The Toronto Maple Leafs finished up the 2022-23 regular season with a win over the New York Rangers thanks to three third-period goals from Timothy Liljegren, William Nylander, and Noel Acciari. 

It was a milestone goal #40 for Nylander — a career first for him — while Mitch Marner fell agonizingly short of 100 points. Joseph Woll picked up another win in net, the club hit 50 wins and 110+ points for the second consecutive season, and most importantly, no one got hurt. A mostly successful evening in the final game before the moment of truth arrives.

Your game in 10:

1.    As a general statement, there was as little intensity as you will ever see in a regular season game tonight. With limited shots or chances, neither team showed much competitive fire until arguably the last couple of minutes. It was boring for quite a while.

The first period was the least eventful of the three, with each team generating a couple of looks early. Patrick Kane put the puck wide after a TJ Brodie turnover. At the other end, Alex Kerfoot stole the puck from a Ranger and created a look. William Nylander went on a breakaway, but he ran out of real estate as Halak made the save when #88 got in too tight.

Perhaps the most notable development of the first period was the Leafs getting their first — and only — power play of the evening. They generated a grand total of 0.05 expected goals over the power play, and my only note was about Nylander’s involvement. He was placed on the second unit by Keefe, who opted for Matthew Knies over Nylander on the top unit.

Toronto generated very little when the first unit was on the ice, so they brought on the second unit including Nylander, who proceeded to fire three shot attempts, none of which tested Halak. In a clear indication of the Leafs‘ goals on the PP, his teammates seemed content to let Nylander shoot over and over again in search of the 40th.

The Leafs were unsuccessful on that PP in a scoreless first period, and that was their only man-advantage opportunity of the evening.

2.     The start of the second period finally injected some life into the game as the Rangers broke the ice just under 100 seconds in.

William Nylander put Justin Holl in a tough spot with a pass that was tricky to handle, resulting in a turnover. Vincent Trocheck snagged it, fed Kaapo Kakko, and swooped around the net. Kakko pulled a couple of slick moves as he deked Joseph Woll and then flipped the puck by him.

There was some question at the time about whether or not Artemi Panarin — who drove the net and did make contact with Woll — had committed goaltender interference. It did seem on the replays that Panarin’s contact came after the puck was by Woll and did not affect the ability to make the save. The Leafs opted not to challenge, and for those disappointed about the lack of a review, sit tight as there were a few still in store.

3.    Not too long after the Rangers made it 1-0, Ryan O’Reilly and William Nylander went on a 2v1 rush with O’Reilly in possession. The problem was that everyone on the ice — and frankly everyone aware of the circumstances — knew that RO’R was passing to Nylander. The pass was telegraphed, and the Rangers broke it up.

Tyler Motte and ex-Leaf Jimmy Vesey went on 2v1 of their own, but Joseph Woll made the stop, the first of several big saves in a row. Woll also wowed with a rebound save on Artemi Panarin before getting a little help from the post when denying Panarin again on a different rush chance.

When the second period ended, the score remained 1-0 New York, and the two teams had combined for just eight high-danger chances each through 40 minutes over all situations.

4.     The Leafs entered the third period without a shutout against this season through 81 games, and it didn’t take long for them to make it the full 82.

Their first goal was a flukey one. Timothy Liljegren carried the puck in and took a harmless-looking wrist shot from the wing that redirected off Niko Mikkola’s stick and right through the five-hole of Jaroslav Halak.

It appeared that New York took lead right back after a Ranger cycle possession caught Alexander Kerfoot sleeping. The puck went up high, and Morgan Rielly followed it up. Braden Schneider made a cut move down the wall and Kerfoot didn’t switch with Rielly, leaving Schneider open. The Rangers defenseman took a pass, broke in on Woll, and tucked it in.

The Leafs asked for a review on the entry — which occurred over 20 seconds earlier — and the play was clearly offside. The score stood at 1-1 after a no-goal ruling.

5.    The Rangers did end up getting a go-ahead goal soon after on a power play following a tripping penalty to William Nylander.

The puck squibbed free into the slot right off the faceoff before Artemi Panarin blasted a missile off the iron. The Leafs seemed to have caught a break, but Mitch Marner couldn’t clear the puck out before Adam Fox uncorked a filthy spin-o-rama pass back to Panarin, whose second cannon blast went in. 2-1 New York.

New York’s PPG broke the Leafs’ streak of seven straight games without allowing a goal while shorthanded. Over that span, their opponents were 0/23 with the man advantage. The Leafs killed another one later in the game, so they finished the night 1/2. It was a bit disappointing to let one in, but it’s hard to quibble with the kill’s play as of late.

If we go all the way back to the beginning of February, the Leafs finished the season killing 77 of 89 or 86.5%. That’s about as good of a clip as a team can muster in the modern NHL over a sample size as expansive as multiple months’ worth of games, so Sheldon Keefe has to feel good about his PK entering the playoffs.

Last postseason, the Lightning scored seven times on 33 opportunities (21.2%), with at least one in five of the seven games. Given the poor showing from the Bolts at 5v5 in the back half of the season, their lethal 1-3-1 PP will be crucial to beating the Leafs. Toronto cannot let that happen again, and all the indicators on the PK are positive going in, at least.

6.     Before we continue with more of the action in the third, let’s touch on Matthew Knies.

Knies started the game strong, winning a puck battle and moving it down the wall to William Nylander, who had a chance to score in tight. Knies then drew a holding penalty to give the Leafs a PP (as mentioned, Toronto’s only one of the night) and was given an opportunity on the top unit of said power play.

The best moment from Knies came late in the first period in a play that showcased his agility, strength, and hands:

That’s Braden Schneider who Knies dropped with the pivot and spin move — a fine young player himself.

