written by Alec Brownscombe and Anthony Petrielli
If you thought your night was going poorly, imagine being one of the thousands of Leafs fans who paid hundreds if not thousands of dollars to be at this game, were forced to sit through the first 40 minutes, and then left with the Leafs down 5-0?
What do you make of a game like this? Is there any sense in sorting through it? Let’s find out.
Your game in 10:
1. The first thought many of us would’ve had if this game petered out at 5-0 or 5-1 or 5-2 would’ve been, “It’s their fourth in six nights, half their D core is hurt, a flu bug is going around the room, and they’ve been piling up points lately. Flush it, move on to Saturday, and we’ll see what the response is like.“
But narratives can be a funny thing. It’s possible the schedule had its role to play in the sloppiness of the first 40 minutes, but if it were true that the team was spent energy-wise mentally and physically, wouldn’t the Leafs theoretically have had little left in the tank in the third period — which is when their best players played about half the period and scored five times?
Maybe they overlooked Columbus in the classic trap-game scenario and lacked focus in the opening 40, only digging deep once they took a firm slap to the face and heard some booing from the fans. Maybe they just executed really poorly three or four times and it ended up in the net (plus a stinker by Ilya Samsonov), making a subpar effort — they actually started both periods playing fine — look even worse.
2. If you wanted to make the argument, there was some evidence it perhaps was a tiredness issue (mentally and physically) in how the Leafs were conceding the neutral zone at times in the opening 40 minutes — they were defending on their heels vs. their toes, sagging off and giving up their blue line too easily. With the puck, they weren’t executing the basics on their breakouts.
On the 1-0 goal, they had the puck on their sticks three separate times with a chance to make a play and get out of their zone but failed to execute; Max Domi then turned it over behind the net for a bang-bang goal against that was in the net in the blink of an eye.
Before the second goal, they iced it multiple times through their difficulties breaking it out. They won a defensive-zone faceoff, and Noah Gregor flew the zone as Morgan Rielly rang the boards to the far-side half wall — again, it led to a bang-bang goal before the Leafs knew what hit them. Neither of these first two goals was remotely on Ilya Samsonov.
3. The 3-0 goal, this time during four-on-four, again started with a basic execution error on a D-to-D play behind the goal line between Conor Timmins and Jake McCabe, leading to a loss of possession in the defensive zone. Granted, this goal was where Ilya Samsonov started to play a role in the big deficit.
Funny enough, the only reason it wasn’t 3-0 or 4-0 in the first 20 minutes was Samsonov; he stopped a cross-seam backdoor play, two point-blank chances, and two other grade-A chances from the slot to keep it at just two in the first period. But he also played a notable role in the five-goal deficit after 40 minutes; the 3-0 goal shouldn’t have gone in as he was a little slow to react to the bounce off the back wall and took a weird approach as he knocked the puck into his own net off his blocker.
4. There was a warning sign early in the first period when TJ Brodie got burned for a chance that Ilya Samsonov bailed him out on. Brodie ended up playing a significant role in both the 4-0 and 5-0 Columbus goals.
Auston Matthews was trying to make something happen for the team at 3-0 down and turned it over at the offensive blue line while taking on multiple defenders on his own, which created the initial counter-rush. But Brodie turned a pretty simple 2v2 sort-out with Rielly into handing Yegor Chinakhov a free lane in alone on the goalie.
After a William Lagesson hooking penalty late in the second period (amid a forgettable first 40 minutes for Lagesson, to say the least), Brodie then bit too hard on Johnny Gaudreau and ended up allowing an open look on the PK. This 5-0 goal was definitely a stoppable shot for Samsonov as well, though.
5. In the third period, it was clear that some pride kicked in for the Leafs. It was completely fair for the fans to boo them down 5-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, but to the fans’ credit, when the Leafs scored to make it merely 5-1, there was some buzz in the building. There were constant chants throughout the period; fans were urging them on and willing them toward a comeback.
The first goal came courtesy of William Nylander just 38 seconds into the period, and it was a clear example of why Columbus struggles. It came off of a simple dump-in. Because Gaudreau was cheating up around the blue line, their goalie rimmed it around the wall right to the other team (Nylander).
Nylander tried to hold it to make a play, the puck was knocked to Gaudreau’s stick, and Nylander pickpocketed him from behind before shooting it into the far corner. William Lagesson sent it down the boards behind the net to Matthews, who used his body to shield the puck. Nylander was wide open and he one-timed it home, finding a hole in Elvis Merzlikins.
