fantastic news for the Leafs.
9. The Leafs’ best chance to win the game in the third period came on a Michael Bunting breakaway with 11 minutes left (he could’ve had a hat trick in this game); he showed a surprising burst of separation speed on the play, but he didn’t bury. The Leafs would come to rue the missed opportunity after losing the game late in regulation.
Rather than milk a point in the final three or four minutes, you could feel the Bruins push with the confidence of a team that truly believes it can go and win a tied game in the third period, which it has almost always done this year.
The Leafs’ response in terms of how they managed the game in the final three or so minutes was less than stellar. It started with their zone exits; they turned the puck over a lot in the final stretch, often by forcing passes into the middle of the ice when the play wasn’t there. John Tavares wore the goat horns on the losing goal, but there were three or four examples earlier that could’ve just as easily cost the team.
The actual goal, while a byproduct of too much time in the defensive zone late in the game, again felt like a save Matt Murray could’ve come up with, even with a little bit of traffic/disturbance around his crease and a knuckle puck coming at him.
10. The two games between these two teams so far spell out clearly that the gap is not substantial between the clubs. After a 2-1 win for the Leafs back in November, tonight the margins were again razor thin: There was a difference of 0.1 in expected goals (2.67-2.57 in the Leafs’ favour), one high-danger scoring chance (15-14 in the Bruins’ favour), and two shot attempts (52-50 in the Bruins’ favour) at five on five.
In terms of the concerns entering the game from the Leafs’ perspective, we were looking at the absences of Pontus Holmberg — and even Bobby McMann — and wondering just how the fourth line was going to hold up; the Bruins got far better minutes out of their bottom line of Foligno-Nosek-Greer, which controlled 86% of the shot attempts and 100% of the shots and expected goals in addition to scoring the 3-2 goal. We were also looking at that Rielly-Timmins pair and wincing at the prospect of them spending significant time on the ice against Boston’s top six. A lot of those worries came home to roost in this game, but there is some help on the way once healthy (and hopefully, in terms of scoring depth, via trade).
In net, Matt Murray had plenty of good moments, but Ullmark came up with one or two more big saves for the Bruins, and that is as big of a difference in this game as any.
There was also no shortage of positives for the Leafs. It’s rare for Boston to concede three and not a common sight to see them scramble so much defensively as the Leafs were rolling around in the offensive zone against them for sequences within each period; I mostly liked how the Leafs handled the physical challenge, attacked the net against them, and caused problems off of the cycle. Special teams were plus-one. Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting were dominant in their minutes. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren acquitted themselves well in an intimidating atmosphere and continue to show their maturation on the biggest stage.
Bring on the February 1 rematch.