Facing one of the worst teams of the modern era for the second time in as many games, the Toronto Maple Leafs throttled the wretched San Jose Sharks 7-1 at Scotiabank Arena.
There’s a risk of reading too much into a game where one team is miles better than the other, but we will do our best to keep it all in perspective after a dominant Leafs win.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs‘ problems against bad teams have been well-documented over the past few years, and while they handled this same Sharks team easily on Saturday, you still had to be on high alert coming off a West Coast road trip followed by a few days off.
It was good to see the Leafs come out with a lot of energy and purpose. They didn’t score until late in the first period, but that didn’t mean they weren’t generating chances. The Sharks found very little footing in the opening of the game and in total generated just one high-danger chance in the first period, per Natural Stat Trick. If you asked me what it was, I would have no idea. They were totally suffocated.
The Leafs owned the first few shifts and just kept coming at San Jose. The top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Matthew Knies, in particular, popped in the early going and set the tone. They tilted the ice on every shift and the players down the lineup fed off of it, with a strong fourth-line shift and a Tyler Bertuzzi breakaway (unsuccessful) showing up in my notes early on.
Even though the Leafs weren’t able to get one by Kaapo Kahkkonen in the first 15 minutes, it was very clear that this was not going to be a “Leafs sleepwalk against a bad opponent” kind of game.
2. Toronto finally broke the ice off an offensive-zone draw. The puck was won back by the Leafs and came to TJ Brodie at the point, who fired it off the iron. The Leafs jumped on the loose puck and eventually cycled it to William Nylander at the point, where the newly extended #88 curled just inside the blue line and drew in two Sharks in the process. He then slipped the puck between them both right onto the stick of Morgan Rielly walking right down Broadway untouched. With Bertuzzi providing (as usual) an effective screen, Rielly fired it by Kahkkonen.
It was a good shot by Rielly, who continues to have a strong offensive season (5-27-32 in 37 games), but this play was all about Nylander. If you were fearing Nylander was going to disappear with the new contract in hand, tonight was a positive first sign that will not be the case. This was an exceptional pass.
3. Nylander picked up his second point of the first period less than a minute later. Timothy Liljegren was bear-hugged in his own end by former Leaf Alexander Barabanov, who was called for holding to put the Leafs on the PP. Just 17 seconds into the man advantage, Marner and Matthews played catch with each other, leading to a wicked blast underneath the bar by Matthews from a pretty tight angle:
AUSTON MATTHEWS 🚨
Right under the bar! pic.twitter.com/Be6euH2Ivp
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 10, 2024
It’s the sort of shot we’ve come to expect from Matthews and very few other players in the world. It was the only goal Matthews scored on the night, leaving him with 31 in 37 games this season (the team has played 38) and placing him on pace for 68.
The two Leaf goals came near the end of the period and the two teams headed to the locker rooms with a 2-0 Toronto edge. The gap easily could have been wider as the Maple Leafs pounded the Sharks into the ground in that first frame, owning the shot attempts 34-11 and the scoring chances 18-5. Not much changed in the next two periods.
4. The Leafs started hot in the second period, scoring again on the first shift of the frame. On a night when the Leafs were flexing their muscles and dunking on the Sharks, this next goal was the most absurd.
Jake McCabe held the puck at the right point and fired it down the wing, well wide of the net and in the area where Marner was positioned. Marner chopped it out of mid-air with his stick and in the process, redirected the puck at a totally different angle on net. From there, it hit the inner pads of Kahkkonen and trickled slowly into the net. That was Marner’s second point of the night and 16th goal of the season. He had another highlight reel play in store, too.
5. Just over two minutes later came the goal that chased Kahkkonen from the net.
With the fourth line on the ice, Bobby McMann carried the puck leaving the defensive zone. He skipped the puck off the boards and past Mario Ferraro, where Pontus Holmberg was pursuing it with San Jose’s Kyle Burroughs chasing. Holmberg got the puck with one hand on the stick and began to cut laterally towards the net, using his other arm to shield the puck from Burroughs’ back pressure. Once in on Kahkkonen, Holmberg used his lone hand on the stick to knife the puck over the glove of the goalie and in:
Power Holmberg pic.twitter.com/XNz6lTP6Q3
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 10, 2024
Not to downplay Pontus Holmberg’s net drive and finish, but when he’s scoring a highlight-reel solo rush goal on your team, you know you’re awful. Slotted into the fourth-line RW for this game after turns at center and left wing, it was nice to see Holmberg get on the scoresheet as this was building after a good showing in San Jose on Saturday.
This broke an 18-game goalless slump at the NHL level for Holmberg and it was the signal for David Quinn that it was time to make a change as he lifted Kahkkonen in favor of Mackenzie Blackwood immediately after.
6. Blackwood hung in pretty well for a while, holding off an onslaught of Leaf chances as Toronto continued to generate uninterrupted offensive-zone time for minutes on end. Blackwood’s heroics allowed the Sharks to get on the board as they would cash in on their only power play opportunity of the game.
Simon Benoit was called for a (very marginal) hooking call while defending a rush chance against and the Sharks headed to the PP. They didn’t create much for the first minute or so and nearly gave up a breakaway to Knies, but they used the period of the long change to deny the Leaf killers the opportunity to get to the bench.
