After blowing a bunch of leads lately, the Maple Leafs mixed it up by falling in an early hole before rattling off four unanswered goals, including an Auston Matthews hat trick, to end the four-game losing streak in Calgary.
The Leafs were still a clever hand-pass challenge away from then giving up their 4-2 lead, but they can breathe a sigh of relief heading into a big challenge this weekend.
Your game in 10:
1. Losers of four straight, the Leafs entered this game coming off a post-game message of “all is good” following the most recent Edmonton loss. They called off practice the next day, choosing to rest and hold a team meeting instead. With a bit of extra rest and presumably an attempt to hold each other accountable in the meeting, you’d be reasonable to expect significant urgency coming off the recent losses and blown leads.
The Leafs’ response in the first period, in the wake of all of those above factors, was tough to fathom. They were outworked nearly the whole period, losing most of the puck battles and tossing pucks away cheaply under pressure. The Leafs‘ breakouts were painful to watch at points. They couldn’t get out of their zone.
Both of the Calgary first-period goals came off of deflections in front — one at five-on-five, one on the power play — but they came as a result of the Leafs losing the war of attrition. The Leafs spent too much time in their own end, and the Flames inevitably took the lead before adding to it. Expected goals were 76% in favour of the Flames as they built a two-goal lead. It could’ve been worse than two.
2. And then Auston Matthews said enough is enough.
The late first-period 2-1 goal by Matthews followed by his early-second-period tying goal were clearly huge moments in the game, possibly huge moments in this (post-Christmas slump) stretch of the schedule, and — if you wanted to be melodramatic/get too far ahead of yourself — you might even suggest they were really big moments in the Leafs’ 2023-24 season in general.
His 1-0 goal with a minute and a half left in the first period was a special talent making something happen out of absolutely nothing just as the TSN broadcast flashed a scoring chance counter that read 8-1 Flames.
Following a broken play at the Flames’ blue line, Noah Gregor one-armed a puck in Matthews’ general vicinity and turned for a change, leaving Matthews, no other Leafs players, and five Flames inside the zone. Matthews sliced through two Calgary defenders with a between-the-legs move and then ripped it back against the grain past Dan Vladar.
It gave the Leafs life heading into the second period after a miserable opening frame.
3. When the Leafs came out for the first shift of the second period, Mitch Marner turned a puck over up the middle of the defensive zone on the breakout (and was bailed out by a good defensive stick lift by Auston Matthews). TJ Brodie — similar to how he started the first shift of the first period — turned a puck over (this time he was run off the puck on the wall), leading to a good chance in front of the net for the Flames that they couldn’t quite connect on. The Flames largely owned the first three minutes of the middle frame in what appeared to be a continuation of the first.
The period and game started to turn on a fourth-line shift where the Leafs established a good forecheck and stuffed multiple breakout attempts by the Flames. That allowed the Matthews line to come over the boards against a tired Flames unit in the offensive zone, own the puck, draw a penalty, and go to work at 6-on-5 during the delayed call.
Eventually, William Nylander found Matthews for a one-timer at the bottom of the right circle, where Matthews made no mistake.
On the MLHS podcast last month, former Leafs assistant coach Andrew Brewer shared an interesting anecdote about Matthews’ lack of comfort playing his one-timer side on the power play when he first broke into the league; he told the coaching staff he didn’t feel confident enough in his one-timer to play on the right, which was the reason why Marner and Matthews (controversially among the fans and media at the time) were often on their strong sides on the flanks. Matthews went away and greatly improved his one-timer in a single summer spent working with skills coach Darryl Belfry, and we saw the fruits of that labour again tonight with another nice one-timer goal on the right side of the zone.
4. After Simon Benoit shoved AJ Greer through the Leafs’ bench door and the game went to four-on-four action with the score at 2-2, there were a couple of good plays by Jake McCabe that are easy to overlook amidst the eventful game and hat-trick performance for Matthews but are worth shouting out. He dropped Nazem Kadri with a great hit in the defensive zone, and then when the Flames went on a fast break off a Leaf turnover high in the Flames’ zone, McCabe recovered really well to deny even a shot on goal, leading directly to the tripping call drawn by Morgan Rielly a second later.
The Leafs were able to spend the TV timeout game planning (between Guy Boucher and the big four forwards) for the rarely-practiced 4-on-3 situation. They executed confidently. John Tavares won the draw (65% tonight) and nearly scored on a redirect + rebound at the front of the net before the Leafs recovered the puck, patiently set up, and worked a cross-slot pass through the seam and back between William Nylander and Mitch Marner for the go-ahead 3-2 goal.
5. The Leafs rode the momentum of three unanswered goals and poured it on for a few shifts after the goal before the fourth line ended up in its own end for a spell against Kadri’s unit. Martin Jones came up with one of his better saves of the game on a Chris Tanev back-post feed which the Leafs goaltender read perfectly and denied.
Just as the Flames were starting to find their legs again, late in a shift with David Kampf and Calle Jarnkrok, Matthew Knies rushed down the ice and fired a hard wrister glove side on Vladar, which the Flames goaltender failed to handle. Coming off the bench, Auston Matthews adjusted his body to reverse the direction he was skating in, collect the rebound, and fire a backhander past Vladar all in one smooth motion. The fourth hat trick in half a season for Matthews, and his 37th on the season (71-goal pace).
