The Toronto Maple Leafs went to OT on Long Island for the second time this season and left with the same result: a loser-point defeat at the hands of the Islanders.
Auston Matthews scored two goals inside three minutes at the start of the middle frame to give the Leafs a 3-1 lead, but a poor second half of the second period tied the game for the Islanders. A back-and-forth third period didn’t break the deadlock, but a quick OT winner for Mat Barzal sent the home fans at UBS Arena home happy and handed the Leafs a 4-3 defeat.
Your game in 10:
1. If you were a little late to turn on the television this evening, you missed a fair bit. The game started with a bang as Auston Matthews was called for a trip on old friend Matt Martin in the offensive zone on the first shift of the game, creating a power-play opportunity that the Islanders immediately capitalized on.
The Isles won the opening faceoff of the PP, got the puck to the point, and Noah Dobson flipped it on net. Martin Jones made the save with his blocker but the puck kicked to the doorstep, where Kyle Palmieri was perfectly positioned to bang it in.
There was no egregious breakdown on the play and it was a tough bounce off Jones’ blocker, but TJ Brodie couldn’t find the loose puck off the initial draw loss, and then Mark Giordano got caught a little bit in between fronting the shot, partially obstructing Jones’ view while neither blocking the shot nor recovering to grab Palmier’s stick in time.
2. The quick goal put the Islanders up early, but Toronto started to find its footing afterward.
John Tavares went on a 2v1 chance with Tyler Bertuzzi and shot it himself (a backhander saved by Ilya Sorokin). As was the case all night, the top line for Toronto was their best in this stretch, with one memorable shift, in particular, creating a bevy of chances off the hard work of shooting and retrieving by Matthew Knies. This was Toronto’s first sustained pressure of the game, but the Islanders punched back.
New York hemmed in the Leafs on consecutive shifts, taking it to the hodgepodge third line of Pontus Holmberg, Max Domi, and Calle Järnkrok, who were in for a bigger matchup challenge than usual with over five five-on-five minutes coming against Barzal and co.
3. The Leafs drew even thanks to an all-around solid shift from the fourth line. Surprisingly, it was Noah Gregor passing the puck that made the play happen. After picking the puck up near the faceoff dot, Gregor curled into the slot and slid a pass across to Bobby McMann, who was looking at an exposed net. McMann did not miss the target for his second career NHL goal:
BOBBY MCMANN 🚨
The one-timer ties it! pic.twitter.com/CnXMZ0qe4X
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 12, 2024
Not only was it a goal, but it came with the Horvat/Barzal line on the ice for New York as the matchups were flipped on their head in this game due to Lane Lambert preferring a fourth line vs. the Matthews line approach.
This was a high-level passing play by Gregor, one of the least likely forwards on the team to do so given his skill set and shoot-first tendencies. That fourth line, led by Gregor and McMann, had jump all night long, generated good speed through the neutral zone, and notched a goal despite playing against the Isles’ top six for much of the night.
4. The Leafs went to what turned out to be their only power play of the night after the equalizing goal in the first period. In a reversal of the first penalty, this time it was Matt Martin fouling Matthews (a hook in this case).
This power play was a complete dud as the Maple Leafs created nothing of note over the entirety of the two minutes, with both the first and second units coming up completely empty. They couldn’t gain the zone with possession consistently and the few times they did get the puck into the offensive zone, they couldn’t consolidate possession to set up.
The Isles have struggled on the PK this season despite the high number of SHGs they have scored, so not getting anything on the only PP of the night was a missed opportunity and was one part of a special-teams disaster for Toronto tonight.
5. With the game at 1-1, Sheldon Keefe started the top line to begin the second period and they won the puck back on the forecheck behind the Islander goal line some 20 seconds into the period. Matthews stripped Adam Pelech before passing it to Mitch Marner. The Islanders gave Marner time and space behind the net, where he curled around and flipped it in front. AM34 won possession of the puck, drew it forehand to backhand, and slid it by the glove of Sorokin.
It was a pretty goal for Matthews but also an indictment of the Islanders, whose reputation as a stout defensive team under Barry Trotz is no longer intact. New York is in the bottom 10 in expected goals against at five-on-five this season, and you could see signs of it in their defensive zone play at points in this game.
