After a surprise last-minute goalie change prior to puck drop, the Maple Leafs played a good first period before letting Ilya Samsonov down in the final 40 minutes with uncharacteristically poor defensive play.
Your game in 10 after a 6-2 loss:
1. The biggest storyline tonight actually happened just before the game when expected starter Matt Murray pulled out of the game at the last minute due to an injury. It was assumed — and the incident was replayed a bunch of times on the Sportsnet broadcast — that it was a shot up high from William Nylander in warmup that forced Murray out of the game, but we later learned this was not the case.
Murray is dealing with an issue that has been bugging him prior to today, according to Sheldon Keefe. The head coach confirmed it is a recent injury unrelated to the adductor issue that forced him out of the lineup in October.
I am not here suggesting players should play through injuries — especially not in a random mid-regular-season game against Ottawa — but there is something to be said about the position in which this places the other goalie when Murray goes through morning skate without issue, plans to play, and at the last minute, decides he’s not comfortable enough to start.
It was a bad vibe with which to enter a game that turned ugly in the final 40 minutes. Through no fault of his own, Samsonov conceded six goals and took one on the chin for the team — and Murray — after carrying the load lately and giving the Leafs consistently solid goaltending.
Not a great look.
2. Not to belabour the point, but Keefe was throwing Matt Murray this start against his old team despite the fact that Ilya Samsonov was clearly rolling as the hot hand. The thinking was likely to keep Murray sharp, manage Samsonov’s workload, and maybe that the former-team aspect would give Murray and the team a little extra juice without Auston Matthews in the lineup against an opponent that usually brings its best against the Leafs. But Murray couldn’t be relied on due to another injury.
It potentially throws the Leafs‘ short-term plans in net for a loop. Murray taking tonight’s start would’ve set up Samsonov to take his former team on Sunday night vs. the Capitals and then presumably the Bruins start on the Wednesday prior to the break. Now, the Leafs either roll into the break with Samsonov playing eight in a row, or they give Murray the start on Sunday (if he’s healthy enough, that is), and Samsonov has to take on the big matchup against the Bruins with a bit of a gap in between starts.
Not ideal all around.
3. The Senators opened the scoring around a minute and a half into the game during a spell of four-on-four action after the teams’ respective rats, Michael Bunting and Brady Tkachuk, clashed in front of the Ottawa net for off-setting roughing calls.
Thomas Chabot picked up a pass as the trailer as the seas were parting in the middle of the Leafs‘ zone and sniped past Ilya Samsonov on Ottawa’s second shot of the game. It wasn’t caught on the broadcast or at the intermission, but Calle Järnkrok was knocked down by a pick play by Erik Brannstrom while he was tracking back through the neutral zone, which left the middle of the ice open.
The other three Leafs that were back were a little slow to react to the developing situation; Conor Timmins and Rasmus Sandin sort of hesitated and watched Chabot take a couple of strides before ripping it into the top shelf.
4. The Leafs answered back quickly courtesy of a fourth-line goal from Joey Anderson, who took a good route on the play to cut across the zone, get lost in coverage, and present an option for Alex Kerfoot to drop the puck back to. Anderson picked up a friendly deflection on the goal, but it was a heads-up play in the offensive zone and a good release into the near post that he opened up for nicely.
🚨 JOEY EVENS THINGS UP 🚨 pic.twitter.com/o1DVrNeFs0
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 28, 2023
Overall, the Leafs’ response after the early goal against and general play in the first period were pretty positive. Pontus Holmberg‘s four-minute penalty was a setback, but the Leafs got the kill and Ilya Samsonov was sharp on the PK despite the difficult circumstances (i.e. getting thrust into the game unexpectedly and then having Chabot stroll down the heart of the slot and snipe on him for his second shot of the game).
William Nylander and John Tavares were driving each of their lines with some strong attacking sequences and offensive-zone shifts in the opening 20 minutes. The Leafs out-chanced the Senators 11-3 (6-1 in high-danger chances) and owned over 70% of the expected goals. The fourth line had gotten on the board. All in all, one four-on-four goal aside, the Leafs were in a good position after 20.
5. The Leafs have been really good with their five-man structure as a team defensively — especially at the time of injuries (to the blue line, mostly) — but this area of their game slipped in the final 40 minutes tonight. They also committed some unforced turnovers leading to goals.
It started with an uncharacteristic error from David Kampf 30 seconds into the second period. With time and space in the defensive zone to make the simple play, he picked his head up and decided to try to beat the forechecker, leading to the turnover. A few seconds later, Brady Tkachuk was tipping the 2-1 goal into the net.
For the Leafs, a goal against right at the start of each of the first two periods is a tough hole to put yourself in no matter the opponent.
6. For the second time, the response from the Leafs was positive. William Nylander‘s line pushed back and drew a penalty before the Leafs cashed in to even the game back up.
This 2-2 tally was simply a good hard-working power-play goal. The Leafs lost the initial faceoff, but John Tavares was alert and got a good jump off the draw to close down and disrupt the clearing attempt. Morgan Rielly made a highly-skilled, contested keep-in play at the line that trapped a Senators’ PKer high in the zone, Mitch Marner funneled a puck to the front of the net, Tavares threw it on goal, and Nylander picked up the scraps at the back post.
