Couldn’t have scripted it any sweeter.
Your game in 10:
1. It was a second consecutive underwhelming start for the Leafs in this game.
From the micro perspective, they were playing two teams on this trip that were coming off a game less than 24 hours earlier, which sometimes leads to the tired team jumping on the rested team early in the game before fading over the 60 minutes. From the macro perspective, slow starts are a problem for this team in general as they’ve been outscored 21-15 in the first period this season (20-13 before today).
Shots were 5-0 Minnesota to start the game, and the 1-0 Wild goal came just three minutes into the first period. The Leafs‘ top line (by which we currently mean the Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line) created a chance for William Nylander at the side of the net, and the third line came on for an offensive-zone faceoff afterward. It was a short shift for the top line to the point where Nylander looked like he expected to stay on the ice for the offensive-zone draw, but he was called to the bench so the Leafs could get their third line out for its first shift of the game.
Calle Jarnkrok won the draw initially, but Nick Robertson instantly gave it away with a blind bank pass to the point. The bottom D pairing plus the third line could not break the Wild cycle against the Minnesota top line once inside their own zone. Jarnkrok contested a puck on the wall but Mats Zuccarello made a nice touch play through him to the middle to Marco Rossi, who then fed it to Jon Merrill at the point for his first goal in 10 months.
The goal should’ve been stopped by Joseph Woll, who was too deep in his crease and was beaten cleanly by a shot that wasn’t exactly sent into the top corner. It’s a routine save if he’s further out challenging the shooter properly.
2. This Global Series was a bit of a step back for the third line just as it seemed to be gaining momentum prior to the trip to Sweden. Max Domi played just 7:58 today after playing just over 10 minutes against Detroit; Nick Robertson was down at 7:42 after playing 8:43 versus the Red Wings. The “fourth” line became the third line on this trip, playing more significant and reliable minutes for the team in both games.
3. To their credit, the Leafs got themselves up and running in this game much quicker than the Detroit game (which makes some sense given the lengthy layoff before the Red Wings matchup on Friday).
A power-play goal by Auston Matthews pulled the Leafs even with seven minutes left in the period, and there wasn’t much to it. Right off the faceoff, a William Nylander attempted pass into the middle was deflected on goal before Matthews buried the rebound, extending Nylander’s point streak to 17.
It was a goal the Leafs earned by stringing a bunch of good five-on-five shifts together leading up to the penalty. The Tavares line got it started, but they were going line over line with offensive-zone pressure, and it was the fourth line (specifically Noah Gregor) that earned the penalty call with a hard-working cycle shift.
The Leafs went on a 10-0 run in shots on goal through the middle section of the period.
4. The Leafs then grabbed the lead before the period was over on a nice rush goal by the Matthews line finished off by a Matthews Knies one-timer.
Mark Giordano jumped up offensively earlier in the period and really should’ve scored after John Tavares rang the crossbar and the loose puck was in the crease. This time, Giordano identified the opportunity to bring numbers into the rush, turning it into more of a 4-on-3 that the Leafs worked to perfection. Mitch Marner beautifully picked out Knies on the far side with a pass right in the sweet spot.
Commendably, Giordano is giving the team everything he has and contributing in plenty of ways, but we can see the age start to show through when his minutes get up there, and it didn’t go as smoothly for him after a good first period today. He played 21 minutes against Detroit and 20 minutes today, bringing his average over the past five games up to over 19:30. It should be obvious to everyone involved that once he’s on a bottom pairing playing 16-17 minutes or so, the Leafs will be in a better place on the blue line for the playoffs.
5. It really looked like the Leafs would take control of this game and not look back, especially given the Wild played a 5 p.m. (Central European Time) game the day before (and the game went to a shootout). That was not the case, though.
The Leafs didn’t come out with much jump to start the period, committing some turnovers, spending a good chunk of time in their own end, and icing it a few times. The middle frame was then marred by penalties that were well killed off — the PK is starting to gain some momentum with 13 kills in its last 15 including one shorthanded goal (-1 goal differential over those 15 kills) — but didn’t help them gain much offensive momentum.
In a roughly 10-minute span, the Leafs took three penalties. The one on Jake McCabe is a pet peeve of mine, which is that the refs almost always call a slash if the player drops his stick no matter how soft the slash. Another was an automatic call on TJ Brodie for a high stick, and the third was a bit of a selfish slashing penalty by Mitch Marner.
Joel Eriksson-Ek leaned on Marner and then laid on top of him in front of the Wild net; I am all for star players pushing back when liberties are taken (though this was a mild case), but it’s one where if Marner gives him a shove or shot instead, it’s either nothing or perhaps they lock up in a scrum and both of them end up in the box. Instead, he hacked him from behind at the knee (followed by somewhat of a sell job by Eriksson-Ek, to be fair).
