Undone by rotten puck luck in a tight-checking hockey game, the Maple Leafs’ points streak ended at nine against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night.
Your game in 10:
1. First and foremost tonight:
A great montage with the full family on the ice watching, followed by the announcement of a $25k donation to the Tavares Foundation, mini-golden sticks for his two boys (my favourite touch), and a commemorative painting. Well done by the Leafs, and congratulations to JT.
2. Probably not surprising after the Leafs hung seven on the Rangers last week (note: New York then allowed two goals combined in their next two games), it was a tight-checking first period with scoring chances at a premium.
The shots were 11-5 Rangers, but high-danger chances in a full 20 minutes of five-on-five play (there was no special teams time) were 3-2 for the Rangers (per Natural Stat Trick), which reflects the nature of the period accurately. Both teams entered with a focus on discipline and maintaining numbers above the puck, respecting each other’s power plays and rush threat.
The Leafs’ best offensive-zone shifts came courtesy of the Tyler Bertuzzi – John Tavares – Mitch Marner line, who led the forwards in ice time with ~6:30 and just missed the mark on a backdoor chance from Tavares to Bertuzzi among a few other half-chances. That line out-chanced the Rangers 4-0, and the Auston Matthews line out-chanced the Rangers 3-1.
The Leafs’ worst shifts of the period came with the Nick Robertson – Max Domi – Calle Jarnkrok line on the ice as Robertson was fighting the puck with multiple turnovers in the defensive and neutral zones (plus one by Domi at center ice), which was stalling this unit on the breakout.
Martin Jones continued to look sharp, calm, and confident in goal and made a couple of nice saves among his 11 stops, including one of the point-blank variety after one of the third line’s defensive-zone turnovers.
3. The Leafs got off to a good start to the second period with the Tyler Bertuzzi – John Tavares – Mitch Marner line continuing to lead the way, this time ending in a Marner one-timer that just missed the far post with Igor Shesterkin beaten.
The game remained tight until the Rangers opened the scoring six minutes into the middle frame with the first of three bad-luck goals against the Leafs in this game.
On a Rangers rush, TJ Brodie was up ice after a pinch but had Bobby McMann covering, so the Leafs were in fine shape numbers-wise defensively when a wildly flukey double bounce fooled everybody in the rink, including Martin Jones, as it found its way into the vacant side of the Leaf net (it came off of a Blake Wheeler pass, not even a shot attempt).
4. The Leafs’ response was immediate with a goal created by Morgan Rielly and finished by Auston Matthews. The goal came with Tyler Bertuzzi, John Tavares, and Matthews on the ice as Mitch Marner was able to change off just beforehand.
Rielly’s sharp offensive instincts were on full display on the play. As soon as the play broke down high in the offensive zone for the Rangers and Tyler Bertuzzi was first to the puck, Rielly sensed the opportunity to activate for a potential fast break the other way. Adam Fox broke up Bertuzzi’s play up the wall to Matthews but whacked a loose puck into neutral ice, where Rielly was quickest to react as he burst up ice, forced back the D, and made a slick drop pass inside the circle.
Matthews, with a small pocket of space to shoot, got it on and off his stick in a hurry with a defender (and his out-stretched stick) closing down on him quickly. It took a touch off the defender’s stick and the knuckler found the far top corner of the net.
In a game where there was not much time and space available, Rielly and Matthews made something happen out of not much of anything.
MO GOALS FOR PAPI! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ATpUnHY6U6
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 20, 2023
5. Seconds after the tying goal, William Lagesson took a holding penalty, which we never got a replay of as TSN went to a TV timeout. Under forechecking pressure, Lagesson was skating up the wall looking to break the puck out but ran into traffic, and after the puck was reversed behind the Leafs’ net, Lagesson extended a free hand and grabbed a hold on Tyler Pitlick’s jersey as he scrambled back toward his net. It didn’t influence the play much, but the visual of extending the free hand and grabbing a fistful of jersey is usually too much for the officials to pass up.
After the Leafs got through the bulk of the power play relatively unscathed (one nice glove save by Martin Jones on Artemi Panarin), the second Ranger goal — credited to Alexis Lafreniere — took a wild deflection off Morgan Rielly’s midsection right near the end of the two minutes. Jones had the shot to the far side covered if it wasn’t going wide (which looked more likely), but it deflected back toward the near post, off the bar, and in. Another really flukey one.
