The Maple Leafs grabbed a point and probably should’ve taken two to end their five-game road trip in Nashville, but Juuse Saros (33 saves) and Ryan O’Reilly (two power-play goals) had other ideas.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs were playing their fifth game in 10 days with stops in four different states and five different cities. It felt like the start was going to be critical, and the team got off to a good one in this game with one major caveat: they didn’t convert on enough of their many scoring chances, with goaltender Juuse Saros playing a big role in that outcome.
The Tyler Bertuzzi – John Tavares – William Nylander line got the team buzzing on its second shift following a positive shift by the fourth line (led by Noah Gregor). Nylander was all over the puck once again, and Bertuzzi rang the crossbar with a mid-slot tip. On his next shift, Nylander pickpocketed the puck off of Ryan McDonagh in the neutral zone and broke in on a breakaway.
It’s nitpicking a player who is clearly off to a fabulous start to the season, but on breakaways specifically, Nylander might need to start betting on his shot and ability to beat goalies clean with it over some of his deke options. This forehand-backhand-five hole move was easily brushed aside by Saros.
2. With the shots at 6-2 Leafs, the Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line continuing to generate chances, and Toronto generally dictating the play, Auston Matthews broke in on a breakaway off of a quick transition from a defensive-zone puck recovery, marking Saros’ second breakaway save in the first 13 minutes. Matthews drew a penalty on the play, though, and the Leafs‘ power play went to work.
Under pressure from two Nashville PKers on the half-wall following an entry, John Tavares cleverly puck-protected and stickhandled himself into some space but lost the handle as it nearly became a broken play and a clearance. All of the elite skill on the ice in a Leafs sweater shined through; despite a bit of a scramble, it very suddenly turned into a gorgeous bang-bang passing play from Matthews to Mitch Marner, back to Matthews, and over to William Nylander for a wicked one-timer goal.
It's that guy, Will Ny The Scoring Guy! 😎 pic.twitter.com/XNorco3vJN
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 28, 2023
The dream start continued for #88 with his sixth goal of the young season.
3. Shortly after the 1-0 goal, the refs somehow picked only TJ Brodie out of a skirmish in front of the Leafs net, handing him a roughing penalty. Kiefer Sherwood was clearly the aggressor on the play and cross-checked Morgan Rielly pretty hard in his effort to buzz the Toronto net while Rielly stood in his way. Brodie stepped in to shove Sherwood away from his teammate but didn’t exactly throw haymakers or anything of the type that we could see on camera.
The Leafs’ PK continued to be out of sorts. On this play, there was a handoff between Ryan O’Reilly and Roman Josi down low, and Mark Giordano left the middle to over-pursue Josi over on the wall. O’Reilly was all alone and able to take a little pass from Josi, step right out front, and throw it at the far side of the net and in, with Ilya Samsonov possibly surprised by the freedom in the low slot O’Reilly was afforded.
4. The Leafs generated some more good looks to end the first period, including a quality chance in the slot for Calle Jarnkrok and a partial breakaway for Noah Gregor, who was standing out often early on as he challenged the defense and the Nashville net with his speed off the wing. Juuse Saros was completely dialed in, and the Leafs left a first period they largely tilted in their favour at five-on-five (12-3 in scoring chances) tied at 1-1. It distinctly felt like a missed opportunity they might regret knowing the final 40 would likely be a bit of a grind at the end of a long road trip.
5. The Leafs continued to generate looks in the first 10 minutes of the second period, including Noah Gregor striking a post (and later setting up Ryan Reaves in the slot) as the fourth line continued to show life. There were a few grade-A chances the other way off of a Morgan Rielly turnover into the slot and later Yakov Trenin slipping in behind TJ Brodie for a partial breakaway off of a stretch pass in transition.
Those were two particularly big saves for Ilya Samsonov given the seemingly fragile state of his confidence at the moment. The Leafs were carrying play and should’ve been up by one or two in the game. They committed their first pair of potentially big mistakes at five-on-five, and they needed the help of a bailout from their goaltender. Samsonov was there both times to keep it tied.
6. Halfway through the game, Timothy Liljegren‘s night was over after taking a hard hit along the end boards that left him wincing. With Mike Van Ryn already spotting William Lagesson into the rotation sparingly in his first NHL game of the season, it put the Leafs down to four and a half D at the end of their road trip.
