Ilya Samsonov was sensational in this 2-1 overtime win for the Maple Leafs, who — thanks to a late John Tavares game-winner at three-on-three — took the extra point away from a Florida team that needed it a hellova lot more than the Leafs did.
You could call it payback after Florida stole a point off of the Leafs in OT two weeks ago.
Your game in 10:
1. Entering a game on the road against a far more desperate opponent, the Maple Leafs had an opportunity to jump out to an early lead on the power play after John Tavares made a nice one-on-one move against Brandon Montour and drew a penalty on the second shift of the game.
The formula from Saturday’s success against the Habs didn’t carry over on this power play as they forced some seam passes, didn’t direct anything at the net at any point, and were actually outshot by the Florida PK unit.
Right after the expiration of the power play, Ryan Lomberg ghosted in behind Morgan Rielly to receive a pass and break in alone on Ilya Samsonov, who was sharp early and often in this game.
2. The Leafs answered back with a great penalty kill of their own early in the first following another Michael Bunting penalty. Alex Kerfoot and Mitch Marner did a bang-up job angling off the Florida attackers through the neutral zone, and Justin Holl was again breaking up plays on the right side of the zone. Similar to the Panthers’ look after their kill, the expiration of the penalty was immediately followed by a grade-A scoring chance for the Leafs.
When Bunting exited the box, he was immediately into a one-on-one foot race for a loose puck and pulled off a great move to pull the puck away from the defender into space — beating him off the wall with a spin move — before nearly finishing it off in alone on Alex Lyon.
There is plenty of positive momentum building on the Leafs‘ shorthanded units as the playoffs near with 13 straight kills in the past five games.
3. Even though the shots were 15-8 Florida, clocked puck possession time by the end of the first period was 10:18-9:11 for the Leafs, scoring chances were 7-7, and high-danger chances were 5-5. The Panthers edged the period on expected goals, but given the difference in the stakes for the two teams, you’re probably fine with a scoreless first period on the road if you’re the Leafs.
That said, it was in large part due to Ilya Samsonov that it remained scoreless as he needed to be sharp on a couple of free-and-clear opportunities for the Panthers, including a really important save right at the end of the first period to keep it 0-0. Ryan Lomberg broke in for a second time when he stripped Jake McCabe of a bobbling puck in the neutral zone and skated straight past TJ Brodie for a breakaway.
4. Matthew Knies‘ first NHL shift came late in a Leafs power play in which the team barely touched the puck, but on his first five-on-five shift, he dug a puck free from Marc Staal behind the goal line, protected it nicely, and worked it back to the point. He also got in on the forecheck and poked a puck free right behind the Florida net leading to a scoring chance. Later in the period, he protected the puck on the half-wall before Alex Kerfoot grabbed it and broke in alone on Lyon. He later made a brave between-the-legs touch pass in the defensive zone on a breakout that thankfully worked out for him.
In the second and third periods, he wasn’t quite as involved with his offensive-zone puck touches, and he turned a puck over that needed to get out high in the defensive zone in addition to taking a few solid hits (one from his blind side after dumping a puck in). Keefe mixed him in with Kampf and Aston-Reese for a fourth-line shift late in the second period, and he checked back above the puck nicely to lean on Montour and prevent him from clearing the zone, leading to more offensive-zone time.
There were inevitably a few welcome-to-the-NHL moments, but he made some positive touches on the cycle and did not look afraid or overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of the game, which is all you can really ask for in the circumstances.
He’s still looking for his first shot on goal, but he came close twice to grabbing his first NHL assist. Keefe mixed him in for a few offensive-zone shifts up the lineup with Matthews or Tavares and got him up to a reasonable 13:09 in time on ice in a tight game. All in all, with expectations properly in check, this was a solid debut.
5. In a second period where Florida edged Toronto on scoring chances, shots, and expected goals but could not solve Ilya Samsonov, the Leafs scored a greasy one to take a 1-0 lead late in the middle frame.
The Leafs’ top line of Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner drove much of the team’s offensive-zone possession time and scoring chances over the 60 minutes, posting an 83% xGF in 14 minutes of five-on-five time in a game where the Leafs finished at just 44.5% in the metric. Bunting, in particular, created a lot of opportunity for himself by applying persistent puck pressure and turning over pucks leading directly to quality looks.
On the goal, Marner hustled down a dump-in and took a hit from Brandon Montour — who was inexplicably on the ice for nearly 3:20 before the goal went in — with support down low from Matthews before Marner collected the puck back, rotated up high, and sifted one down towards Matthews at the front of the net.
#34 did a great job of gaining inside positioning on Montour in front and positioning his stick blade for a redirect, and he was rewarded for it when a trickler snuck through Alex Lyon.
TONE TIPS IT HOME! 🏡 pic.twitter.com/hR4RbJXD3S
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 11, 2023
6. That was goal #40 for Auston Matthews, which feels ho-hum or as if it’s the low end of the sky-high expectation for a talent like him, but it’s worth noting he was sitting at 26 in 52 at one point with just 23 games left to play due to his injury. He needed 14 goals in his final 23 to hit the 40-goal milestone for the fourth straight season, and he did it in 21.
