Following a slow start, Auston Matthews took over the game offensively and the Maple Leafs found their groove defensively en route to the team’s second 4-1 win of the season over the Winnipeg Jets.

It wasn’t as chippy of a game as we’ve come to expect from a Leafs-Jets matchup over the past few years, but this was still an intriguing showdown between two top-six teams in the league standings. Thanks to key plays from their most relied-upon players as well as the superb goaltending of Ilya Samsonov, the Leafs were able to take care of business against the Jets, sweeping the two-game season series by a combined score of 8-2.

Your game in 10:

1.   For the second straight game on home ice, the Maple Leafs started slowly. Ilya Samsonov needed to make multiple big saves early on as the Jets created some good scoring chances in the opening stages.

Toronto generated a couple of chances themselves, all courtesy of the Auston Matthews line in transition. However, none of those chances resulted in much in the way of sustained momentum as the Leafs were not stringing together enough offensive-zone shifts to really tilt the ice in their favour.

Winnipeg, on the other hand, was able to generate some sustained pressure early on. There was an instance in which the Jets held possession in the Leafs‘ zone for over a minute against the top line in the first five minutes of the game. Fortunately, Samsonov started on time, keeping the Leafs out of an early hole.

2.   Despite the Jets controlling a majority of the shots and shot attempts, the rest of the first period was pretty even in terms of scoring chances.

At five-on-five, the Leafs were just below 50% of the expected goals thanks in large part to the work of the top line in transition.  There were two point-blank chances for Auston Matthews, while Michael Bunting and William Nylander each had a quality rush chance of their own. 

Each team went to a power play apiece, and the Jets looked like the more dangerous team on the man advantage in the first period. Toronto mustered just one shot on goal, while Winnipeg could have scored on two or three of their scoring chances. 

It wasn’t the most lopsided of periods, but the Leafs were mostly generating their chances off of transition opportunities and not through a firm command of the game at five-on-five. They were outshot 16-6 after 20 minutes.

3.   The Leafs’ power play has gone three for its last 10 opportunities since the Boston game — which is 30%, and hard to complain about on the surface — but it’s worth noting a few things: They’ve also conceded a shorthanded goal in the last 10, and one of the three goals was scored by the second power-play unit. That means the top unit is just plus-one over its last 10 opportunities, and some of the power plays have been pretty stale.

While watching this clip of the Jets creating problems down low with a jam play, it made me think about the fact that the Leafs have a player who is one of the most skilled and strongest on his stick in tight to the net in John Tavares (recall the beautiful setup from down at the goal line vs. Boston, albeit it came shortly after an entry vs. a power-play setup in formation). I would like to see an increase in the number of down-low plays the Leafs run through their captain. It would offer a nice change of pace from the lull of circling on the perimeter and waiting for a shooting lane or seam pass to open up.

A few promising passing plays were just off the mark for the Leafs on their one man-advantage opportunity tonight, but it would be nice if they could mix in a few of the simpler/grittier goals by taking a more simple and direct approach at the net. It’d likely be the difference between hovering around 10th in the NHL and having a truly great power play, which should be possible — if not expected — with this team’s offensive personnel.

4.    After a slow start to the first period by the Leafs, it took Auston Matthews a total of eight seconds to strike in the second period. 

Matthews won the faceoff back to Morgan Rielly, who sent a pass off the boards to Michael Bunting for a little bump play into the area of Matthews jetting across. Matthews absolutely danced around Mark Scheifele with a beautiful move to enter the zone.

Connor Hellebuyck survived two point-blank chances in the first period from Matthews, but the third time was the charm for #34, who ripped one between the wickets to open the scoring.

The goal pushes Matthews’ goal streak to four games and his point streak up to eight games. It certainly wouldn’t be fair to label him a sleeping giant through the first half — given his ~40 goal pace and still-dominant 200-foot presence — but if you wanted to phrase it that way relative to his sky-high goal-scoring standards, the giant appears to be waking up, and it’s bad news for the rest of the league.

5.   Auston Matthews found his next goal just a few minutes later.

While the first goal was an instance of an elite player making an incredible move to beat his man one-on-one and create an opening, this goal came off of a missed assignment by the Jets defensively and a great feed into a good area by Michael Bunting off the backboards (Bunting’s second primary assist of the period).

That goal brings Matthews’ total up to 24 on the year, which puts him on pace for 43 goals in 80 games. If you’re counting him out for 50 already, do so at your own peril.

This was just Matthews’ second two-goal game of the season — the first was back on November 5 — compared to the eight he racked up by this point last season. He’s almost certainly going to pile up a few more in the second half than he did in the first.