Needless to say, the news on Liljegren is something to keep a close eye on in the next few days. The Leafs are not by any means flush with natural right-ride defense options on the depth cart. They tried Simon Benoit there briefly in preseason and it didn’t go well. The Marlies have given Lagesson and Mikko Kokkonen some exposure to the right side at times, but they also shoot left, and Kokkonen is bereft of any NHL experience. Right-hander Topi Niemela is certainly promising but isn’t ready to be thrust into prime time yet.
Thankfully, the news on Jake McCabe is that it is a short-term issue, so it doesn’t sound like the Leafs are going to be down two of their regulars for too long even if Liljegren misses some time. But defensive depth was a cause for some concern entering the season, and with McCabe, Timmins, and now possibly Liljegren out, the first big test may be arriving early.
For whatever it’s worth, Lagesson didn’t embarrass himself by any means in his 11 minutes of ice time tonight. He kept it clean and simple with the puck and kept the play in front of him defensively.
7. With seven minutes left in the second period, the Maple Leafs’ third line of Matthew Knies – David Kampf – Max Domi put together a shift that lasted nearly a full minute inside the Nashville zone and created the go-ahead goal.
Domi was buzzing around the zone with the puck as the Predators were down to 4.5 men due to a broken stick. Eventually, John Klingberg identified that the stick-less shot blocker was closing down on him and pump-faked him down to the ice. Klingberg then nicely picked out Domi to the side of the net, where Domi nudged a pass into the crease area for Kampf, who bumped it across to the back post sensing a teammate in the area. Mark Giordano made a heads-up play to jump in and create a numerical advantage at the net-front area, polishing off his first since February of last season.
8. When the third line runs the other team ragged and grabs the team the lead courtesy of a defenseman’s first goal in 36 games (I’m including last year’s playoffs in that total), the top line should be hopping the boards and continuing the momentum on the next shift, right? Not the case tonight.
They couldn’t get through the neutral zone on two attempts before Mitch Marner blindly threw a puck up the middle in the defensive zone preceding a spell of own-zone time, eventually leading to a tripping penalty on Calle Jarnkrok.
The PK then allowed its second goal of the night after Mark Giordano lost positioning on O’Reilly in front and couldn’t get ROR’s stick tied up in time to prevent an unstoppable redirect past Samsonov.
9. The Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line went out afterward and won momentum back with a strong shift that led to a Leafs power play, which was the first of three power plays in the final 25 minutes of the game where the Leafs couldn’t convert.
There was a moment 30 seconds into the late second-period power play that really had me shaking my head in bewilderment. Matthews broke in with speed off an entry touch pass from Marner and was basically one-on-one with the goalie; Matthews — of seven goals and multiple hat tricks already this season, a 60-goal-scoring Hart Trophy winner, etc etc etc — actually tried a drop pass instead of shooting. Saros was probably in his head somewhat after Matthews’ two earlier partial breakaways were turned aside, but you’re Auston Matthews!
When Matthews and Marner aren’t as effective as the sky-high standard they’re always held to, there is almost always an overly cute over-passing tendency at the heart of it.
Anyway, it’s a little crazy to nitpick Matthews and the man advantage in the early going given the results, but this was certainly an occasion when the Leafs really could’ve used one more from their PP to make the difference late on, with the team playing short and at the end of a long road trip.
The top unit was off the mark in its two opportunities in the third, and the best chance on the abbreviated opportunity in the final eight minutes actually went to Nashville’s Yakov Trenin (a good stop from Samsonov that might well have saved the point). The PK stepped up with a few improved efforts after back-to-back too-many-men minors by the Leafs (!), but the PP wasn’t as sharp, setting the stage for OT.
10. The Leafs didn’t win the opening draw, hardly touched the puck, and lost in three-on-three OT. Until proven otherwise, we seemingly have to expect this team will generally under-perform in this game state relative to their skill level.
There were a lot of positives in the performances in this game (and on the 3-1-1 road trip). The Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line continued its positive momentum, the third line of Knies – Kampf – Domi came on strong in the second half of the game (a Domi crossbar and a few other good looks in addition to their goal), and Gregor really should’ve scored once if not twice in this game down on line four.
Matthews and Marner combined for just one five-on-five goal during the five-game trip, and it came in a game where they didn’t play particularly well. They’re hovering around the breakeven point in goals and scoring chances at five on five — which surely can’t last, and with how the Tavares line is rolling (plus all of his coaching history), my guess is Sheldon Keefe is content to wait it out.