Facing the best defensive team in the league statistically, the Maple Leafs played a tighter game with fewer mistakes than the Kings and were more opportunistic offensively en route to a tidy 3-0 win in LA.
For those on the East Coast who couldn’t stay awake to see it, you missed one of the Leafs‘ best 60-minute performances of the season.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs brought their lunchpails to this game right from the start. The top line was driving the bus early, tilting the ice, getting pucks in deep, and working on the forecheck to recover possession. Right from the first shift, they simply dumped it in off the draw and got down to work, leading to an Auston Matthews chance in alone in front that Cam Talbot turned aside.
On the second shift, William Nylander threw Matt Roy off the puck and then got dropped in return down by the goal line. You could tell there was a real investment in this game from the Leafs early on led by their best players.
Three of Leafs‘ four lines were positively impacting the game; it was just the third line that wasn’t pulling on the rope as much, spending too much time in their own zone and taking one (super soft) penalty via Max Domi. The Leafs‘ fourth line (Bobby McMann) drew a penalty the other way as the officials gave the Leafs a deserved make-up call, but it was predictably tough to find open lanes to shoot or pass through against this Kings team at five-on-five or on the power play.
Neither team’s PP opportunity featured many quality looks in the first, and it became clear quickly this was going to be a low-scoring hockey game that was going to be all about minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on the few opportunities that arose.
2. Toronto put seven of the first eight shots on goal in the game before the first big scoring chance against arrived. TJ Brodie got run off the puck by Kevin Fiala, leading to a point-blank chance for Trevor Moore that Martin Jones shut the door on.
Against a really stingy defensive team on the road, the first goal is particularly critical, and this was a pretty big moment in the game as the Leafs were tilting the ice by and large but then suddenly gave up a point-blank grade-A chance. Jones was there.
Otherwise, the Leafs gave up little in the first period as they carried over their five-man defensive commitment from the Carolina game. The shot attempts in the first were 27-15 for Toronto, but the high-danger chances were just 2-1 Leafs at five-on-five, and one of those game in the opening seconds of the game. This was going to be a grind, but Toronto looked up to the challenge in the opening frame.
3. The opening passages of the second period were a little more free-flowing and chancey at both ends. Fiala danced around Simon Benoit one-on-one with a between-the-legs move to create a chance. There was then a 2v1 for Leafs on the second shift of the period — William Nylander to Tyler Bertuzzi — which forced a good shoulder save out of Cam Talbot.
With the Leafs’ third line on the ice, there was a 2-on-1 against that the Leafs survived before Max Domi got a chance of his own on an odd-man rush on the same shift but fired high from in close. A few minutes later, Auston Matthews gave the puck away up the middle of his own zone but recovered nicely to negate the scoring chance in the slot. It felt like the first goal of the game was about to arrive.
4. Sure enough, the ice breaker arrived five minutes into the second period after the Leafs lost an offensive-zone draw with the “second” line on the ice (John Tavares‘ first faceoff loss of the night). From there, it was all Tyler Bertuzzi.
The Kings appeared to be in full control on the breakout, but Bertuzzi’s pressure forced them to turn back toward the goal line. With an outstretched stick, Bertuzzi got a slight piece of Vladislav Gavrikov’s pass to Fiala, which forced Fiala to try to chip it off the boards, where Tavares anticipated it well and sealed off the wall, forcing the puck back in deep. Bertuzzi was first to it and made a quick no-look centering play that touched off of Talbot’s goal stick and found William Nylander, who got it on and off his stick in a flash to make it 1-0.
This was a no-quitting-on-the-play kind of effort by Bertuzzi to set the stage for the finish by Nylander. The “ugly but effective” descriptions of Bertuzzi’s game are certainly accurate in many senses, but we also shouldn’t gloss over the ability to make high-level plays in the greasy areas of the ice, something Keefe alluded to back in training camp:
“He doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to make plays. If you go through the points that he accumulated in Boston, I don’t know how many times he is finding seams and setting guys up for one-timers and open nets.”
Starting the year in Style 😎 pic.twitter.com/O4szit27Ry
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 3, 2024
5. Around a minute later, there was a briefly scary moment for the Leafs after the sneaky-dirty Pierre-Luc Dubois spilled Auston Matthews into the end boards at a high rate of speed. The response on the ice from the Leafs was immediate, and the scrum ended with Simon Benoit placing two Kings in a headlock at once and dragging them both to the ice.
Mitch Marner sort of went through the motions in the scrum, but Matthew Knies came in with a vengeance; the rookie’s response in these moments has been impressive this season as he’s become more and more confident in his ability to assert himself physically. He was under a few Kings players’ skin as the night wore on and drew two penalties later on in the game.
If we skip forward to halfway through the third for a second, John Tavares didn’t hesitate to get involved by grabbing Trevor Moore after he buzzed Jones’ crease following a save (shortly after Benoit’s fight with Andreas Englund). There were plenty of positives in terms of how engaged the Leafs were in the game between and after the whistles tonight.