As the advantage wound down, it was the same four PKers from the start, who were dog-tired and a bit out of position. Mikael Granlund centered the puck from the wing into the slot, where the waiting stick of Henry Thrun deflected it over the shoulder of Martin Jones and into the net. For Thrun, it was the former Harvard Crimson’s first NHL goal in his young career.
7. Blackwood’s strong play kept the game at 4-1 Toronto entering the second intermission. The Leafs’ metrics for the second are nearly identical to those from the first period, with a towering advantage in shots and chances.
They got back on the board with another early-period goal, this time breaking open the second period with a defenseman goal off a terrific play from Marner. Matthews won the draw and Knies consolidated possession, with Benoit receiving a feed and eventually handing it to Marner. Marner skated to the original faceoff dot and with just one small glance, flipped a beautiful cross-seam pass to Jake McCabe, who had no one picking him up as he slid down into a dangerous area. McCabe rifled it past a sliding Blackwood, who stood no chance:
that's Simon Benoit's first point as a Leaf pic.twitter.com/aiFEUizsIU
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 10, 2024
While it’s certainly a long-standing debate how effective Marner can be in the tight-checking playoff series against top competition, it’s never been a question of what he can do against rancid regular season teams with non-existent defensive-zone coverage. He draws in the pressure and flips passes that a limited number of other players in the NHL can make.
As for McCabe, his offensive contributions keep coming, now sporting a 2-12-14 line in 32 games. When the Leafs play with Liljegren, McCabe, and Rielly all on different pairs, you have at least one player with an offensive pulse on each pair, which is a reasonably desirable balance.
McCabe was not known as much of an offensive player when he arrived in Toronto, but it’s been clear since his first game that he likes to roam around, and his instincts for joining the rush or activating in the OZ (like on this goal) are pretty decent. Now he’s getting rewarded.
One more note: This was Benoit’s first point as a Leaf, finally notching a secondary assist here in his 24th game.
8. Now up 5-1, the Leafs went on a four-minute PP after Benoit was stuck in the face by Scott Sabourin, who misfired on an attempted sticklift. The first unit took the ice and made it 2/2 on the evening in a rather deliberate fashion, with three of the heroes from the evening picking up points on this goal.
After Nylander threw a puck on net that Marner deflected in the high slot off of Blackwood, Marner was in position to clean up the rebound on the doorstep. Quick and concise, the Leafs now led 6-1.
Nylander picked up his third point of the night on that goal, which now leaves him with 57 on the season, tied with Artemi Panarin and David Pastrnak for third in the league. The Marner goal gives him four points on the night and 44 on the season. Despite Marner’s substandard season in the context of his standards in terms of on-ice play driving, he continues to pile up points at a very high level.
9. That goal killed off the first minor, but the Leafs still had more power play left. The second unit took the ice for a minute without much in the way of results, which gave way to a “third” unit composed of a hodgepodge of players unlikely to see much meaningful PP time again this season. One of those players was Nick Robertson, who blew this shot by Blackwood for Toronto’s seventh and final goal:
NICK ROBERSTON 🚨
Let it rip! pic.twitter.com/bNqvxNIfLe
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 10, 2024
Robertson’s struggles have gotten a good bit of focus and Keefe has been candid about his deficiencies of late, so it was good to see him pick up a goal tonight, even if it comes on the power play. The kid can shoot the puck and needs to keep doing it to find a path to regular success in the league; he just needs to bolster the areas of his game that allow him to spend more time with the puck on offense at five-on-five with the opportunity to put those strengths to good use (especially against better teams).
Robertson continued to battle hard until the final horn sounded, getting a Grade-A chance later in the third after deking out a defenseman and firing a puck in tight on Blackwood. This was a night where every Leaf looked good, but few needed it more than Robertson, who Keefe has suggested has seen “pucks slip off his stick or hasn’t been as smooth” when deciding to scratch him. A night against San Jose provides the opportunity for ample puck touches, and Robertson took advantage in what was hopefully a confidence-building game for him.
10. Not a whole lot happened after the seventh goal as the Leafs wrapped up a dominant 7-1 win. I suppose we should close with Martin Jones, who finished off another ho-hum stellar goaltending effort.
Through 12 games, Jones now has a .934 SV% and a 1.98 GAA, a surprise story out of nowhere that few could have anticipated. That number is even more impressive than it appears on the surface as the game where the team gave up four on 15 during relief duty against Buffalo shouldn’t be held against him. He had almost nothing to do tonight — one great save in the third period that stood out but very little else to speak of. Natural Stat Trick credited the Sharks with 1.8 expected goals tonight, which feels rather generous. Simply put, Jones did what was asked of him and made the saves he should. As he continues to do.
Jones will likely take the net again on Thursday against the Islanders and probably Saturday night against Colorado. But then the path gets more interesting with Joseph Woll still a few weeks away from returning. The Leafs then have the first of two back-to-backs between now and Jan. 21, starting with the Red Wings in town this Sunday night, which could be the debut for Dennis Hildeby unless Brad Treliving feels confident Ilya Samsonov has suddenly gotten his head right.
The Leafs were able to roll all four lines again in this win as they did on Saturday, so between the recent time off (two games in six days) and the ice-time management, it should have team nice and fresh for the stiffer challenges ahead. But they’ll also need to be ready for the steep jump up in competition after three straight against the lowest of the low-end opposition.