6. Three minutes later, John Tavares went down on a 1v2 rush along the wall, still gained the zone, and Mitch Marner pulled high to create space. Tavares sent a pass to Marner, who made a little hesitation move to open the space he needed before going through his legs instead of attempting a backhand. Marner actually partially fanned on it, but it worked in his favour as it handcuffed Merzlikins and trickled through his legs. Suddenly, it was game on.
The Leafs did make a real push afterward, but Merlikins stood tall in net. He’s the only reason the game wasn’t tied much earlier. The Leafs took a penalty before the midway point, killing off some clock. When the Leafs went to a power play with roughly seven and a half minutes left, it felt like they needed to score if they wanted any real hope. The top unit gave it a real run, but they couldn’t break through.
With 21 seconds left in the PP off of an offensive-zone draw following a controversial all-the-way-down offside call, the Leafs put out a second unit with two defensemen. Max Domi won the draw and Nick Robertson passed it to the point to Conor Timmins, who held it for a second as McCabe got his feet moving. Timmins passed the puck to McCabe in stride with space, and McCabe just wound up and launched an absolute bomb of a shot bar-down and in.
That’s two games in a row now with a goal by a Leafs defenseman — with Timmins playing a role in both — albeit the Leafs are still 30th in the league in that category with seven.
7. One thing we’ve learned so far this season is that regardless of how the Leafs are playing, if they are a goal or two away and can pull their goalie, they are absolutely still in the game.
On the first goal with the goalie pulled, it once again started with a John Tavares faceoff win — he has been money on the dot when they have needed him most all season — and then the Leafs benefitted from two fortuitous bounces on the play.
The first bounce was William Nylander‘s original shot from the point; it got blocked, and it could have easily gone out of the zone or in any sort of direction. Instead, it took the defender out of the play, and Nylander stepped up into the puck with space with options in front of him.
The second bounce was the Auston Matthews shot going off of Provorov and in. That’s why it fooled Merzlikins so easily and ended up in the net.
Two lucky bounces, but, at the same time, the Leafs had been pouring it on all period. When you do that, you tend to earn your breaks.
8. The second goal was much prettier. The first chance was an Auston Matthews wrap-around attempt that nearly tied it right there. We’ve seen him score that goal many times. The rebound kicked out wide to John Tavares, who put it low to Mitch Marner behind the net.
Marner and Matthews flipped spots while the puck went wide, and when Marner grabbed the puck, he made a clever one-touch pass to Matthews in front, which was done so quickly and nicely that Matthews had all sorts of time and space to corral the puck and rip it into the net.
They never should have been in this situation to begin with, but they dug in to tie it, and they ended up collecting a free point.
— LeafsJellyHD (@LeafsJelly) December 15, 2023
9. The elite talent executing is obviously the most important factor, but Guy Boucher deserves a nod for his 6-on-5 work; the Leafs have seven goals for and three against with the net empty this season. Only one team all of last season scored more than they conceded with the net empty, and that was by a margin of one (the Rangers with seven for, six against). It’s probably not sustainable, but it’s a remarkable feat so far.
This stat is even more remarkable: Auston Matthews alone has six goals with the net empty this season. The Leafs as a team had four all of last season — all from William Nylander, who was tied for the league lead over an 82-game season. Corey Perry led the league in 2021-22 with six — again, that’s over 82 games.
Going back as far as we can go in Natural Stat Trick (2009-10), no one else besides Perry and now Matthews (in 27 games) has scored six goals with the net empty in an 82-game season. This is totally unheard of and almost certainly record-breaking to score six in 27 games.
A freak goal-scoring talent doing more freakish goal-scoring things.
10. Similar to regulation, the overtime period was a rollercoaster. The Leafs went on a 2v1 led by Matthews, and Nylander went on a mini-breakaway that almost squeaked through the five-hole and in. Columbus also went on a breakaway that Samsonov stood tall on. While you’d like a save on the eventual Columbus overtime winner, the defensive-zone coverage in the buildup should be mentioned.
Most teams play a hybrid zone defense of sorts at 3v3; if the defenders are constantly following their man vs. playing zone, it can be easy to create space with little picks and drop passes. On this goal, that’s exactly what happened as William Nylander looked like he was covering space while Max Domi followed his man. Nylander and Domi nearly ran into each other on the play, giving Kent Johnson all sorts of space to turn the corner and shoot.
This is the second time Domi has been on for an overtime winner against — the first came against the Blackhawks — where the coverage was really poor and the opposition created good looks. Tonight, he was also caught on a long shift as the original teammates he was on the ice with both changed off but he didn’t — even though he did have an opportunity earlier in the sequence to likely slip off without issue.