Unlike in Anaheim, the Maple Leafs were able to break through in the first period and play with the lead in San Jose.
Against a Sharks team mired in an 11-game losing slide in which they’ve scored just 1.45 goals per game, it was a recipe for a relatively stress-free win as the Maple Leafs completed the sweep of the three-game California road trip with a 4-1 victory.
Your game in 10:
1. The first 15 minutes of the first period looked like the Ducks game 2.0. The Leafs tilted the ice and directed plenty of pucks at the net — the shots were 17-3 Toronto in the first period, not including crossbars for William Nylander and Auston Matthews. They needed to be a little patient again waiting for the breakthrough, but this time, they scored much earlier than in Anaheim.
The only real scare before the 1-0 Toronto goal was a 2-on-1 for San Jose shortly after Matthews hit the crossbar. Off of the ensuing offensive-zone faceoff, Simon Benoit lost his stick trying to swat down a clearance and got caught up ice, leading to a 2v1 where the pass made it across through Jake McCabe but Anthony Duclair shot it into the outside of the net; Martin Jones looked to have it covered nicely as the shot wasn’t elevated enough even if it was on target.
2. The only two penalties of the game arrived within 30 seconds of each other late in the first period — one was a trip drawn by Morgan Rielly while spinning away from Tomas Hertl’s forecheck, and the other was a delay-of-game call on Mikael Granlund for handling the puck on the faceoff. The Leafs cashed in on the 5-on-3.
It is not exactly the go-to play that the 5-on-3 unit should set out to set up — a short pass from Rielly at the top down to Mitch Marner in the circle for a one-timer, which didn’t require the goalie to move much. But it worked here thanks to a decent shot by Marner and bad goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood, who got beat at his near post.
Noteworthy (again) is John Tavares winning both faceoffs on the 5-on-3 to set the stage for the goal. He continues to crush it on the dot this season even relative to his usual high standards; he’s been above 60% in 21 out of 37 games this season and below 50% only four times.
The confidence of the goal went to Marner’s shot as he then ripped one off the post on the subsequent 5-on-4 power play, marking the Leafs‘ third post of the period.
3. Matthew Knies is sitting at 14 points in 35 games so far this season, which is a 32-point pace over 82, but his eight goals put him on an 18-goal (82-game) pace within that. For a rookie learning the league and seeing no power-play time, it’s quite solid. For a player riding shotgun to Auston Matthews for over 65% of his five-on-five ice time, the total production has plenty of room to grow.
In the final minute of the first period, Knies went on a 2v2 rush with Mitch Marner, burned rookie Sharks defenseman Ty Emberson, and ended up essentially 1v1 with the goalie. He deferred from this position as the other Sharks defenseman sat on the pass:
It’s natural to want to defer to the $11+ million scoring talents on your wings as a first-year player, but we’ve seen some crafty finishes from Knies this season and you’d like to see him call his own number there. With 50 shots on goal, Knies has shot the puck 12 fewer times than Noah Gregor so far this season.
4. In the second period, up 1-0, the Leafs got a little too selective with their shooting — looking for the perfect play instead of making the right one at times — and they were outshot 9-8 as a result.
When they did shoot, there often wasn’t enough traffic in place, including a couple of Mark Giordano point shots with the fourth line on the ice. During those offensive-zone possessions, the forwards couldn’t get off their check and onto the inside quickly enough to establish any sort of screen:
5. In general, as well as the Leafs generally played while taking care of business on this trip, there was some room for improvement in terms of more consistently getting to the inside to muck it up for tips, screens, and second/third opportunities — aka creating the dirty offense inside their long spells of offensive-zone time at five-on-five. We saw room for improvement in this area against Anaheim before they broke through late on the power play (via a tip + rebound play) and then won the game at three-on-three.
In this game, they scored an unscreened one-timer on the 5-on-3 power play, a terrible squeaker of a goal on an unscreened Blackwood that never should’ve gone in from Calle Jarnkrok, a William Nylander rip off a rush, and a bank play by Nylander down below the goal line. In fairness, the Jarnkrok goal did come shortly after a play where a point shot was blocked while the Leafs had solid traffic in front.
Tyler Bertuzzi regularly stands out for consistently fighting his way to the top of the crease and setting/timing his screen well. This is an area the Leafs as a team have to stay dialed in on looking ahead to postseason preparation. They created some of the dirty offense in the series win vs. Tampa last year, but those types of goals haven’t been a consistent enough feature in most of their playoff appearances over the years.
6. Before the Calle Jarnkrok 2-0 goal in the final minute of the period, the Leafs nearly paid the price for letting the Sharks hang around in the game. Martin Jones‘ best sequence of the first 40 minutes featured two point-blank saves in tight in rapid succession. It came after TJ Brodie was stripped of the puck on a dump-in retrieval below the goal line and the Sharks completed a centering pass out of a 3v2 situation favouring the Leafs behind the net.
With under 30 seconds left in the period, off a defensive-zone faceoff that the Leafs won, Brodie made a pass up the wall and Mitch Marner wasn’t hard enough on the puck, resulting in a turnover inside the defensive blue line. It led to a scramble and another double save in tight from Jones to preserve the two-goal lead.
The details of the Leafs’ game could’ve been better in the second period as the Sharks controlled 65% of the expected goals in the middle frame even though Toronto generally possessed more of the puck.
7. To start the third period, the Leafs weren’t defending with the puck in the offensive zone as much as you would’ve ideally liked to see, even if they weren’t giving up a whole lot of quality chances. Nine minutes in, William Nylander effectively ended the game.