Credit where it is due to TJ Brodie — who is clearly having a rough go of it — for a good play breaking up the Flames entry at the blue line just before the goal, kickstarting the transition.
6. Before the disallowed 4-4 Calgary goal due to a hand pass in the third period (a great challenge call by Jordan Bean in the video room), some of the elements that have plagued the Leafs in their relinquished leads of late were visible again: the puck mismanagement/failed clears when the other team ramped up the pressure, and then — due to poor finishing on really good scoring chances — the inability to find that extra goal to alleviate said pressure and put games out of reach.
In the latter category, Mitch Marner went on a breakaway in the third period with the score at 4-3 and didn’t trouble Vladar enough (earlier, Marner couldn’t finish off a point-blank chance set up by Auston Matthews mere seconds after the Leafs’ 4-2 goal). Max Domi didn’t bury on another Leaf breakaway in the third period, and TJ Brodie jumped up for a backdoor play where he was robbed, among a few other really good scoring chances that the Leafs didn’t convert.
7. In the category of less-than-stellar puck management with the lead, the Leafs started the third period with an encouraging “attack” mindset on the first few shifts — owning the puck in the Calgary zone — but then Noah Gregor committed a bad unforced icing, leading to Calgary’s first momentum shift of the period. Gregor was guilty of a weak clearance a little while later, Tyler Bertuzzi fanned on a clearance just before the reversed 4-4 Flames goal, and Mitch Marner tried a no-look backhand pass up the middle of the defensive zone for a turnover (the Leafs forced pucks into the middle for turnovers a lot during their worst sequences of this game).
Even if we rewind it to the late second period before the Flames made it 4-3, Marner turned a puck over up the middle of the defensive zone leading to a good look in front (the Flames just missed on the cross-crease pass), and immediately afterward, the Leafs gave up a rush where Martin Jones made perhaps his best save of the game on MacKenzie Weegar.
It was interesting hearing Keefe talk after the game about the third period as a really tidy one from the Leafs (one of their best of the year with the lead, by his description). They didn’t give up a big number of quality scoring chances, to be fair, but from where I was watching, you could feel the 4-4 goal coming based on the way the Leafs managed the puck and the time spent inside their zone in the buildup.
That said, the 4-4 goal reversal — and the delay that came with it — seemed to be the reset the Leafs needed. They settled down, simplified, got pucks in deep, and defended the lead with the puck on their sticks in the offensive zone for good spells of the final stages. A lot of it was driven by Auston Matthews, who nearly scored a fourth a couple of times late in the game. It was an encouraging close-out sequence from the Leafs after the 4-4 scare.
8. In the big picture, Timothy Liljegren is a part of the solution more than the problem on the Leafs’ blue line, but he has shown a rare-but-hard-to-totally-ignore tendency over the years to make inexplicable gaffes whereby his brain just seems to turn off — e.g. fanning on pucks under no pressure whatsoever, or in tonight’s case, trying to stop a puck on his own goal line and later closing his hand on the puck in the third period for a penalty at a bad time in the game.
On the 4-3 goal by Calgary, all Liljegren needed to do (especially straightforward as a right-hander in that particular situation) was one-touch shovel/sweep the puck toward the boards as it trickled toward the goal line. He seemed to freeze and tried to stop it right on the line, turning what would’ve been either a clearance out of the crease or a disallowed goal due to a kicking motion by the Flames into a goal against.
9. The boxscore reads one goal for and one goal against on special teams, but the Leafs’ special-team units, which let them down a lot during the losing streak, were actually quite good in this game.
They scored a 4-on-3 PP goal, scored a 6-on-5 goal with a delayed penalty, and came up with a huge kill after Liljegren’s third-period penalty, giving up nothing at a critical time in the game. David Kampf, who has not always been himself on the PK this season, made a few big plays to break up plays into the slot, and the Leafs made sure of their clearances.
10. This was a victory built more on a special performance by Matthews — i.e. the team’s elite talent making the difference by manufacturing big moments within the game — than anything we could fairly label a 60-minute showing of sound team play by the Leafs. But when you’re in a four-game losing slide, you’ll take a win however you can get it (and the enjoyment of watching a generational goal-scorer do his thing is never lost on me). They can breathe a sigh of relief and hope to build on it going forward.
The four losses in a row followed by an early hole in this game reminded me a little bit of when the Leafs started the 2021-22 season poorly, lost four in a row, were down 2-0 in the first period to Chicago, and the calls for a coaching change were deafening. The Leafs found a way back to win the game and then rattled off a 15-2-0 run, including big wins against Boston and Tampa after the victory over the Blackhawks.
I am not suggesting this Leafs team is about to win 15 of their next 17 — and there is some tough competition coming up, including a visit to Vancouver, where the Leafs haven’t won in forever — but the point is: Sometimes a win that releases some of the tension, especially in this market, can allow a good team to settle down and get back to playing the kind of hockey they’re capable of playing.