On a night when the Maple Leafs weren’t playing their A+ game and lost their starting goalie (who was playing his A+ game), the team gutted out a tough 4-3 win in the Battle of Ontario.
The Leafs received a pair of goals from the Core Four but also contributions from David Kämpf and Calle Järnkrok down in the lineup on a night when they were generally out-chanced and out-played. Joseph Woll stood on his head for over 50 minutes to put Toronto in a position to win, but it required a game-saving relief effort from Martin Jones to get it over the finish line after Woll’s injury. Plenty to talk about tonight.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs‘ start to this game can best be described as “comatose.” The Senators generated a strong first shift, and after a bit of a mellow period, started taking it to the Leafs for minutes on end. Toronto’s first shot on goal didn’t come until 4.5 minutes elapsed as they struggled to contain the Senators’ team speed and puck movement through the neutral zone. The first scoring chance of note for Toronto was a 2v1 rush for John Tavares and Tyler Bertuzzi; Tavares’ attempt to pass to Bertuzzi was deflected wide.
There wasn’t a whole lot else to like in that first period for Toronto. The Auston Matthews line didn’t have a noticeable impact on the game until a shift over 11 minutes into the game. Meanwhile, Ottawa peppered the Leafs and generated several grade-A chances, including a tremendous robbery by Joseph Woll on Vladimir Tarasenko sliding across on what should have been an easy Ottawa goal. The turnover was Woll’s, in fairness, while he was out playing the puck, but the attempt by Maxime Lajoie to take away the cross-seam pass was puzzling and seemed to lead to a certain goal until Woll came to the rescue.
2. The Leafs were lucky to be tied 0-0 late in the first when Ridley Grieg took a boarding call after hitting Conor Timmins in the back head-first into the boards. The ensuing power play was a rather tame effort for the Leafs, including a few shots from the perimeter with little screen as Anton Forsberg made the corresponding saves.
When the penalty expired with the second PP unit on the ice in the dying moments of the first period, Max Domi possessed the puck high in the offensive zone and made a careless play in an inopportune situation.
Domi spun around and whipped a low-percentage shot into a mass of bodies, which was knocked down and scooped up by the Senators. Josh Norris, high in the zone checking Domi when the shot was taken, read the situation well and started to cheat out of the zone. Jakob Chychrun saw the opportunity and fired a crisp stretch pass to send Norris in behind Jake McCabe and Matthew Knies for a breakaway goal.
This was poor situational hockey from the Leafs. When the stick is tapping from the goalie in the background to signal even strength, it’s not the time to turn it over high in the offensive zone with tired skaters on the ice. The shot by Domi was nothing but a turnover waiting to happen.
3. After a strong first shift to the second period from Ottawa, Toronto got the reversal of fortune it needed to stem the tide. With players camped just inside their blue line, the Leafs successfully gummed up an Ottawa zone entry, forcing a turnover. Morgan Rielly jumped on it and snapped a tremendous pass, and this time it was the Leafs’ turn to strike on a breakaway in behind the defense. Mitch Marner beat Anton Forsberg with a well-placed shot.
It’s hard to overstate how big that goal felt at the time. The Leafs had their tail between their legs after a lethargic first period that made the 1-0 deficit feel like a stroke of fortune. They’d opened the second period with a tough first shift and were looking for any kind of spark to get their legs under them. Marner’s goal did just that, resetting the game to level pegging. Huge.
4. A sign of the Maple Leafs finding their legs as a result of the Marner goal, moments later, they picked up their second 2v1 chance of the night. This time, it was Max Domi alongside Nick Robertson on the rush, with Domi’s pass to Robertson resulting in a shot that went just wide.
The period after the game was tied at 1-1 was old-school firewagon hockey, with each team trading grade-A chances. Brady Tkachuk went on a breakaway in behind Conor Timmins and Jake McCabe but couldn’t put the shot on net. Joseph Woll robbed Tarasenko yet again with another awe-inducing save sliding across, and then Auston Matthews ripped a shot off the crossbar.
The teams were trading punches, but the common thread was Woll’s brilliance. Forsberg made a few saves in his net, but the calibre of save that Woll was making was really, really high. He stopped another breakaway when he denied Mathieu Joseph, who went on a solo rush when Tavares went down and turned it over at center ice. It was a litany of high-danger saves after high-danger saves.
It goes without saying that the Leafs could have been run out of the Canadian Tire Centre in the first two periods without Joe Woll.
5. While Woll was doing his best Dominik Hašek impression in the Toronto net, the Leafs took advantage at the other end. It came off a scramble while the Leafs had a hodgepodge collection of players on the ice including two centermen, John Tavares and David Kämpf.
Tavares carried the puck down and swooped around behind the cage, flipping it on his backhand to Kämpf on the doorstep, who was set up on the edge of the crease without a Senators defenseman tying him up. Tavares put the puck at Kämpf’s feet, and the Czech pivot whacked away and managed to fit it underneath Forsberg to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead through 40 minutes.
6. The Sens began the third period on a power play carrying over from the tail end of the second — a hooking call on Conor Timmins, who did not have a strong game in any regard.
The Leafs killed off the penalty, and Joseph Woll made another highlight reel save (something like his fifth of the night), stoning Mathieu Joseph in tight all alone before Toronto returned to 5v5.