6. Two minutes later. Noah Dobson, who has been a breakout offensive defenseman this season (and had a four-point game tonight), committed a woeful defensive-zone turnover. Pontus Holmberg dug in late in his shift to apply a bit of pressure and get a stick in on Dobson, who whiffed on a pass as he was coming up the wall. The puck jarred free and ended up on the stick of Matthews, who was all alone in front of the net:
Holmberg puts pressure on Dobson and turns the puck over to a dangerous man
his name is Auston pic.twitter.com/nfzYueIdcz
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 12, 2024
Matthews now has 33 goals in 38 games this season. If he continues to score goals at this pace, he will net 70 in 81 games. Hitting the magic 70 (which has not happened in the NHL since 1992-93) will be an uphill climb because it’s technically really hard to maintain this pace for 43 more games while staying healthy… but for Matthews, his chances can’t be dismissed. He scored at 67 goals per 82 games pace in 2021-22.
7. The Leafs now held a 3-1 lead within the first three minutes of the second period, but they never really consolidated that lead. Just over 90 seconds later, the Islanders generated a solid shift in the offensive zone, cycling the puck around thanks to another excellent sequence from the Barzal/Horvat top line.
Eventually, the puck ended up on the stick of defenseman Alexander Romanov, who got a bit of space to slide down into the circle. Nylander identified the man jumping in off the point but maybe didn’t close with maximum urgency on the play. Romanov ripped a shot over the glove of Jones and just under the crossbar near the top corner.
If you watch the replay, Giordano was engaged with his man in front but lost leverage on him for what was a wide-open stick for a redirect play if Romanov chose the pass over the shot. Not #55’s best night in the defensive zone.
On one hand, you never want your goaltender beaten by a defenseman from the faceoff dot when he’s square to the shot with no screen or pre-shot motion. A little more aggression from Martin Jones challenging at the top of his crease would’ve cut down the shooting angle some, but this was an exceptional shot by Romanov.
8. The goal coming so soon never allowed the Leafs to really settle into their multi-goal advantage, and they began to sit back. Not helping matters by any stretch were the consecutive penalty kills after a couple of Leafs got careless with their sticks.
Pontus Holmberg was called for a penalty after loosely swinging his stick around in the neutral zone and tripping Barzal (the Leafs killed that penalty) before Timothy Liljegren was called for a high stick just four minutes afterward. The second time, the Islanders took advantage, scoring on a point-shot deflection by Horvat off the shot by Dobson (initially credited to him).
There were minor lost chances to snuff this out immediately before the goal — Kampf made a committed sweep at the puck on Barzal at the half-wall but came up empty, Marner didn’t quite get himself in the shooting lane, and Brodie didn’t get back in time to grab the stick of Horvat — but the big culprit was Mark Giordano‘s failure to get the puck out when he had a clean opportunity to clear it seconds before.
9. The remainder of the second period was rough for the Leafs. William Nylander set up Tavares for a great look in front of the net that Sorokin made a huge save on, but afterward, it was all Islanders. The Leafs were hanging on for dear life and were lucky to get to the locker room with a tie game.
Horvat went on a breakaway in behind Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie, which Jones denied, and then that line hemmed in the Leafs for the final minute before the intermission. It was a major relief to hear the horn.
The third period was fine for the Leafs; not their most dominant, but they got the better of the chances as reflected in the underlying metrics. It was a five-on-five-only period in which they created several good chances courtesy of the Nylander line and the Gregor line.
Martin Jones wasn’t tested all that much, but he did make one critical save on Hudson Fasching early in the period.
10. The OT didn’t last all that long. Sheldon Keefe put Jake McCabe out there over Morgan Rielly with Matthews/Marner, and McCabe quickly iced the puck with a pass way off the mark.
After the Isles won the ensuing draw, McCabe put himself on the wrong side of Mat Barzal, who darted past him to the doorstep. From the point, Noah Dobson threaded a pass to Barzal on the backdoor for a tap-in that Jones had no chance on. There is not a ton to say here other than the Leafs needed more from their defenseman on this shift, especially if McCabe is going to take the opening shift over Rielly or even Liljegren.
Facing their first real opponent since the second of January, there wasn’t a ton to be overly disappointed about with the Leafs’ overall effort. But in a game with just six high-danger chances against the team at evens, three five-on-five goals in the first 23 minutes on the road ideally should’ve been enough to at least enter the third period with a lead and an opportunity to close out the win. A special-teams letdown and an OT breakdown got in the way of a five-game winning streak.