This was the Maple Leafs’ best “team” win of the season, especially given the circumstances (injuries/illness on the blue line, and now the loss of Joseph Woll).
Toronto manufactured a complete 60-minute performance in which all four lines were contributing and the banged-up blue line battled in front of Ilya Samsonov, who picked up his first shutout of the season at just the right time.
Your game in 10:
1. It was hard to believe the first period ended scoreless, but both goaltenders were sharp and the goalposts were active (one crossbar for William Nylander, another for Nashville’s Alex Carrier).
The Leafs would’ve been happy with their play overall as they started with good jump and created the majority of the quality scoring chances in the period, including two breakaways, one for Mitch Marner and one for Noah Gregor. Tyler Bertuzzi set up two great looks with a pair of nice feeds — one for Marner and one for Max Domi — but the Predators’ Kevin Lankinen was dialed in early.
The Leafs’ forecheck was forcing turnovers and they were creating plenty of looks; they just couldn’t finish or solve Lankinen.
2. Critically, in his first start in over two weeks, Ilya Samsonov made some confidence-building saves in the first period, including a couple of the high-danger variety in tight on Kiefer Sherwood and then on Colton Sissons on the Leafs’ PK.
The Leafs were sloppy on the breakout a couple of times which led to a few chances against, and they were also dealt a soft hooking penalty on Jake McCabe. Conor Timmins, in particular, was a turnover machine in the first 20 minutes, although he settled in as the game wore on.
Overall, it was a quite strong albeit somewhat frustrating first period for the Leafs, who generated 13 scoring chances at five-on-five and carried 81% of the expected goals but had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
3. The Leafs kept pushing to start the second period, with another great tone-setting shift from the top line to open the middle frame. Matthew Knies drove the net beautifully off the wing for a glorious chance that he fired into the pad of Lankinen.
Part of it is the increased pace the first line is playing with now that William Nylander is on the right wing; the other parts are the forechecking to earn pucks back as well as the more direct approach to attacking the net. Knies has seemingly taken his physicality to another level in the last few games, too.
They wouldn’t have to wait too much longer to be rewarded in this game.
4. The Leafs were doing everything but scoring in the first half of the second period, with all hands on deck from all four lines. The fourth line drew a power play thanks to David Kampf, which didn’t lead to much, but when Matthew Knies drew a penalty near the midway mark — he fired a shot on net and pursued his own rebound, forcing an interference call out of Luke Schenn — the power play came to life with a flurry of chances in its third opportunity of the game. Still, the Leafs couldn’t get one past Lankinen.
Finally, the breakthrough arrived with around five minutes left in the middle frame. Conor Timmins struggled in the first period, but here we saw the clear upside in his game, which is that he is the current blue line’s best heads-up puck mover outside of Rielly. He could’ve bounced it off the wall to the winger through the neutral zone for a quick and easy play back into the Nashville zone, but he got his head up and made a pass on the tape to Kampf through the middle as Nashville scrambled back from a line change.
That pass sent Kampf in for a somewhat contested breakaway, and Kampf’s finish was top-drawer. He kicked out a leg, cut into the middle on Ryan McDonagh, and roofed it against the grain to finally beat Lankinen.
Kampf has shown this at various times since he joined the Leafs: a sneaky ability to manufacture a quality finish on a breakaway. He’s scored in two consecutive after jamming an ugly one in vs. Ottawa.
5. David Kampf and the fourth line continued their strong night on the shift following their goal as Kampf nearly scored two goals in the span of seconds. They later forced an icing near the end of the period that allowed the top line to come over the boards against a tired Nashville unit for an offensive-zone draw; the Leafs lost the draw initially and Nashville was able to change, but it was another positive impact on the game from the fourth line, which decisively won its minutes to the tune of a 98% (!) xGF tonight.
On that same shift, the top line found its breakthrough on a nice rush goal set up by William Nylander and finished off by Auston Matthews. It started with the puck support by Nylander deep inside the defensive zone to initiate the breakout, which allowed Nylander and Matthews to play pitch-and-catch on a 3v3 rush leading to a backdoor finish by Matthews.
It’s always fun to watch the little details of Nylander’s elite offensive instincts; he held the puck out wide just an extra second to make Lankinen commit to the shot and give Matthews an extra second to reach the back post.
