Some nights, it all comes together.
Your game in 10:
1. Sheldon Keefe started this game with the forward line of Noah Gregor, David Kampf, and Calle Jarnkrok along with the Morgan Rielly – Timothy Liljegren pairing on the ice, which I thought was a good way of getting the whole bench involved right away on a night when Auston Matthews was out due to illness.
The few first shifts of the game were an indication of the night to come; Jarnkrok was nearly sprung on a breakaway, and on the next shift, John Tavares and William Nylander forced a neutral-zone turnover for a quick 2v1 rush that didn’t pan out. Later in the shift, the Leafs were caught with all three forwards in deep for a rush the other way that ended in Marcus Pettersson missing an open net.
The early pace from the Leafs was promising, and when the Matthew Knies – Max Domi – Mitch Marner line hit the ice for their first shift, they absolutely flew out of the blocks. Coming out of his own zone, Domi pounced on a loose puck in the neutral zone and made a play up the wall to an in-stride Knies, who torched Ryan Graves and finished beautifully with a forehand-backhand-roof job in tight.
2. On that line’s next shift, Max Domi again looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he came off the bench and chased down a puck. Soon after, the Leafs went to work setting up the offensive zone. When it was cycled into the corner, Domi took a high stick from John Ludvig as Ludvig went to lay a hit along the boards.
It wasn’t a particularly dirty or intentional-looking act by Ludvig, but that’s not really the point. Everything happens quickly on the ice in the NHL — there is no time to review the play on the jumbotron or tablet on the bench first before reacting — and Matthew Knies saw a teammate down after taking a hit along the wall. He instantly responded by jumping Ludvig and dropping the gloves.
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) December 17, 2023
We’ve seen Knies quickly learn his own strength at the NHL level and show the confidence to use it over the last few weeks, between some big hits, engagement in scrums, and now this fight. It’s impressive to see from a rookie, and when we pair it with the hands and speed he showed off on his goal (plus his assist later), the Leafs appear to have unearthed the exceedingly hard-to-find impact power forward with a high-end skill level. Combined with Bertuzzi on the LW, it’s helped evolve the top six into a harder group to play against in multiple dimensions of the game.
The impromptu Knies – Domi – Marner line really set the tone to start the game with a goal and a fight on its first two shifts, and for a rookie in Knies to be showing this kind of leadership already — two-thirds of the way to a Gordie Howe inside five minutes — was mighty impressive.
3. Fast forward just a few minutes toward the midway point of the first, and Max Domi was all over the ice again. This time, he was flying while tracking back coming out of his own zone, closed quickly, and stripped a puck in the neutral zone, leading to a 2v1 for Nick Robertson and Mitch Marner that they executed perfectly for the 2-0 goal.
Marner’s finishing around the net of late is a clear sign he’s got his mojo fully back after his relatively slow start to the year (more in terms of his play with the puck than the overall production). He’s really bearing down and burying his chances when in alone on goalies (including in shootouts), and this was another confident finish from #16 after his between-the-legs tally vs. Columbus.
After a stretch through the second half of November when Marner recorded zero goals and three assists in eight games along with a minus-six plus/minus, he now has eight goals and 14 points in his last eight games along with a plus-seven. The overdue Matthews and Marner breakup has been the change of scenery both needed, and it’s no coincidence the Leafs’ five-on-five goal share (now 64-60 with five 5v5 goals tonight) is finally above breakeven as these two have really gotten their 2023-24 seasons rolling.
4. Before the period was through, after a bit of a sloppy moment for Tyler Bertuzzi earlier in the opening frame (a tough NZ turnover leading to a Leaf penalty), he made the third Leaf goal happen with a refusal to quit on pucks.
It came on a hard-working and physical offensive-zone shift by a makeshift Pontus Holmberg, Bobby McMann, and Bertuzzi line (thrown together after an unsuccessful 5-on-3 Leafs PP). Just as the shift appeared to be petering out with the Penguins recovering possession in the corner, Bertuzzi dug in with second and third efforts to force a turnover that Holmberg rang off the bar. Bertuzzi then ran Letang off the puck before setting up McMann in front for his first goal as an NHLer.
This was a long time coming for McMann. He was hard done by not scoring in his initial call-up last season with some of the chances he had, and he was still searching for it this season. He was credited with 12 high-danger chances at 5v5 in his first 16 NHL games while shooting 0% on his first 28 shots, but finally, the 27-year-old journeyman got to celebrate his first.
5. Early in the second period, the rout was officially on, and who else but the Matthew Knies, Max Domi, and Mitch Marner line was at the center of it again with another stunning highlight-reel goal off the rush.
Again, Domi came flying in off the bench to start his shift and nearly arrived just in time to pounce on a pass from Tyler Bertuzzi in the slot. When the puck was cleared down the ice, Martin Jones made a good quick-up to the far blue line to Marner, who followed it up with a beautiful between-the-legs touch pass into Knies, who sorted the puck out in his feet and flipped it over to Domi streaking through the middle. Domi out-waited Tristan Jarry and buried, chasing the Penguins goalie from the game.
