For the second straight week, the Maple Leafs let a strong first period and early lead go to waste as the effort level dropped in the middle period, allowing a hot Islanders team to score three times in a 7-2 win for New York.
Toronto was sharp through one, but the disastrous second and an equally disastrous response to pulling within a goal in the early third doomed the Leafs on a night when puck management in the defensive end and Ilya Samsonov were subpar. Mitch Marner added another point and Sam Lafferty got his first as a Leaf, but it was not the sort of game anyone on the Toronto side will be pleased about.
Your game in 10:
1. After several games in a row of getting out-shot and out-chanced, the first period was a welcome departure. The Maple Leafs started strong out of the gate, with Mitch Marner, in particular, looking sharp and flying around the ice for a couple of looks early. Auston Matthews got a nice feed from Bobby McMann, but he couldn’t finish in tight and the Leafs were dictating play early on.
Toronto finally cashed in a goal when Sam Lafferty retrieved the puck from behind the net, McMann went low-to-high to Timothy Liljegren, who fired a shot into traffic that deflected off of Lafferty and in:
SAM LAFFERTY 🚨
FIRST AS A LEAF (although it might be Liljegren's) pic.twitter.com/HTdM5dj52w
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 21, 2023
This was Lafferty’s first goal as a Leaf — and McMann’s first NHL point as well — to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead and a strong start to the team in their visit to Long Island.
2. The first period continued in a pretty strong manner for the Leafs. After getting the opening goal, the team just kept plugging away. John Tavares had a strong drive to the net that was stopped by Ilya Sorokin before one of the turning points of the game.
With the Leafs putting the Isles on their heels, Mitch Marner made one of his signature dagger passes to Erik Gustafsson sliding down the backdoor. Marner hit Gustafsson on the tape and Sorokin had no shot to get across to cover the empty net. His only hope was to stick the paddle out and hope for a miracle and then:
someone call the FBI on Ilya Sorokin
completly robs Erik Gustafsson pic.twitter.com/7VmMfffttp
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 22, 2023
He got it. A jaw-dropping save that denied an almost certain goal, which would have put the Leafs up 2-0 and given them firm possession over the game. After the way the second period turned out, it was hard not to rewind to this moment and think about how the feel of the game would have been different had Gustafsson converted.
However, before we talk about the second, let’s go through the rest of the first. Ilya Samsonov was asked to make his first notable saves of the night after a dominant shift by the Bo Horvat line and Noel Acciari laid a hard hit on Brock Nelson, one that left Nelson in pain.
The Leafs went to their first PP in the dying moments of the period, but it was quickly nullified by an Auston Matthews hook on Zach Parise, sending us to intermission at 4v4.
Over the period, the Leafs owned scoring chances 13-7 and high-danger chances 7-2, commanding 65.23% of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. A good showing.
3. The carryover 4v4 time did not start the second period off on a good foot as the Leafs lost a defensive-zone draw early on and things spiraled from there. Islander defenseman Scott Mayfield took the puck, slid down the wall, and wheeled around the net while being tracked by Timothy Liljegren. He flipped a pass into the high-danger area right in front of the net and Jake McCabe — briefly drifting off into nowhere — was late to get back and tie up his man Zach Parise, who tapped in an easy goal that Samsonov had little chance on.
It was a bad moment for the Leafs defense — a fundamental breakdown on a play that shouldn’t have been terribly threatening in the first place. After exiting the first feeling like it should’ve been 2-0, it was now tied.
4. Sheldon Keefe gave a shift to the mega-line of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander shortly after the Islander goal, and they went to work with authority. The threesome created several good looks, but Sorokin held his ground and kept the game tied.
Sam Lafferty was called for a tripping penalty in the offensive zone, sending the Islanders to their first proper power play, which the Leafs killed off with ease. The Isles have been struggling on the PP since the injury to Mat Barzal and it showed on this attempt. The Leafs were unable to gain the zone and set up with any sort of consistency and the only chance generated was by Toronto on a David Kämpf breakaway. He had plenty of time, but he just couldn’t solve Sorokin, who remained calm and tracked the puck carrier every way he went.
For Kämpf, it was his second shorthanded opportunity in as many games after getting another great look against the Senators on Saturday. He was unable to convert on either, but he has four points in 10 games in the month of March with a bit of a resurgence to his game. It’s nice to see overall, but a goal here would have been nice. It was another blown chance by the Leafs to take ownership of the game before things really went south.
5. Midway through the second period, Toronto was still the better team in search of the go-ahead goal. Mitch Marner hit Jake McCabe on a pass to set the defenseman up for a chance, which McCabe couldn’t cash in. With just over six minutes remaining, it was McCabe’s defense-mate for the game, Timothy Liljegren, who would find himself on the wrong end of a play when Liljegren whiffed on a pass in the defensive zone, moments after an excellent bit of rush defense.
The turnover gave the Islanders possession during a change when just one Leaf was back against the two Isles. Hudson Fasching, who has been one of the NHL’s craziest Random Journeyman Gets Hot story in recent memory, took the puck, walked in toward Samsonov, and beat him under the glove.
It was a good shot from Fasching, but I did think that Samsonov would’ve liked to have that one. That goal represented the first of a couple of instances where Samsonov was unable to come up with a high-danger save at 5v5 — the sort of stop he’s made consistently all year long.
For Fasching, it’s his fourth goal in seven games, and he now has seven points in his last eight games. This all comes for a player who is 27 years old with 38 career NHL games prior to this season.
6. The Fasching goal put New York ahead 2-1, and that’s where things seemed to get out of hand for the Leafs. The goal had been the first shot the Islanders had put on Samsonov in nearly 10 minutes of game time, but just like that, they had life. Their forecheck pressure started to ramp up, and Toronto’s puck management went careening straight off a cliff.
Turnover after turnover was creating new chances for the Islanders, with J.G. Pageau getting a look off the rush and the subsequent flurry of opportunities had Samsonov looking shaky, swimming in his net.
The dam broke again when it was David Kämpf who turned the puck over this time. Kämpf was along the wall trying to make a pass up to Zach Aston-Reese, but it was too hot to handle, and Ryan Pulock intercepted it just inside the blue line before firing on net. Cal Clutterbuck got a piece of it from the slot, deflecting it in.
With under three minutes to go in the second, it was now 3-1 Islanders and a game that the Leafs were clearly the better team in (and were tied in) was now crumbling in the span of a couple of minutes. A brutal turnover by Erik Gustafsson in his own end leading to one last New York chance before the horn sounded summed up the chaos of the final few minutes in the Toronto end.
The Leafs still ended up grading out as the better team in the period in terms of shot attempts and chances, but they went into the break with their tails between their legs due to a couple of costly turnovers and goalie play that was lesser than their opposition.
7. The early third period suggested that perhaps Toronto had come out looking to mean business. Keefe put Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner back together, and they wasted little time linking up for a classic goal.
Matthews was humming below the goal line, grabbed possession of the puck, and fed it to Marner in the slot, who blasted a shot by Sorokin to cut the Islander lead to within one. That was Marner’s 27th goal and 90th point of the season; amazingly, this was his 60th game (out of 70) in which he has recorded a point this year.
We can’t sing the praises of Marner completely due to what came next. With the Leafs back within one, Keefe went right back at the Islanders, putting Marner and Matthews back out there. Getting ready to enter the zone, Marner sent a risky cross-ice feed to Morgan Rielly that was behind the defenseman. Rielly kicked an off-the-mark pass to try and keep it in stride, but he was unable to corral it before encountering resistance at the New York line. The puck hopped free and Cal Clutterbuck was off to the races, getting a breakaway that was a snipe by Ilya Samsonov, top corner:
Clutterbuck again pic.twitter.com/BCXCZ9aOXk
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 22, 2023
On one hand, this was another instance of a high-danger chance at 5v5 that Samsonov has been money on all season long, which he didn’t come up with tonight. And you can contrast it to the Kämpf breakaway in the second period as a pretty clear reason why the Maple Leafs lost the game tonight. On the other hand, this was one hell of a shot from Clutterbuck, picking a corner and hitting it dead-on. Clutterbuck’s second of the night.
8. That goal was a crusher for the Leafs, taking all the wind out of their sails following the Marner tally; the goals came just 44 seconds apart. Now in a 4-2 game, the Leafs were pretty lethargic over the next 10 or so minutes, perhaps creating more shots but not playing with the urgency needed to claw back from two down against arguably the NHL’s best goalie.
As the clock ticked towards the halfway point of the third period, a comeback became harder to envision and then the Islanders collected another insurance goal, one of what would be several weird/flukey goals that summed up the nightmarish evening the Leafs found themselves in.
Ilya Samsonov came out from his net to play the puck, rimming it along the wall. Unfortunately, the puck hit the referee and took a bizarre carom right out near the front of the net, at the feet of Anders Lee, who had inside positioning on Auston Matthews. He pushed the puck in tight on Samsonov and then a mad scramble ensued, with Simon Holmstrom coming in to knock the puck in as Timothy Liljegren probably could have done a better job of boxing out there.
Samsonov also seemed rather slow to locate the puck, and once it found the back of the net, the game felt officially over.
9. The final 10 minutes of the game weren’t too special. The Leafs continued their rather toothless play in the offensive zone (they generated just four high-danger chances the entire third period at 5v5) as time ticked down on an Islanders win.
Sheldon Keefe decided to pull Samsonov and go 6-on-5 with just over six minutes to go, and it didn’t take long for Noah Dobson to get the puck off a won defensive-zone faceoff by J.G. Pageau and flip the puck three-quarters of the way down the ice and into the empty net, making it 6-2 New York. That goal “officially” clinched a win for New York, but the feel of the game made it all but decided earlier on.
The Islanders weren’t done padding the scoreline, though, as they got one more weird one by Samsonov (I wasn’t quite sure why Keefe didn’t make the sympathy/off-night goalie change) before time was up. Dobson threw a puck at the net from the right point with a bit over three minutes to go, and Anders Lee got a piece of it. The puck fluttered and wobbled as it fooled Samsonov and was the final punctuation mark on a dreadful final 25 minutes of hockey on Long Island.
7-2 Islanders in a game in which the Leafs owned 55% of the expected goals.
10. New York won 7-2, so where does that leave us? I’m not exactly sure. The Leafs have had a very choppy month of March, one that began with more trades turning the roster on its head, followed by injuries (Ryan O’Reilly notably), and now has settled into a mix of uneven play, alternating between wins in games where the Leafs were caved in and losses in games where the Leafs play well for a stretch before their effort level vanishes midway through (tonight and Buffalo last week).
They are not playing great hockey right now and the underlying metrics reflect that, but it is far from time to panic. Keefe continues to tinker relentlessly with the lineup, and you have to think that a few games before the playoffs begin, that will calm down as the lines solidify (once O’Reilly returns and perhaps Matthew Knies signs from the University of Minnesota). Integrating new players is not easy, and firing up the line blender every night disrupts chemistry.
Ultimately, tonight was a story of poor puck management in the second half and an off night from a usually very good goalie. I’ve been a bit confused by Keefe’s comments that Samsonov has been “working through something”; why the team is playing him if that is the case I couldn’t help but wonder about after the poor showing tonight.
I don’t think there’s too much more to read into it than that and the Leafs did control play better than they have in more than a week, which is something to build on for Thursday. Tampa Bay did lose to Montreal as well, so Toronto lost no ground in the quest for home ice (in fact they gained some because another game remaining gone is a positive) and remains in a very strong position with under a month to go.