Some power play style for ya 😎 pic.twitter.com/UQmuHhsqdv
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 28, 2023
There was something nice and simple about this goal, and we arguably do not see the Leafs score enough of these on the power play by utilizing Tavares’ strengths down low, getting numbers down there, and forcing an ugly one over the line.
6. Unfortunately, the Leafs gave one back on a penalty kill of their own after Pontus Holmberg took his fifth and sixth penalty minutes in just the first half of the game. Timothy Liljegren didn’t bear down on his clearance opportunity, and then an unlucky bounce went off of him in front of the net to make it 3-2.
He may have scored on his own net on the PK, but he was not on for a 5v5 goal against tonight.
Nine in a row now https://t.co/c0KovFgD2o
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) January 28, 2023
7. The 4-2 goal back at even-strength was the beginning of the end for the Leafs in this game.
Initially, it appeared the Leafs should’ve had the numerical advantage in a puck battle down low along the end boards with Bobby McMann and Rasmus Sandin in the area, but Sandin sort of lost his balance on the play and ended up separated from the puck. The Leafs lost the battle, and David Kampf abandoned the middle of the ice to take a stab at the puck. It didn’t work out, leaving Drake Batherson all alone with enough time to lift his head up and pick his spot, which he did with aplomb.
This was another goal with no chance for Ilya Samsonov and a second mistake in his own zone by Kampf, who is now pointless in his last 12 games and is a minus-seven over that time. Kampf has been Mr. Consistent in terms of almost never costing the team even when he is in the midst of a dry spell offensively, but this is definitely an uncharacteristic stretch from him.
8. The theme of early goals against continued in the third period, this time all but ending the game at 5-2 with 16 and a half minutes remaining.
This one started with Justin Holl throwing a hopeless stretch pass into neutral ice towards a streaking William Nylander with three Senators in the area, leading to a turnover. Calle Järnkrok was providing a wide-open close option on the wall to get the breakout started, but the Leafs tried to tie the game on one play there.
Once Holl got the puck back in the defensive zone, he turned it over again behind the net, and then the Leafs played Brady Tkachuk a little too loosely.
Alex Kerfoot was engaged with a Senator in front of the Leaf net, and Morgan Rielly was pointing at the Senator in the corner while shading toward him, leaving open the more dangerous option open for Tkachuk to take a step in and rip a perfect shot over Ilya Samsonov‘s glove and under the bar.
It was a great shot, but it was created by unforced turnovers and more loose play in the defensive-zone coverage.
9. Once they were down three, the Leafs never felt too menacing in terms of pushing to make a game of it in the third. It’s a rare sight to see the Leafs truly out of a game, let alone on home ice.
Adding insult to injury, the Senators made it 6-2 with five minutes left in the game on a turnover from Conor Timmins that simply cannot happen. It was a giveaway straight onto Claude Giroux’s tape in the middle of the neutral zone (Timmins committed a similar head-shaking turnover straight up the middle of the defensive zone earlier in the game). Rasmus Sandin compounded the error by overplaying a one-v-one situation, which Giroux took full advantage of with a silky toe drag and top-shelf finish.
It was another goal Ilya Samsonov didn’t share an ounce of blame in, and it capped a tough night for this defensive pairing.
10. It’s easy to look at this scoreline and feel discouraged about this upcoming three-week stretch without Auston Matthews — you certainly missed him while hoping for a pushback at 4-2 and 5-2 — but there were plenty of silver linings within the game, defensive sloppiness aside (which has not generally been a concern for this team).
John Tavares and William Nylander‘s games are in such a good place at the moment and they’re driving their lines well during this recent stretch; there were plenty of moments tonight when those two were all over the puck again. The Leafs need more out of David Kampf‘s line, and they might need to abandon the idea of Morgan Rielly – Justin Holl / Rasmus Sandin – Conor Timmins. But the play of Tavares-Marner and Nylander on separate lines provides hope they won’t be a one-line team in Matthews’ absence.
The power play did not look like it was out of ideas without Matthews; in fact, it actually seemed to have a pretty good amount of purpose to its approach.
With Matthews, Nylander, and Marner on the top unit, the Leafs often are in a position where they’re sort of interchanging the roles a lot on half walls. It can be very dynamic and fantastic for keeping the opponents guessing at times; at other times, you wonder if it falls into the tendency of spending time shifting around on the perimeter taking up different positions, feeling as though there is dynamic movement happening when it’s actually kind of static in terms of getting pucks into the middle or funneled down toward the net.
This current setup has Michael Bunting at the net front, John Tavares in the bumper spot, Morgan Rielly up top, and Mitch Marner and William Nylander on the half walls. Of course, they will miss the commanding presence of Matthews and his ability to beat a goalie from anywhere at any time, but there is still more than enough elite scoring talent on the ice among this group, and the roles are clearly defined with everyone slotted in their most “natural” position throughout.
A long sample of this PP unit sans Matthews would obviously never outperform a PP unit with Matthews on it, but maybe it creates a bit of a jolt that provides some lessons and highlights a few different ways to score goals, benefitting the group in the long run. One can hope, anyway.