All the focus was on John Tavares’ 1,000-point milestone heading into this one — we’ll get to that in a minute — which understandably overshadowed the fact that this was also a matchup between two of the hottest teams in the league.
Both clubs were 7-2-1 in their last 10 heading into the night, and the game did not disappoint, although from the Leafs‘ side, the ending was a letdown.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs got off to a good start to this game. Mitch Marner went on a breakaway on his first shift for the second straight game. Not to be outdone, on his second shift, he went on a second breakaway, only this time he tried a drop pass instead of shooting. The Leafs drew a penalty on the play and scored on the subsequent power play, but two breakaways on two shifts and zero shots to show for it is not exactly how you draw it up.
The Leafs did score a great goal on the ensuing power play, though. William Nylander walked in at the top of the circle with space and easily could have shot it. He froze everyone by selling a shot and passed it down low to Marner, who one-touched it to Auston Matthews in the slot, where he made no mistake.
The entire power play felt a little too pass-happy, but they scored on a great look, so it’s hard to really nitpick it.
2. After the Leafs opened the scoring, Sheldon Keefe put out the fourth line for the next shift. It is a preference he’s shown in an attempt to generate energy shifts after a goal for or against, but in this game, the line got completely caved in on the shift after the 1-0 Toronto tally. The Islanders created extended cycle and zone time, paving the way for the tying goal.
A few minutes later, on a dump-in, the Islanders quickly made the Leafs pay. It was a bit of a miscommunication in the defensive zone on the Leafs’ end. Usually, the defender ties up the forechecker and the second player grabs the puck. In this case, Tyler Bertuzzi lifted the forechecker’s stick as the puck rimmed the wall, and John Tavares didn’t look ready for it. I’m not sure if Bertuzzi and Tavares either expected Ilya Samsonov to stop the puck in the first place or for TJ Brodie, who was the first defenseman back, to go grab the puck.
Kyle Palmieri picked up possession, and Brock Nelson, who dumped the puck in, shot out to the top of the circle area, where he was wide open to one-time the puck past Samsonov. This was too easy for the Isles off of a simple dump-in.
3. After the 1-1 goal, the Islanders really dictated play for the rest of the period. The theme for the Leafs was the inability to cope with New York’s forechecking and speed. The Leafs weren’t ready to work in this one, and they certainly weren’t ready to handle the Islanders’ work rate, either, as they came out with real purpose on home ice. There was nothing fancy from the Isles, who simply put pucks in deep and won the majority of the races and battles.
The first goal (noted above) came off of a forecheck. On the second goal, Hudson Fasching went down the ice with Jake McCabe pressuring him and Morgan Rielly squaring him up for a 1v1 rush. Fasching not only carried it in deep below the goal line but somehow both Leafs defenders went to him in the corner, where he poked it free to Cal Clutterbuck, who made a nice pass out front. After the pass handcuffed Mitch Marner and went through him, Casey Cizikas had the time and space in front to bury the goal by pulling it to the backhand.
With under a minute left in the period, William Nylander made a nice strip in the offensive zone and fed the trailing Auston Matthews, who hit the post. If the Leafs tied the game to end the period, it really would have flattered them based on the quality of their play at even strength. As it stood, they went into the first intermission down a goal.
4. I thought the first period might serve as a wake-up call for the Leafs. Instead, the Islanders struck a third goal to start the second period.
A bit of a broken play led to several breakdowns. The Leafs appeared to be playing the dumped-in puck as though it was going to be an icing, and when it wasn’t called, they were discombobulated. As the Islanders grabbed possession and cycled, Matthews was right there to cut off the puck, but he simply missed it. Look how close together all five Leafs players are on the play (you could throw a blanket over them):
Palmieri popped up high, where he had all day to look up, pick his spot, and score. Again, it was far too easy for the Isles off a routine dump-in play. Again, the Leafs didn’t handle the Islanders forecheck well.
5. That goal, though, did go to the Leafs’ legs. Auston Matthews, in particular, started looking to impose his will on the game and turn the tide. He hit his second post shortly afterward and started dominating the puck, winning battles, carrying it through the neutral zone himself, and finding another level to his play.
The John Tavares – Mitch Marner combo was following up his shifts with some pressure of their own, and the Leafs were starting to tilt the ice as a result. It eventually led to a 3-2 goal.
The Leafs sustained a cycle, and off a shot on net, Tyler Bertuzzi won the race to the loose puck and got it to the point to Conor Timmins, who went across to Jake McCabe. McCabe moved it back over to Timmins, who made a little shake move, went wide on his forehand, and made a really nice shot-pass for Tavares to deflect in.
