The Maple Leafs’ sloppy and careless defensive effort was compounded by a goaltending catastrophe as they let an early 2-1 lead turn into a 9-3 punking at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres.
Auston Matthews scored an early goal to keep padding his league-leading total, but things fell apart pretty quickly tonight for Toronto. Lackadaisical defense in front of Ilya Samsonov put some stress on a netminder low on confidence, but what unfolded was one of the worst goalie meltdowns in recent memory. Two howlers eventually chased a dejected Samsonov from the game, and Martin Jones’ relief effort wasn’t too much better in the third. The goals kept piling up late, ending in an appalling 9-3 defeat.
Your game in 10:
1. The game started okay for the Leafs with a solid first shift for the second line that hemmed the Sabres in and generated several solid looks. But then we saw an example of how much bad goals can swing momentum as the Sabres flipped the game on its head in a flash.
Jordan Greenway delivered a thumping hit on Nick Robertson, kickstarting a rush the other way. The puck was flipped ahead to Greenway, and as he took a few paces inside the blue line with Simon Benoit gapping up on him high in the zone, Greenway flicked a wrist shot on net. It goes without saying that this puck cannot go in.
Jordan Greenway scores
Samsonov's gotta have that pic.twitter.com/buXpNh5yHh
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 22, 2023
The Leafs recovered and regained the lead, so it wouldn’t be fair to claim that this was necessarily the turning point, but it set a tone for the game that also can’t be dismissed. Many question marks surrounded Ilya Samsonov entering into tonight, and that goal answered them in the worst possible way: Samsonov was still a major question mark and could not be counted on. You quickly got the uneasy feeling that he was a ticking time bomb. About that…
2. Before the goalie clown show really got going, however, Auston Matthews continued his rampage. This goal, an odd-angled but pretty spin-o-rama of sorts along the wall, showed that when it rains, it pours for an elite goal scorer like Matthews.
Lost in the shuffle of the goal is what came before it: Matthews’ delicate edgework to shake Jeff Skinner with a fake up the wall and then a shimmy down it. The spin move put Mattias Samuelsson on the opposite side of the puck, and then Matthews got a break from Devon Levi for letting this one in.
With his 26th of the season in just 29 games, #34 stays on top of the league lead despite goals tonight from both Brock Boeser and Nikita Kucherov, who remain on his heels.
3. The Leafs channeled some energy out of that equalizing goal. The fourth line created its second strong shift of the first period, generating chances and playing with a bit of pep in their step. Not long after, the Sabres were called for holding and the Leafs went on their first PP of the evening.
It wasn’t a particularly crisp effort for the top unit. It included a few looks but nothing of the A+ variety, and they gave up a 2v1 the other way (Buffalo didn’t get a shot off). However, Auston Matthews ended up drawing another penalty, giving Toronto its first 5-on-3 opportunity of the season.
With the first unit out of gas, the second unit consisting of Max Domi, Calle Järnkrok, Tyler Bertuzzi, Timothy Liljegren, and Conor Timmins needed to take over with the two-man advantage. They weren’t faring much better than the first unit, giving up a breakaway after a bad pass that Samsonov turned aside in one of his few good moments of the night. However, now at 5v4, the Leafs re-established the zone and moved the puck over to Domi, who ripped a perfect shot off the pipe and in to give Toronto a 2-1 lead in the game.
The type of shot that makes you wish Domi (40 shots in 29 games entering tonight) would shoot a little more.
4. In some ways, the sequence following the 2-1 goal was the actual turning point of the game. Rather than consolidate the lead and play from ahead with stability and confidence, the Leafs were content to play frenetic pond hockey in the two minutes after taking the lead.
On the plus side, the fourth line made something happen again as Bobby McMann and Noah Gregor combined for a 2v1 rush that they just couldn’t finish off. On the concerning side, the Sabres came back the other way and carved up the Leafs’ entry defense.
Simon Benoit, who we’ve seen struggle against the rush at times this season (he’s been a far more effective in-zone defender), committed hard to the puck carrier on the entry (Kyle Okposo), even though McMann was already all over him. The result was a slip pass through both of them to an open Casey Mittlestadt down the middle of the zone for a mini-2v1.
Mittelstadt flipped it over to Zach Benson (Conor Timmins didn’t at all obstruct the pass), and Samsonov made a remarkable first save. Unfortunately, in the process, the puck kicked out and Samsonov’s over-play of the initial shot left him out of the crease, not just exposing the net but ramming into Timmins, who could’ve helped clean up the rebound.
Matthews didn’t stop at the front of his net on the play and Benoit couldn’t recover in time, leaving Owen Power alone to scoop up the rebound and fire it into the empty net for the 2-2 tie.
5. After this point, the Leafs were never an organized team again for the rest of the night. They ceded a 2v1 to JJ Peterka and Dylan Cozens not too long after the tying goal (the puck was ripped wide) and then gave up the third goal of the first period.
Buffalo dumped the puck in and Samsonov came out but didn’t make much of a play on it, so it came to Mitch Marner below the hashmarks. Marner tried a no-look touch play to Bertuzzi that went straight to Alex Tuch, who handed it to Jeff Skinner. With TJ Brodie unable to recover in time, Skinner beat Samsonov 1-on-1.
Jeff Skinner makes it 3-2
Bad turnover pic.twitter.com/cASENijh5Y
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 22, 2023
This game was starting to feel like the first 40 minutes of the Columbus game redux, and similar to a bunch of the goals in that game a week ago, the Leafs should’ve made a cleaner play with the puck in their own zone, giving up the cheap and easy offense to the other team.
6. A skittish final few minutes put an end to the first period and the Maple Leafs headed into the locker room down 3-2. I don’t know if Sheldon Keefe instructed the team to play the more structured and patient game in the second period, but if he did, it certainly didn’t translate on the ice.
The Leafs went to an early PP but a couple of pucks rolled on them on their opportunities before Buffalo went to the PP for the first time in the game. Toronto killed off the first minute without much trouble, but then Noah Gregor took an undisciplined stick penalty in the neutral zone, sending the Leafs to a 5-on-3 kill for a full 1:08.
The Sabres made the Leafs pay, but it was a goal that was again unacceptable from Samsonov’s perspective. David Kämpf won a faceoff back, but TJ Brodie‘s clearance (which has been an issue for him this season) went straight to the Buffalo point man. The puck went across to Tage Thompson, who dangled into some space and found Rasmus Dahlin in the middle of the zone. The Sabres defenseman walked in from the blue line, and with a bit of a moving screen from two Sabres down low, he was able to beat Samsonov with a pretty harmless wrist shot.
It’s a shot with some traffic, but watching the overhead angle, Samsonov was clearly lost on the play. He was chasing the puck the entire way, struggling to locate it and losing his positioning in the crease. He didn’t recover into a proper butterfly, instead vaguely waving at the puck out of sheer hope/desperation as it zipped by him.
No form, no technique, and no confidence from Samsonov. 4-2 Sabres.
7. The Leafs chose not to pull Samsonov just as they didn’t in the Columbus game when it was 5-0. They were still shorthanded — the goal was scored 5-on-3 — and they managed to answer right back to wrest some temporary momentum.
William Nylander and Calle Järnkrok broke free up the ice on a 2v1 rush, which Nylander executed with excellent precision, feeding his fellow Swede with a perfect pass. Järnkrok made no mistake to make it 4-3, and just like that, the sting of three straight Buffalo goals was alleviated briefly.
At this point, there was still 14:18 to play in the second period. Once the Leafs killed off that second penalty and it returned to 5v5, there was still over half the game to play and they were only down one goal. High event or low event to this point, the mentality now has to be that the score is ultimately no different at 4-3 than at 1-0.
This was one of several sequences in the game when the Leafs could’ve turned page and flipped a switch, but in the several minutes before the next goal, the Leafs were anything but sharp. The John Tavares line got worked over and hemmed in. The Leafs eventually cleared and changed, but they needed more from their stars in those key swing shifts to calm the waters when the seas were choppy.
8. And then came disaster, Part 2.
The Leafs were indeed dreadfully sloppy on this play, fumbling the puck high in the offensive zone and then letting the Sabres come through the center ice area and gain the Toronto blue line with no resistance. That was a problem for them all night, and it got worse as the game went along and the effort level sagged.
At the end of the day, though, it’s a wrist shot from high in the offensive zone with no screen and no pre-shot motion or puck movement. Samsonov could see it all the way and set up a mile in advance. It simply cannot go in:
Tage Thompson ends Samsonov's night
the Leafs in front are sloppy but that can't go in pic.twitter.com/1bSAEue2qQ
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 22, 2023
Twice in this game (to begin his night and end it) Samsonov let in goals that were Joe Nieuwendyk-on-Patrick Lalime-in-Game 7 bad. In between, there was a goal where Samsonov slid out of the entire crease like a greased pig on a slip-n-slide and a seeing-eye point shot where Samsonov was blindly waving at the puck.
We didn’t just witness a goalie meltdown tonight but a netminder hitting rock bottom, one whose psyche and confidence have seemingly totally collapsed over the first two months of this season. Ugly.
9. After tonight, Samsonov has a .871 SV% in 14 games. Even in the early 80s, at the nadir of goaltending quality league-wide, this still would’ve been a subpar save percentage. In the modern NHL, it’s unplayable.
Samsonov has experienced poor seasons before, but his worst single-season SV% is .896. This is something new and reminds me of Jack Campbell’s meltdown in late February 2022 which included a 10-7 game against Detroit. Within a couple of weeks, Campbell was sent away from the team with an “injury” and did not return until April when he looked fresh and renewed.
I’m not sure if there is an injury for the Leafs to invent with Samsonov or if waiving him is the better way to get him to the AHL, but he cannot continue to play NHL games right now. Speaking of Campbell, Samsonov’s .871 is now worse than Campbell’s season SV% of .873. Campbell was waived by Edmonton and demoted to the AHL himself, an option that has to be on the table for Samsonov at this point.
He is still a goalie who led the Leafs to their first playoff series win in 19 years — stealing Game 6 in the process — and that will never be forgotten. But Samsonov is a ghost of that goalie right now, and it is clearly all between the ears. He has battled no reported physical ailments besides a flu bug this season, but he has been off since the get-go.
He seemingly got back on track in the win over Nashville a couple of weeks back but since then has looked worse than ever. 10 goals were allowed in his last two starts and he allowed four in the game before the shutout over the Preds. In half of his starts, he’s allowed four or more.
It is not fair to him or the team to keep running him out there until he can regain his confidence (he looked totally crestfallen on the bench after the pull). The Leafs have the cap space to call up Dennis Hildeby or sign another goalie until Joseph Woll is healthy, which feels like the best course of action no matter what they do with Samsonov. He needs time away from the team to mentally reset before he can take the crease again in the NHL.
10. It was only 5-3 when Samsonov was yanked, but the story of the game was already written. The Leafs went to a power play but did little with it, turning the puck over on an errant pass from Järnkrok intended for Timmins/Domi, and Kyle Okposo was off on a breakaway. The veteran forward came in on the ice-cold Martin Jones and scored to make it 6-3.
The Leafs didn’t have much push-back in the second period — one point-blank look for Tyler Bertuzzi — as Buffalo mostly continued to trample all over them. Rasmus Dahlin smoked a shot off the post and then Okposo went on another breakaway opportunity, this time stopped by Jones. Jake McCabe took a penalty and Buffalo went on another PP, although the Leafs were able to kill that one off.
There was not much in the way of territorial control for Toronto, and it felt like a team that was already playing poorly had all their drive and effort level zapped by the awful goals entering their own net.
The Leafs went into the locker room down 6-3 and came out in the third period with a bit of spark. They controlled the first few minutes of the third but couldn’t get anything by Devon Levi before Buffalo went to another man advantage. Tage Thompson ripped another shot off the bar (Buffalo scored nine tonight and put at least three off the iron), and then the Leafs became pretty lethargic the rest of the way.
As the clock ticked down toward the halfway point of the third, you could tell the sort of comeback spark that produced the magic against Columbus simply wasn’t there tonight. After the team was clearly going through the motions in their own end leading to the 7-3 goal, this game was over.
The eighth goal was equally embarrassing defense from the Leafs while the ninth was mostly a stinker for Martin Jones, but none of these goals were all that interesting in terms of an analysis. The team had visibly quit by this point, generating little offense and hardly putting in an honest effort on defense. They’d clearly had enough of a rotten night when they weren’t crisp defensively in the first 30 minutes yet the goaltending behind it made everything three times worse.
It’s a game the team will want to quickly forget about, and they have a chance to do so on Saturday night against Columbus before the Christmas break.