What’s remained a constant is just how little the Leafs are giving up when Matthews is on the ice this year. He went from 3.06 goals against per 60 at five-on-five last season (a really low on-ice save percentage had a lot to do with it) all the way down to 1.97 per 60 this season, which is even better than the season when the Leafs were exclusively playing in the Canadian division against relatively weak competition.
That leaves Matthews with a 67% Goals For Percentage at five-on-five — 74 goals for, 37 against. Even if the total production is down, the Leafs have never won Matthews’ minutes on a goal-share basis to this degree before (not in his 60-goal year — when he was at 59% — or even in the Canadian division season). The looming question was whether he could flip the switch and find another gear offensively as the playoffs neared, and the answer is now clear on that front.
7. As much as a desperate Florida predictably possessed the puck more than the Leafs, Toronto gave up just three shots on goal in the opening nine or so minutes of the third period. They gave up very little before the tying goal arrived off a rush play on the counterattack.
In the midst of a good offensive-zone shift by the Ryan O’Reilly, William Nylander, and John Tavares line, TJ Brodie continued his head-scratching performance in this game by pinching down into no-man’s land at the top of the offensive zone seemingly hoping for a puck to squirt loose after a nice stick lift by O’Reilly on Montour led to a broken play in the slot in front of the Florida net. The Panthers recovered the puck, and Carter Verhaghe beat Brodie up the ice to create a sort-of 2-on-1 that bounced off of Brodie’s skate (as he scrambled back) and landed on the stick of the trailer, Montour, to finish off from point-blank range.
It was a night of strangely poor reads and weak rush defense from the Leafs’ usual steady-eddy on the blue line.
8. Sheldon Keefe turned to his top line immediately after the goal against, and they generated a good look for Michael Bunting in the slot off of a Mitch Marner feed. Bunting led all Leafs skaters with four shots on goal at five-on-five.
The Leafs did not cede too much in terms of long cycle shifts inside their own zone as Florida searched for a playoff spot-clinching game-winner, but they were vulnerable a few times against Florida’s fast transition game and active D joining the rush; on a few occasions, they weren’t alert to the developing danger or quick enough getting their numbers back above when a puck changed hands up ice.
Ryan O’Reilly was the Leafs’ most consistent force in the third period at driving play north and trying to get cycles started in the offensive zone. Keefe leaned on him in a lot of different spots on different lines throughout the final frame as he led Leafs forward with nine shifts in the final frame.
9. At three-on-three OT, we saw Sheldon Keefe start TJ Brodie — after starting Morgan Rielly vs. Boston — and rotate through Auston Matthews x2, Mitch Marner x2, Ryan O’Reilly, William Nylander, and David Kampf (for a defensive draw before getting off) among their forwards before John Tavares took the ice for an offensive-zone draw with around 2:45 to go.
The Leafs didn’t touch the puck for nearly his entire 2:30 shift — throwing it away a couple of times when they did — and Ilya Samsonov pulled off a fantastic save on Matthew Tkachuk. Finally, Rielly just swatted it down the ice and Tavares broke free, finding enough wind in his lungs to pull it across Alex Lyon and elevate it beautifully off his backhand to score the game-winner with just 22 seconds left in the OT period.
It’s not often gone well for Tavares at three-on-three OT over the past few seasons and it didn’t look good again for a long while there, but that was a hellova finish by a tired player.
SAMMY. JOHNNY. GAME!!! pic.twitter.com/vF2aReOsbY
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 11, 2023
10. Mission #1 in these games is avoiding injuries, and there were a few scary moments when Auston Matthews took a shot to the leg and Jake McCabe missed the first half of the third period (it was just for a few stitches). Erik Gustafsson did pick up a minor injury in warmups, but the Leafs’ regulars emerged unscathed, it appears, so it was mission accomplished in this regard.
The other major noteworthy part of this game was the continued signs of Ilya Samsonov peaking at the right time of year. He stopped 45 of 46 (.978 sv%) including 2.14 goals saved above expected, which constitutes one of his best performances of the season statistically. He’s now a .959 in his last five starts, allowing two or fewer in all five starts and posting one shutout.
Now there is the question of tomorrow’s starter. If Brandon Pridham still can’t maneuver it by getting an emergency backup recall of Joe Woll past the league, it seems like the best of the worst options might be to give their EBUG/ATO signing the start.
It sounds crazy, but it’s not worth pushing Samsonov on back-to-back nights for a meaningless game #81 ahead of the playoffs (especially not against a Tampa team that plays on or over the edge and might start making some investments ahead of round one).
It could be viewed as a kind of win-win in a sense. If the Leafs lose a meaningless game to a rested Tampa squad as a tired team in a back-to-back with an EBUG in, so what? At least Samsonov is definitely still healthy. If it galvanizes the team, they rally around him defensively, and somehow win the game with an EBUG in the net, it would be headline-grabbing and might even serve as a bit of a mental edge heading into the series.
Whether it’s a fair position in which to put the ATO signing is a worthwhile question, though. We’ll see what Leafs brass has in store and if they can get Woll down to Tampa for tomorrow’s game.