6. Right at the end of the Leafs’ power play stemming from the Dubois trip on Matthews, the Leafs’ second power-play unit found an insurance marker just after the game returned to five-on-five. Again, it was the grunt work of Tyler Bertuzzi that set the stage as he helped recover a puck despite a lost offensive-zone faceoff.
After losing his glove off the draw, Bertuzzi hunted down Drew Doughty and got a little stick lift on him that threw off the initial breakout just enough for Max Domi to swoop in and collect the puck. With a bare bottom hand on the stick, Bertuzzi won a puck battle on the wall against Englund and fired a pass into Calle Jarnkrok alone in front, where he showed good composure to pull it to the backhand and finish it off.
CALLE ARE YOU KIDDING 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/yegoyOP4E1
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 3, 2024
The offense wasn’t going to come pretty in this matchup, a style of game that suited Bertuzzi just fine.
7. With four minutes left in the second period, the refs again assessed an extremely soft penalty call against the Leafs, this time on Bertuzzi for a trip on Dubois.
This penalty kill featured Martin Jones‘ best work of the game as he made six stops in the two minutes, including a strong sequence where he made one in tight on Anze Kopitar and got across to close off the near post for another chance in rapid succession.
The Leafs did a great job of limiting the Kings to just 12 shots to this point, but a push was going to come, and Jones was really solid when the Leafs needed him to be both on this PK and when Toronto spent more time in their zone defending the lead in the third period.
8. Jones is now up to a .926 save percentage this season with two shutouts in seven starts, but it is even more impressive than it looks given he was thrown into the blowout against Buffalo as the Leafs quit on the game, leading to four goals on 15 shots. If we erase the Buffalo game, Jones’ save percentage sits at a sparkling .939.
Per NHL Edge, Jones’ .891 save percentage on high-danger chances is in the 99th percentile among NHL goalies this season (the league average is .800).
The waiver wire clearance back in October felt like an amazing break at the time; to call it “season-saving” in hindsight is probably too strong, but it’s certainly single-handedly responsible for avoiding a full-blown mid-season goaltending crisis that likely would’ve forced Brad Treliving to take action in the trade market.
9. The Leafs’ effort defensively was as good as we’ve seen it all season in this game, especially when they needed to dig in and protect the lead in the third period. They made it really hard on LA to get to their net and gave up very few uncontested looks on goal — whether it was getting a stick in or sacrificing the body to get in the lane — before William Nylander iced it with the empty netter.
Toronto blocked 26 shots in all, well above their 16.6 per 60 rate this season. Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren alone were credited with nine blocks between them; six for Liljegren and three for Giordano.
A lot of the strong defensive results tonight were the byproduct of committed checking by five-man units in all three zones, but the pairing of Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit deserves a mention for giving the Leafs good minutes. They’re continuing to receive heavy defensive-zone usage — six d-zone draws vs. two o-zone draws tonight — but came out well ahead on shot attempts, shots, scoring chances, and expected goals in their five-on-five minutes.
Overall, the team has out-scored the opposition 3-2 at five-on-five in McCabe and Benoit’s 86 minutes of shared ice time despite just 28% offensive-zone starts. They’ve kept it pretty clean and simple with the puck while being hard to play against, bringing a lot of physicality to the ice between the two of them.
I was befuddled by his initial McCabe – Klingberg pairing at the start of the season, but by and large, since then, assistant coach Mike Van Ryn has generally done a solid job of adjusting on the fly as injuries or bad defensive performances have cropped up, piecing together stop-gap pairings that are stable enough even as the blue line has been in constant flux.
10. Sheldon Keefe mentioned that he hadn’t ruled out going with Martin Jones in both games of the back-to-back, but for me, there is a big temptation to go with Dennis Hildeby tomorrow — and not just based on the intrigue about the 6’7 prospect, the statistics clearly showing that tired goalies perform worse, or the possible increased injury risk for an older goalie like Jones.
It also might help keep the team’s attention where it needs to be in front of their rookie debutant in net. This group clearly has it in them to play with a high level of structure and detail when it is focused, as we’ve seen in the Carolina and LA games recently and against several other top opponents this season. Frustratingly, we’ve also seen their details slip against lesser opponents pretty frequently.
In the second half of a back-to-back against a bottom-feeder that plays a looser style of hockey, it actually might keep the Leafs’ focus more dialed in structure-wise to have a debuting rookie in their net. Of course, there is the flipside to this argument, too, in terms of the team’s tendency not to manufacture their best efforts against these opponents and not wanting to expose a new rookie in a tired situation vs. a rested opponent. I tend to lean more toward the school of thought that if he has true NHL upside mentally and physically, one start shouldn’t make or break a 22-year-old goalie with a season of pro experience under his belt.
All of that said, it was a reasonable workload for Jones tonight, there isn’t any serious travel in between games, and the Leafs’ staff will have a much better feel than I for Hildeby’s overall mindset and readiness.