Later in the second period, Knies took a shift with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, helping set up AM34 near the net, but his shot went over the net.

For the evening, Knies finished with an 82.73% expected goals for percentage at 5v5 (per Natural Stat Trick), the second-best mark on the team. The Leafs also owned 70% of the scoring chances and 83% of the high-danger chances with him on the ice.

It was a strong game from Knies, his best as a pro in your author’s opinion. Knies’ skating has looked fine in the NHL, even if it could use some work. He’s still adjusting to the size and physicality of the NHL, but his big body helps and the hands are legit.

There is the potential that he gets too fancy with the puck or makes a bad read in the defensive zone and it burns the Leafs in a big moment if he plays in the playoffs, but he also has undeniable offensive talent that no one else in the Leafs’ bottom six possesses. It’s a gamble — playing to win vs. playing not to lose — and it will be fascinating to see what Keefe does with Knies in the postseason.

7.     The Rangers’ 2-1 lead lasted less than two minutes as the Toronto faithful got the moment they were looking for: William Nylander‘s 40th goal.

Nylander came off the wall and had the puck poked away by a Ranger, but he got it back thanks to a takeaway and pass from Ryan O’Reilly. Once Nylander was in alone on Halak, he roofed it beautifully:

At one time, it seemed like Nylander would threaten 45 or even 50, but his pace slowed down amid a slumping March. However, it’s been nice to see him heat back up the last few games. He torched Montreal on Saturday with 10 shots on net and a goal followed by a solid effort against Florida, a three-point night against Tampa, and goal #40 tonight.

That’s three goals and five points in his last four games, helping him find his mojo again as the playoffs arrive. That goal gives Nylander the 27th 40-goal season in Leafs history as he becomes the 15th individual to do it. He joins franchise icons such as Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Dave Andreychuk, Mats Sundin, and of course, his teammates Matthews and Tavares. Special accomplishment.

8.     With the game now tied, the focus turned to Mitch Marner and his quest for 100 points, but Noel Acciari decided that the moment was actually his.

Ryan O’Reilly whacked away at the puck and it kicked to the wheelhouse of Acciari, who fired from the high slot and Halak made the save. Alex Kerfoot was driven back towards the crease by K’Andre Miller and couldn’t do anything about it, so Acciari went and collected the rebound himself, nudging it by the netminder:

Acciari’s 100th career point gave the Leafs a 3-2 edge with seven-and-a-half minutes to go. The scorers chose not to give O’Reilly an assist, so he ended the night with one point and closes the book on his regular season Leafs tenure for 2022-23 with 4-7-11 in 13 games. Not bad!

The remainder of regulation was focused on the Leafs closing the game out and Marner’s quest to reach the century mark. Luke Schenn was tagged with a tripping penalty, and the Rangers went to a 6v4 PP with about three minutes to play, giving Marner many chances at the empty net. He took four shot attempts in total, but the Rangers managed to knock down all of them without any of them reaching the cage (Adam Fox batted down two himself).

The Leafs killed the penalty off and seemed to have the game won, but the Rangers appeared to tie it with just over a second remaining. Upon further review, it was determined that the puck was clearly kicked in by Filip Chytil, who was tied up by Jake McCabe at the top of the crease. The referees waved the goal off, put 1.9 seconds back on the clock, and the time promptly expired, giving the Leafs the 3-2 win.

9.     Before we wrap up the regular season, I want to shout out Joseph Woll, who was rock solid yet again. You know you’re playing well when a 22-for-24 night in net lowers your SV% for the season, but that is indeed the case for Woll. I thought the young goalie looked composed and steady in the net, making a few huge high-danger saves when the Leafs needed him to. Obviously, it helps that a couple of goals were disallowed, but both were correctly called.

Woll finished the regular season 6-1 in seven starts, winning his last six decisions and posting a .932 SV% overall. Natural Stat Trick recorded him at 1.41 goals above expected — yet another strong GSAx showing.

I’m not sure what else needs to be said, but Woll looks ready for a full season as an NHL backup goaltender. We’ll see if the Leafs give him that opportunity in 2023-24. At the very least, he’s done enough to put the Leafs in the rare position of saying, “If this kid with 11 career games has to play net for us in the playoffs, we actually have a bit of confidence in him.”

10.     So here we are. The Toronto Maple Leafs have finished the 2022-23 regular season. They won 50 games for the second consecutive season and the second time in franchise history. They crossed 110 points for the second time as well, finishing with 111 (four short of last year’s 115). The Leafs are ending the season fourth in the NHL standings and would have home ice against any potential Stanley Cup Final opponent as well as against every opponent in the East besides Boston, Carolina, and New Jersey.

Marner not reaching 100 points was a bummer, but there’s not much else you can ask for from this regular season as we enter the playoffs, especially with a fully healthy roster (assuming Ilya Samsonov is ready to go, which would seem to be the case).

The Leafs’ playoff opponent has been determined for some time: a rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Current rumours are that the series will start on Tuesday.

The Bolts knocked off a disinterested Red Wings team tonight to finish with 98 points, 13 behind Toronto. The Leafs also end the season with a +28 advantage in goal differential over Tampa. By all available metrics, the Maple Leafs are a better team than Tampa Bay, and this is the weakest Lightning squad since the version that missed the playoffs in 2016-17.

The Lightning are still great champions, three-time defending champs of the Eastern Conference title, and deserve the utmost respect. They will be a tough opponent and a difficult team to eliminate, but this is still a series Toronto should win.

No excuses now, and the players know it. The big questions before the series begins next week: Who is the sixth defenseman (Luke Schenn or Timothy Liljegren?), and does Matthew Knies finds a spot in the lineup? Food for thought until the big dance kicks off.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts