One step closer to home-ice advantage. The Toronto Maple Leafs overwhelmed the Blue Jackets en route to a 4-2 victory, overcoming strong goaltending from Jet Greaves.
Depth scoring shined for Toronto. They received two goals from Zach Aston-Reese, who stayed hot with his performance tonight, as well as a goal from Alex Kerfoot before Auston Matthews scored his 38th on an empty netter.
Joseph Woll saved 24 of 26 shots to earn the win as the Maple Leafs banked a crucial pair of points to go six clear of Tampa Bay in the quest for home-ice advantage in round one.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs were off and running tonight, piling up the early shot count in what would be a preview of the game to come.
Auston Matthews, centering his own line absent any of the other core forwards, was a part of an odd-man rush just a couple minutes into the game with linemate Michael Bunting and a rushing Morgan Rielly. Nothing came of that opportunity, but not long after, Toronto drew first blood.
Amid an extended cycle possession, Justin Holl slid down the wall to pick up a loose puck, walked below the goal line, and fed a pass to Zach Aston-Reese, who promptly fired it by Jet Greaves:
ZACH ASTON-REESE 🚨
the third line strikes first pic.twitter.com/6Kj1MrtGP5
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 4, 2023
It was nice to see the Leafs grab the early lead, especially from a player in Aston-Reese who has been showing signs of life offensively after a long drought consuming much of the season. Little did we know it would not be the last we’d see of ZAR on the scoresheet tonight.
2. The Leafs went to a power play shortly after the opening goal, with Auston Matthews speeding away on a 2v1 rush that forced Sean Kuraly to grab a hold of him.
Toronto’s first chance with the manpower advantage was excellent — William Nylander setting up John Tavares from a high-danger area, Tavares feeding Matthews, and a couple more looks even after those two. None of them beat Greaves.
Columbus returned to full strength and then evened the score in a game they were on their heels in.
TJ Brodie pinched in the offensive zone to hold the puck in, but it got past him out into the center ice area. With the opportunity to slow down the rush at the center line, Michael Bunting whiffed, giving Columbus numbers into the attacking end.
Kent Johnson made a good pass to Jack Roslovic in the slot, who fired the shot by Joseph Woll, who ended up down on the ice on the play. At first glance, it seemed like Woll may have been interfered with by Liam Foudy driving the net, but upon further review, Woll blew a tire on his own.
The play began with a Columbus hand pass that wasn’t called (and is not reviewable), so the puck did lie in this situation, I guess.
3. The Columbus goal represented their first Grade-A look of the night at 5v5, and it would pretty much be their only great chance at even strength, in my book (Natural Stat Trick did credit them with two 5v5 high-danger chances in the first).
The Jackets got an opportunity on the PP to take the lead after Jake McCabe was called for a high stick, but nothing much came of it.
As the period rolled along, the Leafs continued to put the pedal to the metal, with Mitch Marner setting up William Nylander for a chance that Greaves made yet another save on.
The first period ended with the score tied at 1-1, but make no mistake about who the better team was: The Leafs outshot Columbus 13-3 at 5v5, out-attempted them 22-7, and owned the scoring chances 15-4 and high-danger chances 6-2. Expected goals were 76% in Toronto’s favor at 5v5, and they had the better PP showing, too.
It was total dominance, and they were a little unlucky not to go to the break with the lead.
4. The second period began with Sam Lafferty setting Zach Aston-Reese for a chance and Joseph Woll made his first good stop of the night on a chance for Kirill Marchenko. That one kept the score tied, which held until Toronto pounced on a turnover from Adam Boqvist in the neutral zone, setting up a 3v1 rush the other way.
David Kämpf passed back and forth to the other wing with Nick Abruzzese, setting up the recent call-up from the AHL with a great chance that Greaves made a stunning save on. Before the Toronto crowd had a chance to put their face in their palms in anguish at the incredible stop, Alex Kerfoot followed the play up and potted the rebound:
ALEX KERFOOT 🚨
buries the rebound after a huge save from Greaves pic.twitter.com/JSCGRziEPS
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 5, 2023
That’s Kerfoot’s third goal in his last seven games as he’s starting to show more offense just in time for the postseason. More pertinent to tonight’s game, it gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
5. The Leafs went to their second PP after taking the lead and generated a whopping four shots on goal during the advantage, but again, they couldn’t find the back of the net.
Even after the game formally returned to 5v5, the balance of play continued to be more or less one giant extended Toronto PP. The Leafs held the offensive zone for large stretches at a time, cycled, and created look after look while Greaves put Columbus on his back in keeping out all of these shots.
Columbus created a few looks going the other way, which is pretty natural when one team is hemmed in for long stretches; there are occasional opportunities that pop up off the counter. Joseph Woll made another save on Kirill Marchenko, and I thought Mitch Marner had a stellar night backchecking to shut off some of those Jackets opportunities that sprung up.
Columbus managed to triple their 5v5 shot count from the first period (nine), but many of them remained B-grade looks. Before the period was up, Columbus got its second PP, but again were held to generating shots but not many chances.
Noel Acciari stood out for me with a couple of nice defensive plays to kill the opportunity as the Leafs took a 2-1 lead to the break.
6. As the third period arrived, the narrative of the game was pretty clear: The Leafs held a lead that did represent which team was better but not nearly by the scope. Toronto was blowing Columbus off the ice for large stretches of the game yet led by a single shot. A creeping sense of dread trickling into the minds of Leafs Nation would not have been out of place.