Only two minutes after even strength resumed, the Leafs added to their lead as the nominal third line made something happen off the rush. Max Domi atoned for the mistake earlier in the game; all three members of the line, Domi, Robertson, and Järnkrok played a role in this well-executed 3v2, but Domi was the catalyst:
CALLE JARNKROK 🚨
What a rush and pass from Domi pic.twitter.com/T8BIObTdd1
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 8, 2023
Forced the turnover, handed it to Järnkrok to start the rush, and then made the pretty saucer pass over the defender back to Järnkrok to tap it in; this was an example of the moments of offensive skill you pay Domi for.
It was the second game in a row in which the third line’s quick-strike offensive execution off the rush in transition led to a big goal for the team; Robertson – Domi – Jarnkork has now outscored the opposition 7-4 at five-on-five this season to go along with strong underlying numbers.
7. The third period rolled along with the Leafs in command on the scoreboard, but Ottawa continued to find traction in the run of play. Woll stuffed Tim Stützle on a chance in tight, and at this point, it started to seem like Ottawa would need to help to get another by him.
Help arrived in the form of friendly fire for the Leafs as TJ Brodie‘s stick whacked the hilt of Woll’s goal stick ever so slightly, throwing Woll off-kilter as Jacob Bernard-Docker’s seeing-eye shot wiggled through Woll from the point to halve the Toronto lead.
In more ways than one, there wasn’t a lot of help provided to Woll, who did everything you could ask for and then some.
8. And then a potential disaster struck. The Senators continued to push for the equalizer, but Woll was standing tall when a harmless puck thrown on net by Rourke Chartier caused Woll to go down awkwardly:
Woll went down after this pic.twitter.com/pYAzCbABPV
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 8, 2023
He was helped off the ice by Brodie and Ryan Reaves while seemingly in immense pain and went straight to the locker room. Backup goalie Martin Jones, recalled due to Ilya Samsonov‘s illness, was called in with 9.5 minutes left to go in a one-goal game (no pressure!).
After the game, Keefe said that Woll “will miss some time for sure,” but the extent of the injury is not known until the Leafs return home. I’m no doctor, but Woll’s reaction and inability to put any weight on his left leg was an ominous sign.
The iffy start to this season is nothing to dismiss, but Samsonov led the Leafs to a first-round series win over Tampa last spring and was a consistently strong regular-season goalie last season, while Jones started 48 NHL games for a playoff team last year (even if the individual numbers weren’t pretty). The depth is there to believe this isn’t a hit-the-panic-button situation, but it’s potentially a big loss and gutting blow for Woll, who has seemingly run into injuries at the worst times his entire professional career.
9. When you’ve got an ice-cold goalie coming into a high-pressure situation, the best thing the team can do is make it not so high-pressure. The Leafs’ top line stepped up in a big moment.
Auston Matthews set the tone with a hard forecheck before ripping a one-timer from high in the zone. Matthew Knies then checked back and laid a big hit by the Ottawa bench, forcing a turnover in the center ice area. Jake McCabe skated up ice and led the entry, handed it off to Nylander, and drove the center lane. Nylander used the slightest screen from McCabe to rip it by the glove of Forsberg, just inside the far post.
There may have been a small bit of screening on Forsberg, but this is not a good goal to surrender for an Ottawa netminder who has struggled a lot this season. It was a shot from above the faceoff dot with no real deception to it; Nylander is indeed an elite shooter, but the goal was soft, and in the context of the game, it was a back-breaker for Ottawa. From the Leafs’ perspective, it was a timely, physical pushback shift from the top line at a time when the game really threatened to take a turn on them.
10. The Sens weren’t finished, though. Claude Giroux got a look all alone against Jones but couldn’t get a shot off, which was followed by a strong shift from the David Kämpf line ragging the puck deep in the Senator end to kill off additional time.
Notably, similar to the Boston game, Järnkrok frequently replaced Reaves on the Kämpf line, turning it into a pseudo-third line. Protecting a lead, Keefe naturally leaned on it more, which resulted in both Reaves and Robertson finishing under 9.5 minutes of TOI for the night.
Back to the action, Jones made a couple of big saves on Josh Norris and Brady Tkachuk after a woeful Leafs turnover and then the defense in front of Jones got even worse. With the Matthews/Nylander line on the ice, the Leafs were hemmed in at 6v5 (goalie pulled) for a half-minute as Ottawa peppered Jones and the mass of bodies in front of him with shot after shot after shot. The puck came free to Sanderson at the point in the middle of the ice, where he slid it over to Giroux in the circle. There was little an overtaxed Jones could do on this one.
It was officially “buckle your seat belts” time at 4-3, and the ride to the finish got even bumpier when Simon Benoit took a high-sticking penalty in the defensive zone with 51 seconds left. In the final minute, with one brief flash of the arena lights, Jones was forced to make one routine save, but otherwise, key shot blocks from Jake McCabe got this one past the finish line.
Finally, it is a regulation win for Toronto, although like many Leafs wins this season, it was more about finding a way than convincingly dispatching an opponent. The defense is patched together with duct tape, so it’s probably not surprising that some defensive breakdowns were leading to grade-A chances and there was some sloppiness breaking the puck out of the defensive zone that impeded the team’s five-on-five play. And you should never make apologies for winning the goaltending battle.
The Leafs continue to pile up points despite mixed performances and blue-line injuries; now, they will need to show they can overcome an important loss in net, too, as they embark on a really busy stretch of their schedule.