With that goal, the Leafs took a fully deserved 2-0 lead (could’ve/should’ve been more) into the second intermission.
6. The Leafs had more chances to put this game away in the first half of the third period. At five-on-five, Max Domi set up Calle Jarnkrok twice for grade-A chances (one a little saucer pace in behind the Nashville D for a chance in alone, another for a prime backdoor look) as all four lines were getting in on the action offensively in this game.
The Leafs could not totally put the Predators away, so inevitably, a bit of a push came with 10 minutes left. This was Toronto’s only somewhat notable chunk of defensive-zone time — they were a little sloppy as Nashville dialed up the pressure — which meant it was Ilya Samsonov’s biggest test so far. He stood in there well.
It shows as only an 18-save shutout for Samsonov without a boatload of high-danger chances among the 18 Nashville shots, and he did receive the assistance of three goalposts. But sometimes these low-shot games in which so much of the play is spent at the other end are difficult ones for goalies, especially one who hadn’t played in over two weeks.
7. This was a complete team win for the Leafs that did not require any sort of herculean performance from their goaltender, but the above point about Ilya Samsonov might be the biggest positive of the night in the big picture just knowing Joseph Woll is on the injury shelf well into January. The Leafs needed Samsonov to step in and show it’s business as usual coming off the Woll injury — to renew some confidence in himself and for the team regarding his reliability back there.
To the team’s credit, they by and large took care of their goaltender with a committed 200-foot effort from the forward group — they were checking back well and generally supporting the D effectively on breakouts — and a “hang tough” kind of showing from a patched-together group of defensemen.
8. Speaking of the defense, before the game was over competitively speaking (still 2-0), there was a great Jake McCabe hit along the wall while defending the rush that led to McCabe answering the bell against Kiefer Sherwood in a fight (I’ll also note a McCabe defensive play just before the Leafs took the lead at 1-0 — he cut out a backdoor pass that looked to be a sure goal, which might’ve swung the game in a different direction).
McCabe’s D partner, Simon Benoit, also laid some crunching hits along the walls in this game, particularly in the third period. As the other team is pushing to make a game of it, that kind of physical pushback can go a long way.
Benoit’s desperation defending in front late in the game preserved the shutout for Samsonov (a worthwhile penalty to take to prevent a sure goal). He was strong throughout the game when it came to tying up/boxing out in front, getting cycles stopped, and separating attackers from the puck. This certainly isn’t the second pairing the Leafs drew up for themselves at any point during the year, but credit to the character and battle level they’re showing.
As the Leafs have reached deep into their defensive depth chart, only Max Lajoie has looked truly in over his head out there (and if William Lagesson remains out on Monday, I’d be curious to see emergency call-up Mikko Kokkonen — who had a strong camp/preseason — receive a look, but he likely is only around as an extra body until Lagesson is back).
9. The Leafs iced the game when their top line jumped on a turnover high in the defensive zone and went on a 2v1 with Matthew Knies and William Nylander, which they didn’t convert due to a hook on the play.
The top power-play unit capped a complete win for the team by scoring on its fourth attempt of the game. Nashville was gambling while shorthanded — down 2-0 with the clock ticking down — and Nylander and Matthews made them pay with a well-executed 2v1 goal that Matthews buried through the wickets of Lankinen to put the game to bed (followed by a Noah Gregor empty-netter).
As Matthews is wont to do, he’s made his one-goal-in-nine-games stretch feel like a distant memory in the blink of the eye. He now has four goals and six points in his last three games.
As for Gregor, we wrote many times in this space that his points undersold his play; well, the points are catching up to his play a little bit now as he’s on a 14-goal pace while playing fourth-line + PK minutes. This was a great depth pickup by Brad Treliving.
Notably, the Leafs have received five goals from bottom-six contributors in their last three games.
10. Last season, we saw the Leafs batten down the hatches as a team at the time of injuries on the blue line, and while the win in Ottawa wasn’t exactly a strong example of it despite the positive end result, this definitely felt like a step in the right direction.
With Samsonov coming in cold — and struggling this season — behind a banged-up blue line, they played a committed and organized 200-foot game from top to bottom. 67% of the expected goals is their best five-on-five showing of the season in that category, and the eye test agrees with that metric tonight.