Domi’s first three-point game as a Leaf, and Knies’ first Gordie Howe hat trick in the NHL. The Leafs were officially cooking.
6. As Max Domi has been used primarily in a third-line capacity with limited PP opportunity, it’s been easy to forget he’s scored 28 goals and 72 points in this league before. He’s also produced some clutch playoff moments for the Stars and Canes when he was a deadline acquisition in Dallas and Carolina. He scored five goals and 10 points in seven games at the WJC en route to Team Canada gold in 2015, including leading the team with a goal and two assists in the gold medal game versus Russia. He racked up 31 points in 21 playoff games in his draft year en route to an OHL championship after leading the Knights in scoring that regular season as a 17-year-old.
When there is an occasion to be risen to, he has a history of stepping up and meeting the moment, and while this was just a mid-December regular season game featuring an opportunity to play with former Knights teammate Mitch Marner while Matthews was out, you could really see Domi find another gear.
7. The game reached laugher status with the fifth Leafs goal just a couple of minutes later, this time by way of John Tavares on the power play. The power play resulted from another great shift from the Domi line — including a Mitch Marner cross-bar — which was followed up by a perfect stretch pass through the middle from Conor Timmins to Bobby McMann as the Penguins scrambled to change. McMann drew a holding call off of Kris Letang on the partial breakaway.
The Leafs’ success in man-advantage situations (whether on PPs or 6-on-5s with the goalie pulled) owes no small part to Tavares’ prowess on the draw this season; he is winning 62.3 of his faceoffs this season — second among NHL centers with a minimum of 400 faceoffs taken — which would be a career-high for him, and it goes up to a whopping 73% with the net empty. He won this one for Marner to kick back to William Nylander, whose rebound was collected by Tavares for his ninth goal and 29th point of the season.
Notably, Domi was serving as the fifth forward on the top unit in Matthews’ absence; he won the first draw of the power play which led to a scoring chance right before the Leafs broke through on the subsequent offensive-zone faceoff.
8. Before the second period was over, the power play snuck in another goal just before the expiry of the two minutes to make it 6-0 via Noah Gregor.
Again, Tyler Bertuzzi was chasing down pucks and winning battles throughout this shift. As the Leafs broke back into the zone following a clearance by Pittsburgh, Gregor handed it off to Bertuzzi, who craftily sidestepped a check and slid it back to Gregor, who showed off his sneaky-good release for his fifth of the season (a 15-goal pace over 82).
Gregor should’ve been credited with his second of the game when he drove the net in the third period and scored on a goal that shouldn’t have been ruled off for goalie interference. The Leafs’ depth scoring was alive and well in this game, and it is showing encouraging signs of life in general through 28 games. Last season, the Leafs’ forward group featured six regulars above .4 points per game; right now, they have nine, and that’s excluding Bobby McMann’s four points in seven games (as well as Gregor, who is on pace for 15 goals but has just the two assists).
9. The third period became about preserving a shutout for Martin Jones in his second start as a Leaf, and while the goalie isn’t often talked about in a 7-0 blowout, it’s noteworthy how many good saves Jones made throughout the game as the teams traded chances at times.
Jones made 10 saves of the high-danger variety and stopped 3.26 goals above expected. The calming effect — as compared to Samsnov’s recent jitteriness/clear lack of confidence in the crease vs. Columbus — was really evident and tangible. Jones was challenging shooters at the top of his crease, moving efficiently in his net, and generally projecting a reassuring confidence level throughout the game.
A four-minute Toronto power play after a high stick by Evgeni Malkin helped run out the clock (Sheldon Keefe turned to his non-star players to fill out those shifts), and there was also a well-earned assist from the goalpost late in the game.
The Leafs also scored a seventh via William Nylander (set up by Tyler Bertuzzi) on a 2v1 rush with five minutes to go. That goal started with a nice stretch pass from Jake McCabe, who extended his points streak to four games and now has six points in his last six games.
Timmins also quietly has a five-game point streak underway (he grabbed a secondary assist on the Gregor PP goal). Offense from the defense isn’t a solved problem by any means, but this is a notable development/contribution from both players of late.
10. The first three-assist game for Tyler Bertuzzi in his career, the first NHL goal for Bobby McMann, the first Gordie Howe hat trick for Matthew Knies, the first three-point night as a Leaf for Max Domi, a shutout for Martin Jones, and an ideal first game for Timothy Liljegren to get himself back up to speed. You’ve got to relish the games when it simply all comes together.
We all know what item sits at the top of each Leafs fan’s Christmas wishlist addressed to GM Brad Treliving (top 4 D!), but the team’s production from their stars, forward depth, goalie depth, defensive depth, and overall physical pushback are all in an encouraging place as the holiday break approaches.