His far-post snipe off the rush came during a really good shift by Jake McCabe, who picked up a secondary assist on the play. Just before the goal, McCabe led a rush with the puck where he burst through the neutral zone, dropped it off to Tyler Bertuzzi for a decent shooting chance, and went to the net. McCabe then sent a bank pass up to Bertuzzi at the offensive blue line, where Bertuzzi slipped a nice pass into a full-flight Nylander, who buried the 3-0 insurance goal with a trademark snipe.
Since returning from his injury (which came after some early-season struggles), McCabe has struck the balance well between staying involved with a consistent offensive presence/push from the blue line without getting over-aggressive or silly about it as he was at times early on in the year. He is now up to 11 points in his last 19 games.
As for Bertuzzi, his two assists in this game moved him up to nine points in his last 10 games.
8. As a member of the Flyers and the Kraken, Martin Jones has started in San Jose three times since leaving the Sharks organization, where he spent six years and made a trip to the Cup Finals (as well as a Conference Finals appearance). He lost two of three while allowing three or more goals in each of the three starts.
With this game sitting at 3-0 with under nine minutes remaining, it would’ve been nice if the Leafs could’ve secured the shutout for Jones rather than allowing an unstoppable backdoor tap-in following a sloppy shift with multiple turnovers from the Max Domi, Calle Jarnkrok, and Pontus Holmberg third line plus a Simon Benoit – Morgan Rielly pairing.
The Leafs have generally given Jones good support defensively as he’s gained momentum in the NHL since his call-up — aside from the time when he was thrown into relief duty in the shellacking in Buffalo — so it is not the end of the world by any means. He has two shutouts already this season, including one against a former team (the Kings) earlier this week. But it would’ve been a nice celebratory note to end the California trip for Jones and the team.
Goal against aside, the Leafs’ third line was buzzing on several shifts in this game, attempting 26 shots in 12:31 of five-on-five ice time and scoring the 2-0 goal. Holmberg hasn’t been able to provide much in terms of play creation or finishing as of yet (tonight, he had a good look that he one-timed back toward the middle of the net into the goalie’s crest), but his pace, energy, and competitiveness were noticeable tonight (granted, against a terrible SJ team).
In addition to evaluating the state of Holmberg’s individual game as he’s taken Robertson’s spot for the time being, the coaching staff probably wants a look at the overall line with Max Domi at center between two wingers who bring more of a responsible checking game. This trio with Holmberg likely won’t produce enough offensively to work as a third-line long-term, but if it is effective in terms of playing inside the offensive zone a good amount while being responsible without the puck (especially against the better teams next week), it could indicate what Domi-Jarnkrok might look like with the right veteran winger on the other side.
Robertson’s shot and offensive abilities are a nice asset to have on the roster/in the organization, and he’s at the stage of his development where he should receive more NHL reps this season. But his overall inexperience, physical limitations, and tendency to turn pucks over under duress on the breakout, combined with Domi’s defensive awareness and sometimes risky decision-making with the puck, doesn’t make for a particularly trustworthy duo. As of today, it’s hard to envision Keefe using those two together in a playoff series.
9. It’s almost as if William Nylander heard the chatter and some of the eyebrow-raising about the ~$11.5 million AAV contract soon to be announced (per Elliotte Friedman’s Headline segment) in between the second and third periods. He went out and buried his 20th and 21st of the season to go along with the earlier assist.
The 4-1 goal came off a great offensive-zone shift by his line in the final five minutes of the game. Tyler Bertuzzi and John Tavares, in particular, were grinding on Sharks on the cycle before San Jose broke down. There was a nice Bertuzzi -> Nylander -> Tavares -> Nylander passing play in front before Nylander snuck one in off of Blackwood from behind the goal line (the third really bad goal on the Sharks goaltender in this game).
On top of Nylander’s play-driving excellence, Bertuzzi’s fit with Tavares in the cycle game has elevated this line to new heights over past seasons when it had the Alex Kerfoots of the world on the LW. The Bertuzzi-Tavares duo has out-scored the opposition 18-10 at five-on-five and is controlling over 60% of the scoring chances, and their underlying numbers are still really strong without Nylander on the ice with them (even if their goal-share — 3-2 — isn’t as dominant).
I wrote more critically about the reported Nylander contract here, but full marks to Nylander for absolutely crushing a contract year so far and again showing his ability to thrive under pressure (he either loves it or is genuinely oblivious/pays no mind to it; whatever it is, it works). It makes him a great fit in Toronto, and that ability to keep the outside noise out of mind is going to be especially critical once he signs this new deal.
10. If you’re the Leafs, you’re looking to accomplish a few things in this San Jose home-and-home, which is played in the span of six days: Four points (first and foremost), but also, in an ideal world, these games would in the team’s control early enough so that it can serve as a bit of a “breather within the schedule,” to some extent. There are the two days off before and after tonight’s game, and then there is also the opportunity to manage ice time by rolling four lines within the games themselves.
Tonight, it was mission accomplished as the distribution of ice time was really spread out, especially by Sheldon Keefe’s standards. The fourth line played nearly 13 minutes, including an NHL career-high of 12:57 for Bobby McMann. Mitch Marner played just 17:42, which is his lowest TOI total of the season.
This three-game stretch (starting against Anaheim) represents six points the Leafs should collect provided they manage the games properly, stay patient if necessary, and don’t give struggling teams any life or confidence by handing them too many free offensive opportunities. They’ve done a good job of it so far. There is one more challenge of this nature back home on Tuesday before the stiffer tests against the Islanders, Avalanche, and Oilers.