After a wobbly start, the Maple Leafs settled in and played a strong second half to the game in Calgary, gutting out a hard-fought two points in a tired situation on the road.
It was a 2-1 victory powered by Mitch Marner‘s leadership up front and rock-solid goaltending from Joe Woll, with a promising debut game from Luke Schenn and a strong second performance as a Leaf by Jake McCabe among the standout performances.
Your game in 10:
1. To be honest, I was a little perplexed by Sheldon Keefe’s 11/7 approach to this game in the back-to-back with a bunch of new faces in the lineup. Fresh legs make sense, but with new players acclimating to the team, mixing and matching shift to shift seemed counterintuitive to helping everyone settle in, and I thought it would make for some disjointedness and awkwardness at times (Erik Gustafsson rotating in as a partner for Morgan Rielly?). It made more sense to me to simply insert Luke Schenn next to Rielly and run the four regular lines before finding a game for Gustafsson to get into at some point later on the road trip.
The team was definitely off-kilter for stretches of the first and early second. I get that they don’t have any extra forwards on the roster at the moment and are carrying three extra defensemen. And maybe the extra fresh legs paid off in the third as the Leafs closed this game out really strong. But it seemed a little head-scratching to me as an approach, and I am not sure if it helped the team early on.
Maybe Keefe wasn’t sure if an opportunity would arrive soon to get both the new bodies on defense involved, so he decided to go for it in the b2b situation and with Timothy Liljegren having a rough night/taking some knocks in Edmonton. It’s also true that Schenn hadn’t played in a few weeks as he sat out and waited for his new destination, so maybe this was a bit of managing the minutes/hedging the usage of both him and Gustafsson.
2. The game could not have gotten off to a worse start after the Maple Leafs went to an early power play. With a very green goaltender in their net, the Leafs gave up two shorthanded point-blank chances inside the first couple of minutes of the game, the second of which was a breakaway goal against.
First, William Nylander sort of eased off and let the Flames’ shorthanded rusher take the puck and go around him, but Joe Woll came up with a nice early stop. Soon after, on his first shift as a Leaf, Erik Gustafsson looked to be battling some early nerves as a puck that was coming at him flat along the ice at the blue line evaded him along the wall, leading to Blake Coleman’s 1-0 goal.
Not exactly the response the Leafs were looking for after the rough night in Edmonton. The Leafs had their chances in the first — John Tavares with a few looks right in front, and Auston Matthews couldn’t convert a few of his own, including a back-post chance off of a Mitch Marner feed.
Overall, while the shots were 10-7 in favour of Toronto, the Flames edged them on scoring chances and expected goals in the opening 20 minutes as the Leafs weren’t particularly sharp when it came to completing plays with the puck and came apart defensively in a few sequences.
3. With the 11/7 setup, the lines were in a non-stop blender throughout the game. Erik Gustafsson and Luke Schenn were mostly rotating onto Morgan Rielly pairing, with Gustafsson pushing Rielly to the right.
Ryan O’Reilly was moving down to the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Sam Lafferty on occasion but also taking shifts up in his usual spot on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander. We saw a fair bit of David Kampf with Sam Lafferty and Noel Acciari. We even saw nearly three five-on-five minutes of John Tavares with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
4. Speaking of that Matthews line, it’s been a tough start to the road trip for Michael Bunting. I was trying to keep count of the number of plays that have died on his stick since the Edmonton game, but it became too much, and it continued unabated in this game.
When we saw Bunting go through a rough stretch earlier in the year (back in November), Keefe briefly bumped him down the lineup, rotating Alex Kerfoot up in his place. He’s used this tactic to (in Keefe’s words back in November) “reset” him at times in the past, but usually, he ends up back next to Matthews in short order. Something to monitor for the rest of the trip.
5. Mitch Marner got the Leafs going in this game with one great individual effort among the many from him in this game in the final 40 minutes. But it should first be noted that the 1-1 goal came off of a good offensive-zone shift from a line of Sam Lafferty, David Kampf, and Calle Jarnkrok which allowed the top line to come over the boards against the tired legs of Calgary’s fourth line at the seven-minute mark of the period.
The goal came after a bobble by Auston Matthews (a strangely frequent occurrence lately). Marner scooped up the puck, surveyed the ice, danced across the slot, got Jacob Markstrom shifting left to right, and fired it underneath him, not dissimilar to McDavid’s finish against the Leafs the other night.
MITCHELLY MARNER!!! pic.twitter.com/LVRidpMb50
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 3, 2023
There was something kind of fitting about the way this goal played out. Matthews has been in goal-scoring positions plenty of times but has been fighting the puck a lot in the past few games, and Bunting has been killing plays. Marner has taken up the slack and dragged the line along with him in terms of simply taking over shifts.