The Leafs avoided losing the period thanks to impressive PK efforts and a big save by Joseph Woll right at the end of the 20 minutes. With a minute left, there was an odd step-up adventure in the neutral zone by Morgan Rielly, who let Kirill Kaprizov — of all people — in free and clear, but Woll preserved the lead with a good paddle/pad save.
6. That save from Woll looked especially big when Morgan Rielly redeemed himself early in the third period to put the Leafs up 3-1. He slipped inside a totally-out-to-lunch-on-his-assignment Matthew Boldy up to the top of the circles, took a pass from Auston Matthews, and snapped it into the short side. The pass was into his feet somewhat initially, which Rielly sorted out nicely for a good finish. Matthew Knies‘ screen was perfect, giving Marc-Andre Fleury no eyes on the shot.
With the Wild low on confidence offensively (nine goals in their previous five games) and in a back-to-back situation, this felt like it should’ve been done and dusted at this point.
7. We all know the cliche about the importance of shifts immediately following goals for or against. The Leafs’ fourth line spent the next shift in their own zone and gave up a chance in the slot that Joseph Woll took care of. The top line came over the boards for the defensive-zone faceoff, lost the draw, TJ Brodie lost a board battle to Nick Foligno, and they conceded the 3-2 goal to bring the Wild back into the game.
It was another goal off of the point, but it was a better shot than the first Wild goal with a significant screen in front of Woll. The Leafs could’ve done a better job of closing down on the points here as Mitch Marner was a little loose in the coverage and kind of kicked his foot out in a half-hearted attempt to block it. It’s a goal from the outside, technically, but allowing defensemen the time and space to take a look up and step into shots with a set screen is a dangerous scoring situation in the NHL.
8. The shifts following the 3-2 goal were disappointing from the Leafs’ perspective as well. This was certainly the time to start simplifying their game by getting pucks in deep so they could spend some time within the offensive zone and defend the lead with the puck on their sticks (while hopefully pushing for an insurance marker). Instead, they either turned it over while forcing plays or skated it into trouble in the neutral zone a handful of times.
This is how you let a team back into the game: hand them the puck and don’t make them go 200 feet to create their offense.
The tying goal arrived when Brock Faber jumped in off the point, put a pass off the wall through Rielly, and Nylander lost inside leverage on Mats Zuccarello for a tap-in in front.
9. The response at 3-3 for the rest of the third period wasn’t particularly impressive from Toronto, either, but it did set the stage for the perfect conclusion to this trip: A gorgeous, solo-effort William Nylander OT game-winner. Good night, Sweden!
The Leafs have finally turned their 3-on-3 OT fortunes around, it seems, with a 3-1 record in extra time this season. No surprise, #88 has either assisted or scored on all three OT winners. We’re running out of superlatives to describe the start of his season.
There have only been seven longer point streaks to start a season in NHL history than William Nylander’s 17-gamer:
Wayne Gretzky: 51
Wayne Gretzky: 30
Mats Sundin: 30
Wayne Gretzky: 23
Dany Heatley: 22
Bill Cowley: 18
Marcel Dionne: 18
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) November 19, 2023
10. It’s always important to separate results from process at this time of year. The Leafs have tons of special scoring talent on their team — and one, in particular (Willy Nylander), is playing the best hockey of his life right now. It’s great and fun that they collected all four points on the back of this, but in terms of five-on-five play, four of the six regulation periods were not up to snuff.
This trip is really cool but also weird and disruptive, so it’s hard to know how much to read into it if anything. It’s in the middle of the season and happened to fall just as the team was finding its rhythm in terms of its overall team game at five-on-five. Hopefully, the positive results will continue while the quality of their five-on-five play picks up where it left off before the trip.
All of that said, it was great to see Nylander and the Leafs’ proud Swedish tradition celebrated this week (how about that Mats Sundin fist pump toward the boys at the end of the game!?). Collecting all four points is the cherry on top.
Last but not least, I thought Sheldon Keefe’s post-game today was one of his best as Leafs coach. He offered great thoughts on what makes Nylander so well-suited to the Toronto market and the big moments, in addition to the global reach of Leafs Nation:
Keefe on Nylander scoring the OT winner to end the Sweden trip: "A fitting end to the week for us, for Willy, for the fans, and for the country."
Great stuff on what makes Willy thrive in the big moments and the Toronto market: "He's built for it." 👇 https://t.co/W89KOWiKTi
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) November 19, 2023