Point #999 for the captain.
No. 999 pic.twitter.com/ZNW8ucNhI9
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 12, 2023
6. That scoring play is a good example of what Conor Timmins can bring to the table. In the first period, though, he repeatedly struggled against the Islanders’ aggressive forecheck. In the third period, he threw a brutal pizza and Ilya Samsonov bailed him out with a breakaway save. But other than Morgan Rielly, there’s no Leafs defenseman currently dressed who can make a play like this one on the 3-2 goal. Maybe, when healthy, Timothy Liljegren can bring some offense from the point, too (although I’d argue he’s not as offensive as Timmins).
The Leafs have routinely been unable to score come playoff time; a big part of it is that there is no space in the postseason, and it’s exacerbated by the inability to generate anything from the point (again, outside of Rielly).
This is the conundrum with Timmins encapsulated in a single game. Either the offense has to be worth putting up with his mistakes or, perhaps more hopefully, could he start to clean up those mistakes? The Leafs have a player if Timmins ever could.
7. In the third period, the Leafs tried pushing for offense, but the Islanders are a suffocating veteran team that made life really difficult through the neutral zone by constantly forcing dump-ins.
Sheldon Keefe did start jumbling his lines but mainly just the bottom two. He moved Noah Gregor up with Max Domi at one point, and he also rotated Calle Jarnkrok in with Gregor and David Kampf. The Islanders created a few good chances on the counterattack — led by the breakaway noted above that Timmins coughed up — but Ilya Samsonov did his part to keep the Leafs within reach.
It’s two solid games for Samsonov in a row now, which is a great sign after the Woll injury. The Leafs went into the period down 3-2 and shot attempts were only 15-12 in their favour.
8. One of the best goalies in the world, Ilya Sorokin made an elite save with a little over a minute left. John Tavares threaded a beautiful backdoor pass to Calle Jarnkrok off the rush, but Sorokin went post-to-post to shut the door then stuck out his pad and stopped the Auston Matthews rebound attempt. The Leafs created another scramble in front shortly afterward, but Jarnkrok was again denied in front.
The Leafs were creating all sorts of offense, but it was feeling like “one of those nights” when Sorokin was simply going to shut the door. And then the Leafs broke through for their fourth 6v5 goal of the season (only two teams have more, and the Leafs are out-scoring the other team 4-3 with the goalie out).
Tavares won his third straight faceoff with the net empty — which is going to get forgotten about but was absolutely huge — before the Leafs threw the puck to the net. It was interesting to see William Nylander as the high man in this situation. We have seen Mitch Marner there before or a defenseman, but Nylander has the best shot outside of Matthews and got the call.
After Nylander got the puck through, it went off Tavares and deflected to Morgan Rielly, who whacked it home. The reaction was awesome as the team cleared the bench to celebrate with their captain.
1000 FOR JOHNNY TORONTO! pic.twitter.com/Epm5EieZUU
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 12, 2023
Unbelievable celebration. Unbelievable place to do it. Unbelievable that his dad was in the stands for it. Just a special moment.
9. Of course, what would a historic Leafs moment be without a bittersweet ending? I am thinking back to the Auston Matthews four-goal game here. A historic moment… followed by a loss in overtime.
Matthews was turned aside on a 2v1 before the Islanders went back the other way on a 2v1 and scored. Mat Barzal saucered a pass over to Bo Horvat for a great finish as he ripped it high and in as Ilya Samsonov dove side-to-side.
It’s hard to blame defensemen on 2v1s, but Morgan Rielly really played this poorly. Barzal is not a goal scorer; Horvat is. The Islanders’ ideal play is exactly what happened there: a Barzal pass over to Horvat for the shot. Barzal has hit 20+ goals once in his career. Dare him to shoot and beat the goalie clean instead of cheating over to him and making it an easy pass across the ice.
10. With the Leafs playing again tomorrow night, a hard-fought overtime battle is not exactly ideal, but the ice-time totals were kept relatively in check in this one. Auston Matthews was the only forward to play over 20 minutes (21:05), and Morgan Rielly was the only defenseman to play over 20 (a notable 24:05). William Lagesson was reasonable in his return and played the lowest among all defensemen at 17:00 — a solid amount of TOI. At forward, Ryan Reaves played the least at 7:59, and the next lowest forward was Noah Gregor at 12:05.
Especially with minimal travel, the Leafs should be fine energy-wise for tomorrow as they look to keep collecting points during a tough stretch of the schedule.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Game Highlights: Islanders 4 vs. Maple Leafs 3 (OT)