Marner was absolutely dancing and dishing in the second half of this game, setting up a bunch of scoring chances and firing eight shots on goal himself. The Flames had no answer for him.
One small quibble with Marner late on in the game: Shoot it in the empty net that’s in front of you in a 2-1 game rather than forcing the pass!
6. The Leafs wouldn’t have been in a position to grind out a 2-1 win without the play of Joe Woll, who made hard saves look easy a number of times in this game through sound positional play and a few nice flashes of the leather on a few dangerous shots on goal.
This is what is so intriguing about Woll’s potential now that he’s finally found a run of good health and has been taking off with the Marlies: He is really athletic, but he’s also honed the system he plays with which consistently puts him at the depths and angles to make the difficult saves appear routine and keeps him in position for those sequences where a second save is required.
I don’t want to drag Ilya Samsonov‘s name or season through the mud here — he’s generally been good this year! — but the contrast to how quiet Woll was in his crease tonight compared to Samsonov’s frenetic energy in the crease the night prior was difficult not to take notice of. To be clear, Samsonov has brought calm to the crease on most nights this year, but his tendency to become over-active and lose his net is one we see rear its head here and there.
While he’s still learning the ropes and not seriously in consideration to take over the net at this time, Woll’s demeanor has been really impressive and consistent at the AHL level, and it’s encouraging to have a third goalie capable of this kind of night in a tight game in a back-to-back. It was not an easy way to start his night, either, with the shorthanded breakaway goal against. Solid stuff from Woll in this 25-save effort.
7. The Maple Leafs found their game-winner early in the third period on a good play by Morgan Rielly to identify the open ice as the Flames were caught with numbers up ice. He jumped up, took a pass from William Nylander, and burst right through the middle of the ice for a breakaway opportunity. Calle Jarnkrok followed up the play and greased it over the line from there.
JÄRNY JAMS IT HOME!! pic.twitter.com/QfCqEPHEU6
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 3, 2023
It was a great close-out effort from the Leafs, who gave the Flames nothing easy, took care of the puck, and checked the Flames hard to the finish.
In the final few minutes, there was a good sequence from a line of David Kampf, Alex Kerfoot, and Calle Jarnkrok where they chewed a good chunk of clock in the offensive zone. The Leafs were getting good shifts from just about everyone in the third with a strong commitment to taking care of the game to the end.
8. As for the debut games tonight, I saw enough to be impressed by Luke Schenn despite his small sample of TOI (10:42) in his first game in a couple of weeks. He finished his checks (a team-leading four hits in only 14 shifts), was strong around the net, broke up a few plays — including one memorable that led to his clearance on the PK — and snapped some nice first passes (both shorter outlets and a few longer stretch passes).
There are a lot of similarities to the Zach Bogosian story with Schenn. Both were high draft picks — taken two selections apart in 2008 — who appeared to be falling out of the league in their mid-to-late 20s only to reinvent their games a little bit and eventually provide value in the league again as steady veteran presences (more as bottom-pairing depth guys who can reasonably complement a skilled puck mover up the lineup here and there as needed).
9. With Schenn, I’ve always wondered: If the Leafs from 15 years ago had allowed him to slow cook a little more in their system — an extra year in junior, some AHL seasoning, time working with a proper development staff — could it have been a different story the first go around (as opposed to forcing him right in the league at 18 on account of his physical maturity)? But it’s a fantastic full-circle story that he’s back in a Leaf sweater dropping quotes like this one:
Luke Schenn says he got "chills" when he first put the Leafs jersey back on. "There’s no question, for where I’m at in my career, this is pretty special."
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) March 3, 2023
Schenn reportedly put in some skills development work with Adam Oates — who had been working with his brother Brayden — when he was down with Utica in the AHL wondering if the NHL career was in the rearview. I could be wrong, but it looks to me like he plays at a lighter weight than he did early in his career; he’s moving around a little better than he did years ago, and he handles and moves the puck more crisply. Encouraging start, albeit in only a handful of minutes.
10. Another standout on defense for me was Jake McCabe in his second game as a Leaf. He played 20 and a half minutes — including two and a half on the penalty kill — and recorded two shots on goal and two hits. His pairing with TJ Brodie was really solid, controlling over 64% of the shots at five-on-five and 54% of the expected goals.
McCabe was confident and frequently involved in the offense, including jumping up and nearly scoring his first as a Leaf while shorthanded at one point. He was aggressive defending the line and stepping up on players, taking away time and space effectively while moving the puck cleanly with his touches.
McCabe has made a comment a few times since arriving in Toronto about it being nice to play on a team that has forwards so committed to checking back hard. It fits his game nicely with how aggressive he likes to defend through the neutral zone, which sometimes got him burned when the support wasn’t there in Chicago.