The Maple Leafs evened up their preseason record on Friday night, beating the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 2-1 in a game that felt largely in control until the final five or so minutes. 

As is usually the case in preseason, both rosters were missing a number of key players. The Leafs, in particular, sat all of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly, among a number of other established NHLers.

Dressing among the NHL locks on the roster, in no particular order: Tyler Bertuzzi, Mark Giordano, Timothy Liljegren, Sam Lafferty, Ryan Reaves, David Kampf, and Ilya Samsonov.

While going into camp I left the door open for the possibility of Matthew Knies needing some time to develop in the AHL, at this point, it’s very clear he should be on the team. He has really left no doubt about it. Knies scored in this game, but beyond that, he is just a dangerous player who already knows how to use his body to shield the puck and make plays.

On one shift in the third period, he streaked down the boards on his offwing, drove wide while shielding the puck, and with one hand on his stick, he pulled the puck in and got a shot off. In the second period, he easily outmuscled a defender and calmly retrieved the puck, leading to an easy breakout:

Knies did something similar in the third period while protecting a lead with just over a minute left, and it should have led to a clean exit but Liljegren put the puck over the glass for a penalty. 

In terms of the game itself, there wasn’t a whole lot to it. It was a 2-1 preseason game featuring a shorthanded goal — the Leafs went six-for-six on the PK and outscored the Habs 1-0 shorthanded while outchancing them 5-4 — as well as a point-shot deflection off of a Habs player into the net which stood up as the game-winner.

But these games aren’t about the results; they are about the individual showings within them as players try to make the team, move up the organization’s depth chart, or simply stand out and make a name for themselves.

Post-Game Notes

– This was a big prove-it opportunity for Pontus Holmberg. He was essentially the top-line center on the team and was given Tyler Bertuzzi along with Noah Gregor as his wingers. That’s a notable step up from when he centered Nick Abruzzese and Nick Robertson against Ottawa, or even Gregor as well as Sam Lafferty against Buffalo. This was a golden opportunity for Holmberg to play with good players — and in the case of Bertuzzi, a really good player — high up the lineup against a poor team.

He didn’t do much with it. There were no real stand-out shifts. He didn’t specifically create anything on his own, and he was set up for one shot in the high slot that wobbled off his stick. On one play, he didn’t see a wide-open defenseman joining the rush (who had a real chance to beat the Habs defenseman wide and create a great scoring chance if he was passed the puck in stride); the play went offside.

Holmberg’s play hasn’t necessarily been poor and he hasn’t done anything detrimental — if he was inserted into the lineup, I certainly wouldn’t consider him a liability — but to this point, he really hasn’t done anything that shouts he should be on this team to start the season. 

Timothy Liljegren was handed an A on his sweater today, which was a nice gesture for a young player who has been in and out of the lineup at critical times over each of the past two seasons. It’s worth noting he is the only defenseman on the team under the age of 25. He is a really significant player for the organization.

This was a good showing from Liljegren. His skating was evident throughout the night as he joined the rush a number of times; at one point, he almost went on a mini end-to-end rush, but the puck rolled off his stick as he took the defender wide on his backhand. In the first period, he had arguably the best chance of the period in the high slot all alone. He led all skaters in the game playing 24:19, and other than the aforementioned delay of game penalty — which was a poor play — he showed well and pushed play.

–  Noah Gregor also played a good game — three shots on net, and he used his speed to create chances (including one really nice one shorthanded where his speed caused a turnover and he went on a mini breakaway).

The one notable blemish was his failure to get the puck out prior to the Habs’ only goal. He had the puck on his stick and a second or so to make a read, but he held on to it for too long. With the Leafs nursing a lead late, he again struggled to get the puck out.

Overall, Gregor has stood out in a good way so far and is clearly a player who should be playing in the NHL. There’s no question he can play in the league and chip in — he was good on the penalty kill, where his speed helps him cause turnovers — but if he wants to be trusted and play in big moments, he’s going to need to clean those details up.

–  Nick Robertson didn’t score, but he did everything else. He put 6 shots on net. He was wide open on one play where Liljegren should have passed to him. Sometimes he does have the blinders on a little too much and simply defaults to shooting, but he’s making good things happen when he’s on the ice. He might not start the season with the NHL team, but he’s positioning himself to be the first call-up. On a line with David Kampf and Ryan Reaves, he really helped them drive some offense and made plays with the puck.

– Nothing new here, but I am a fan of Sam Lafferty and his speed on the wing. They tried him at center after acquiring him, but a few weeks later, he moved to the wing and has been much better since then.

It remains to be seen whether he can produce enough offense or bring enough as a difference-maker to justify playing alongside a John Tavares type of center. He and Knies have been able to gash teams a few times with their speed through the neutral zone, and they did it again tonight on a play where Knies drew a penalty and Lafferty broke in, leading to a scoring chance. 

– Preseason star Conor Timmins had a much more tame game, but he still logged big minutes, playing just about 24 on the night. On one play, he walked in cleanly off a nice pass from Abruzzese and ripped one off the crossbar. He was on the top power-play unit and did not look out of place.

On the other end, he got beat at the blue line off the rush on one play that led to the Leafs‘ William Lagesson taking a penalty (Timmins actually thought he took it and started heading into the penalty box). The offense is nice, but I think it’s the defense that the coaches will be keying in on, especially with a defense that already has Morgan Rielly and John Klingberg on it.

Ryan Reaves and David Kampf generated some good energy shifts in this one and looked like they started to build some chemistry. In their first game together, it was a tough watch, but in this one, they created a few chances and Reaves won some battles below the goal line and in front of the net to create opportunities, including one shot off a rebound for a good scoring chance.

On the flip side, they also got pinned in their end on a few shifts, with one instance leading to a penalty. It was great to see the energy, but they can’t be giving it back on the other end.

Tyler Bertuzzi is as advertised: finishing checks, lots of little interference and pick plays with stick lifts, constantly involved, always around the net. It’s nice to have a player like him at the top of the lineup.

Playing with lesser players tonight, Bertuzzi did well at times to drive the play up the ice, retrieve the puck in the offensive zone, and create some zone time. On the second goal, he ripped a beautiful cross-ice breakout pass to lead the play and then followed it up by going to the net. It was a deflection goal on the other side of him, but every body in front of the net helps. 

– The Habs didn’t have much in terms of quality shooters or scoring chances, but it was still nice to see Ilya Samsonov shut them out for two periods (17 for 17) before Keith Petruzzelli took the net for the third period. 

Sheldon Keefe Post Game, Leafs 2 vs. Canadiens 1

Toronto Maple Leafs Lineup 

#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #18 Noah Gregor
#23 Matthew Knies – #39 Fraser Minten – #28 Sam Lafferty
#89 Nick Robertson – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves
#26 Nick Abruzzese – #15 Logan Shaw – #90 Max Ellis

#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#85 William Lagesson – #25 Conor Timmins
#61 Spencer Sova – #84 Mikko Kokkonen

#35 Ilya Samsonov
#80 Keith Petruzzelli

Montreal Canadiens Lineup

Armia – Monahan – Anderson
Pearson – Evans – Gallagher
Roy – Beck – Ylönen
Mysak – Stephens – Parker-Jones

Harris – Mailloux
Xhekaj – Lindström
Beaudin – Barron


Game Highlights: Leafs 2 vs. Canadiens 1