The early third period was more of the same. Auston Matthews drove the net and got in tight on Greaves, but he was unable to slide the puck into the exposed net. William Nylander and Morgan Rielly got a 2v1 rush, but with Rielly at the end of his shift, they couldn’t finish it off.
It was getting almost painful how many Grade-A looks Toronto was producing without cashing in any since taking the lead.
The Blue Jackets did come close to tying the game up. As Columbus generated what might have been their only extended cycle shift of the game going against the Matthews line, Joseph Woll lost his goal stick, leaving him vulnerable. The Toronto skaters were left out on the ice trapped in their zone for nearly 90 seconds, but Woll stood tall and the danger passed.
7. Finally, with under 12 minutes to go in the game, the Leafs padded their lead.
After Jake McCabe tossed a puck at the net from the left point, Zach Aston-Reese raised his leg and deflected it in off his calf to double the Leaf lead:
ZACH ASTON-REESE 🚨🚨
DOUBLE DIGITS! CAREER HIGH! pic.twitter.com/hGokQmRc2o
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 5, 2023
That is goal #10 for ZAR and his fifth in the past 10 games after scoring two over 42 games spanning American Thanksgiving to mid-March. The Leafs will have some decisions to make with their forward lineup when Ryan O’Reilly returns from injury, and Aston-Reese’s late-season surge is making his case to be included in the playoff lineup.
8. Toronto’s 3-1 lead had the home crowd feeling pretty good about closing the game out, but Columbus said “not so fast.” After Greaves turned away a William Nylander chance, the Jackets got one back on the Leafs with just under eight minutes to play.
The puck hopped out to the center ice area, where Justin Holl was caught on his heels with the ultra-speedy Eric Robinson barreling at him. Robinson took the loose puck, flew down the wing, broke in on Joseph Woll, and sniped a shot by the netminder:
Eric Robinson snipes it short side pic.twitter.com/5zAZqMFnWK
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 5, 2023
At face value, this isn’t a great goal to give up. Robinson is coming down at an angle on Woll that sets up the goalie pretty favorably to defend the net; getting beat short-side from there is usually on the goalie.
On the other hand, the shot was a certified snipe — perfectly placed and with velocity coming from Robinson’s rush down the wing. Tip your hat to the shooter.
9. The pressure was back on the Leafs to close the game out, and they were given a prime opportunity to do it by getting a third power play when a high stick knocked Sam Lafferty‘s helmet off.
This third PP generated five shots for the Leafs in just the allotted two minutes(!), but again, they could not convert.
If we’re monitoring the Toronto PP to see if it is sinking into a slump like the last several seasons going into the playoffs, I would not say it’s the case despite tonight’s 0fer performance.
In six minutes of PP time, the Leafs generated 15 scoring chances, eight high-danger chances, and 1.85 expected goals while not allowing a shred of anything the other way shorthanded. The fact that they didn’t score a couple of times on the PP — let alone once — was silly and attributable to an incredible night from Greaves in the other net.
Still leading by one goal, the Leafs had to kill off roughly four minutes of remaining game time to grab the two points. The Blue Jackets generated a few looks, but I thought Noel Acciari shined yet again in a situation where the Leafs were down a player (6v5 this time), and Timothy Liljegren tied up his man well during a pass to the net front. I thought it was a pretty solid game from Liljegren defensively, with a nice poke check against a Columbus rush earlier in the night.
The Leafs were beating back the Columbus offense down a man when Auston Matthews picked up a loose puck in the Toronto end and fired it the length of the ice, hitting the empty net for his 38th goal of the season.
Matthews generated a team-leading 1.95 individual expected goals tonight, so to get one on the scoreboard — even of the EN variety — was justice. That’s 10 goals and 19 points in the last 14 games for Matthews… looking pretty good for the playoffs!
10. The final minute played out as a formality, and the Leafs closed out a 4-2 victory. They were a vastly better team tonight, owning over two-thirds of the chances and expected goals both at 5v5 and in all situations.
I don’t have too many individual notes of who played well or who didn’t on account of the game being so lopsided. The two teams didn’t really belong on the same ice as each other; it just wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard due to the fact that Jet Greaves was phenomenal, allowing three goals yet still saving 2.77 goals above expected tonight(!!!!). Sometimes that happens, and credit to the Leafs for persevering through it.
I didn’t talk too much about Joseph Woll — he didn’t face too many great looks — but he did face 26 total shots and saved 24 of them. Woll has now started five games this season, winning four of them and posting a .932 SV% over those games. If you toss in the five games from last year Woll played, he’s 7-2 in his NHL career with a SV% of .923.
Is he ready to be an NHL backup? You never want to gamble much on an AHL goalie, but we have seen nothing but good indicators that he could be the backup next season to a full-time Ilya Samsonov if that’s the way the team wants to go (playoffs will go a long way in determining that).
Toronto now sits six points clear of Tampa Bay for home-ice in the first round with five games left to play. It’s not mathematically sewn up, but the Leafs are sitting in a very good position. It’s quite difficult in the modern NHL with the loser point to make up ground that substantial in only that number of remaining games.
The Leafs will finish up with Boston, Montreal, Florida, Tampa, and the Rangers — a decently difficult schedule — while the Lightning end with the Rangers, Islanders, Senators, Leafs, and Red Wings. There is not much difference there to my eye.
Again, it’s not totally over — we have to play out the games — but it’s pretty close to it. It would require an epic faceplant from the Leafs to not take home-ice advantage into the first round after tonight.