6. The Leafs had a couple of grade-A chances to tie the game in the final five minutes of the second period. The Rangers were closing down the neutral zone effectively throughout the game, but the Leafs were able to make a few plays in behind the Rangers D as they gapped up at the line.
In full possession of the puck, William Nylander was under pressure while cycling high in the zone and actually took it out into neutral ice before reloading and attacking the blue line with speed. It led to a passing play where Nylander broke in all alone but could not finish it off.
A few minutes later, John Tavares stepped over the blue line with the puck, threw on the breaks, and bought enough time to slip a pass in behind the Rangers D, leading to a chaotic scramble in front where the Leafs almost scored. Tavares followed up on the play with a grade-A one-timer he couldn’t bury past Shesterkin.
The Leafs’ skilled players were creating some good looks inside the tight confines of the game, and Toronto doubled New York in shots at five-on-five (16-8) in the middle frame. They were credited with six high-danger chances to the Rangers’ one, but they lost the period 2-1.
7. The Tyler Bertuzzi, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner line started the period again in the third period and created a breakaway chance for Bertuzzi that he didn’t bear down on as Shesterkin easily turned it aside. However, it set the stage for the tying goal on the very next shift.
During an offensive-zone cycle for the Auston Matthews line, Matthews rotated up high and rimmed it to the far side, where Jake McCabe, who had switched to the other side of the zone during the flow of the cycle, pinched down to the corner to collect the puck. McCabe identified that no Ranger was closing down on him, turned off the wall, picked his head up, and found Matthews, who snuck into a pocket of space slithering down from the top of the zone to rip a perfect shot into the top corner for his league-leading 25th of the season (71-goal pace!).
PAPI DOUBLE DIPS!! pic.twitter.com/XV6oGORVV2
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 20, 2023
That’s nine goals in his last five games, and it’s another example of not just the ridiculous release but how effective Matthews is at getting lost in coverage and finding the gaps to exploit. For his part, McCabe now has a point in five consecutive games and seven in his last seven.
8. In a game where chances were at a premium and the bounces weren’t going the team’s way, the last thing the Leafs needed to do once it was 2-2 in the third period was allow a breakaway out of what should’ve been routine neutral-zone defense off of a faceoff.
In a game of this nature, it’s often the little mistakes that are magnified. After a neutral-zone faceoff loss, Tyler Bertuzzi got caught puck-chasing on a D-to-D play instead of looking after his area of the ice and staying above Braden Schneider on the left side. It quickly turned into a 5-on-4 through the neutral zone once the Rangers worked a D-to-D give-and-go across the zone, with Bertuzzi now caught.
Jake McCabe, gapping up on Blake Wheeler on the wall, didn’t read what transpired up the ice or recognize that Schneider was barreling toward the Leafs’ blue line with a full head of speed with the puck on his stick. Only an in-position (above Mika Zibanejad) but flat-footed John Tavares was looking after the middle ice.
Schneider easily breezed by Tavares, who maybe could’ve done more to at least get more of a piece of Schneider or disrupt him in some sort of way, but this was a breakdown in structure that put Tavares in a tough spot.
Martin Jones got beat five-hole on the play, but if you watch it back closely, Schneider actually fanned on the puck when attempting to roof it in tight. It was that kind of night for Jones and the Leafs.
9. As the Leafs started to manufacture a push down 3-2, a costly offensive-zone tripping penalty by David Kampf led to the 4-2 Rangers goal with under five minutes to go in the third period.
Lightning struck three times in this game in terms of bad puck luck leading directly to a goal against. Another puck bounced in off of a Leafs player — this time off Lagesson’s skate. This was a back-breaker.
While the actual goals were really unlucky, it is noteworthy that the Leafs lost all five of their faceoffs in the defensive zone on the PK (three by Auston Matthews, two by David Kampf), which led to more zone time than is ideal against a Rangers PP that is lethal even when it’s not downright lucky as it was tonight.
10. You’re not scoring multiple times at 6-on-5 every night in the NHL, let alone against the top team in the East with an elite goalie in net, and the game petered out as Zibanejad iced it with an empty-netter.
There were a few occasions when you wanted the Leafs to take Shesterkin’s eyes away a little bit better or drive the net more directly. But it’d be somewhat nitpicky on a night when the Rangers were highly committed to their defensive game, Igor Shesterkin was quite good, the Leafs didn’t get a power-play opportunity, and Toronto edged the shot attempts/shots on goal at five-on-five while out-chancing the Rangers in the high-danger category.
Shit happens sometimes over an 82-game schedule. Onto the next one.