Matthews now sits at 283 goals in his career, and if he simply maintains his current pace,  he would finish the season with 302 goals, passing Rick Vaive’s total of 299 for fifth in Leafs’ history before his 26th birthday.

6.   After a fairly chancy opening 20 minutes in which the Leafs were a little loose through the neutral zone, the message at the intermission and the subsequent adjustments seemed to work. The Leafs really started to find their structure at five-on-five in the second period.

Their forwards were getting back above the opponent and the strong-side defender was able to gap up more aggressively, slowing the Jets’ speed down through the middle of the ice and forcing more dump-ins. That also allowed the other defenseman the time to retrieve pucks, initiate the zone exit, and get the Leafs right back on offense.

As a result, the Leafs controlled possession for the majority of the second frame. The Jets broke through to generate a few scoring chances in the final few moments of the period, but Ilya Samsonov was up to the challenge every time the Jets threatened.

The early goals by Matthews played a big part in allowing the Leafs to settle back into their more stifling defensive game. They also did an excellent job of blocking shots all night when inside the defensive zone, including a great instance of leadership by example from Matthews, who laid out for a huge shot block in the low slot that likely saved a goal.

The entire team was bought into the defensive effort tonight. Even though the team spent a little too much time inside the defensive zone down the stretch in the third period, the commitment and structure defensively were there.

7.   Following a weird penalty call in which Rasmus Sandin was tabbed for tripping — despite actually being the one who was tripped on the play — the Leafs went back to the penalty kill with six minutes remaining in the second period. Perhaps it was karma for the incorrect call, but the Leafs flipped it in their favour thanks to a special play by Mitch Marner.

His anticipation denied the entry (side note: tough night for #55 in white!), creating a neutral-zone turnover and an odd-man rush the other way. Typically in these situations, Marner does one of two things: he passes (sometimes backward to the trailer) or he shoots low for a rebound. This time, he correctly identified that bearing down on his shot was the right play, and he absolutely labeled it high glove side:

The goal marks 20 straight home games with a point for Marner. His home point streak is the longest among any active player and further extends the franchise record. A model of consistency this season.

8.   Unfortunately, Ilya Samsonov’s shutout bid came to an end in the third period. After a blatant too-many-men penalty and a Mark Giordano tripping call, the Leafs faced an extended five-on-three penalty kill.

There were some valiant efforts by both Samsonov and the penalty killers to keep the puck out of the net, but eventually, the Jets broke through. Winnipeg did what skilled teams are supposed to on a 5v3 and executed a lot of cross-seem passes to generate one-timers while all five skaters progressively crept closer to the net. Toronto had one chance to clear the puck, but it skipped over David Kämpf’s stick.

It’s unfortunate, but a slip-up in discipline by the team in front of him cost Samsonov a deserved clean sheet.

9.   On a more concerning note, Timothy Liljegren exited the game in the third period after taking a puck to the head. After the game, Sheldon Keefe noted that the Leafs are hopeful it wasn’t too bad, but there is always a level of concern associated with head injuries, and Liljegren did enter the concussion protocol.

It’s a testament to Liljegren’s development that this would be such a critical loss should he miss any time whatsoever. With TJ Brodie still out of the lineup, Liljegren has been critical in helping Rielly’s game settle down with his steady play on the right side. 

There is still a subsection of fans in Toronto who think of Liljegren as a tradable asset at this deadline, but they might be missing that we’re now talking about a legitimate top-four defender who is just 23 years old. He already plays a steady game in all facets (from his efficient puck movement, to his excellent rush defense, to his underrated strength in one-on-one battles and equally underrated shot from the point), he is cost-controlled, and he shoots right. 

10.   There has (understandably) been a lot of consternation in the Toronto market about the Leafs’ goaltending situation and the netminding statistics since December, but we’re perhaps seeing now what hedging the bets on two credible options instead of one might be able to do for the team this season.

It looked like Matt Murray was starting to stake a bit of a claim to the crease from New Year’s Eve versus Colorado through the first half of the Boston game. Things changed in a hurry in the second half of the game against the Bruins through to the pull in the Florida game; Ilya Samsonov was then excellent in his relief effort against the Panthers and carried it over throughout the 60 minutes tonight against one of the top teams in the league. Crisis averted, while Murray looks to tighten up the recent slippage in his game.

It’s tempting to roll with Samsonov again on Saturday in Montreal, and we have on occasion seen Sheldon Keefe stick with a goalie for a second consecutive start when he thinks it makes sense situationally.

That said, Keefe also seems keenly aware of the need not to overreact to any one spike or dip in play while we’re still in January and the team is locked into a second/third seed in the Atlantic. The first half of the season — and even just this recent stretch since New Year’s — spell it out loud and clear: They’re going to need both guys.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heatmap: 5v5 Shot Attempts