Playing their eighth game in 12 days, the Maple Leafs dug in and earned a split of the West Coast road trip with a deserved 3-1 victory over the Kraken.
Your game in 10:
1. This was a strong effort from the Leafs tonight over the 60 minutes, with only one notable letup where it became a little dodgy in the second period (a goal against followed shortly after by a breakaway chance that struck the crossbar).
It was less of a “schedule loss” situation knowing they were up against a struggling and banged-up Kraken team lacking in game-breaking offensive skill (especially with Matty Beniers and Vince Dunn unavailable), but the key in this tired situation was that the Leafs couldn’t allow themselves to be outworked by a less skilled team. They certainly were not outworked and were invested in the game competitively/physically from the start.
It’s a quietly important two points for the Leafs. It’s a 2-1 game (plus an empty-netter) on a sleepy Sunday night in Seattle against a weak Kraken team, but the noise the Leafs would’ve come home to in the Toronto market would’ve been deafening if they didn’t get the job done tonight. Non-stop trade and fire-the-coach talk broken up by just one game in five days would’ve been hard to tune out for those inside the organization. This won’t eliminate the chatter entirely, but it takes the edge off.
2. It did end up as a tighter game than it should’ve been given the puck control by the Leafs over all three periods. They should’ve scored more based on the chances generated, and Joey Daccord was solid in the Kraken net, but on the other hand, the Leafs were only credited with 26 shots on goal and eight high-danger chances at five-on-five per Natural Stat Trick. The recording of the latter metric isn’t perfect, but both numbers seem too low for the amount of puck-possession time.
It’s fair to point out that they were at the tail-end of an 8-in-12 situation and these kinds of complaints about a hard-working win aren’t exactly fair tonight. But there is a larger point to be made here.
I was thinking back through the Leafs’ 13 goals during the four-game road trip, and there is only one I’d count as truly fitting the profile of a greasy goal where there was a shot with traffic and the Leafs mucked it up to score: Morgan Rielly’s goal vs. Edmonton, where there was a double deflection in front and Rielly picked up the loose change.
You could maybe squint and call Matthew Knies’ shot off the rush in Calgary that generated a rebound — Dan Vladar couldn’t catch the puck, and Auston Matthews buried it — a greasy goal, but otherwise, it’s been high-skilled passing plays within their offensive-zone possessions, a pretty power-play goal, or nice goals off the rush (there were also two completely unscreened William Nylander goals that beat Thatcher Demko from a distance).
It’s fantastic that they can execute those high-skill goals with more consistency than most teams — and the viewing pleasure is not at all taken for granted on my part — but they’ll need more variety than this to sustainably score enough at playoff time.
3. Some of it is the finishing in tight, and some of it is the forwards getting to the inside with more consistency, but no small part of it is the role of the Leafs’ defensemen in the offensive zone.
I mentioned the Rielly goal as the one obvious greasy one on this road trip — it was actually Mitch Marner pulling up high in the o-zone on that play to sift the puck through, not a defenseman starting it with a shot.
We’ve obviously seen how Morgan Rielly — and increasingly of late, Jake McCabe — have been effective in jumping up to bring numbers toward the net and provide passing or shooting options that help the Leafs’ stars create or finish offensive movements (McCabe finished off a great Matthews-Marner play in Vancouver). But a defenseman maneuvering high in the zone to put a good shot on net with traffic is too rare of an occurrence on this team at the present. After Rielly’s 119 shots on goal (fifth among NHL D), it drops down to McCabe’s 42 (125th) as the second most on the Leafs’ defense.
There was a lot of opportunity tonight with Kraken collapsing on the slot and the Leafs owning the puck, and yet it was Simon Benoit who led the defense in shots on goal with two.
4. We’ve picked on TJ Brodie a lot in this space lately, but we have to continue to call a spade a spade. When he plays 58% of his 5v5 ice time with Matthews and starts 61% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone in those minutes as part of the top pair with Rielly, 25 shots on goal in 44 games is remarkably low. It’s five fewer than Benoit, who has played only 30 games, and it’s last among Leafs D regulars.
Brodie blew up multiple promising offensive-zone possessions tonight by throwing a grenade of a pass, mishandling a puck, or jamming the puck into a shinpad. Often, the best-case scenario when it comes to an O-zone touch for #78 currently is shoveling the puck into the corner where the Leafs can retain possession.
5. It’d be one thing if Brodie was an offensive zero but was continuing to provide the reliable rush defense — the sound stick-on-puck checking and positional play — as well as simple puck movement out of his zone that he’s provided in past seasons. In the defensive zone, though, Brodie was again a hazard tonight with a collection of turnovers (including multiple in the third period of a one-goal game).
On the only Kraken goal, Brodie’s initial pass in his own zone was off the mark leading to a turnover, and then he ended up twisted around the wrong way while tying up no one as the loose puck was extricated from the scrum and finished into the Leaf net by Jordan Eberle. Too often, Brodie has shown next to no competitive fire in those critical net-front battles this season.
6. I mentioned the physical investment from the Leafs in the first point. When Brandon Tanev’s antics started up following Conor Timmins’ cross-checking incident in the first period, it was nice to have Simon Benoit on the ice at the ready. After the two exited the box, Benoit buried Tanev the first chance he got behind the Leaf net.
Tanev ran Timothy Liljegren a few minutes later, and Jake McCabe immediately settled the score, showing no hesitation when dropping the gloves. We saw a similar reaction from McCabe when Tyler Myers hammered Tavares last season in Vancouver.
It’s not the biggest game-outcome-deciding factor, but having the matter settled so the Leafs could get back to controlling the play without Tanev running around causing a distraction all game / running Leafs without repercussions isn’t nothing as far as the game within the game goes. McCabe and Benoit have really helped the Leafs in the physical pushback department this season.
7. Jake McCabe’s empty-net goal from 180 feet to close out the game put the exclamation mark on another strong night from him. We mentioned the fight already, but it was also his well-timed pinch that started the sequence for the opening goal by Matthews in the first period. As he’s settled into the team and learned the structure and system this season, he’s really figured out how to pick his spots and balance offense vs. defense nicely.
McCabe’s 1.15 points per 60 at five-on-five place him 38th among NHL D and in the company of the likes of Miro Heiskanen, Noah Hanifin, Gustav Forsling, Mattias Ekholm, and Adam Fox in that statistic.
8. It was striking to see Pontus Holmberg and Nick Robertson sitting at 10:52 and 8:52, respectively, at the game’s end. Both were effective in their limited minutes.
Robertson worked hard without the puck and managed his touches responsibly in addition to finishing a nice goal off the rush (just wish he didn’t drop pass it on a 3v1). Holmberg’s motor was visible all night as he really helped drive play north for the fourth line.
Notably, Holmberg moved down the lineup but his performance didn’t drop off at all; he knows exactly who he is and what he needs to do to be successful regardless of the line he is on. He’s looking like a really handy player to have in the mix now that he’s gotten some North American experience under his belt.
9. Five of Nick Robertson’s seven goals this season have now featured a primary assist from Max Domi (plus a secondary assist from Domi on one other).
The two naturally complement each other for obvious reasons — high-end passer, good shooter — and whether it’s the most trustworthy line or not defensively, it’s clearly the best bet the Leafs have at the moment in terms of a coherent third-line mix capable of secondary scoring.
The usage has been soft, but Robertson-Domi has out-scored the opposition 13-9 at five-on-five and the underlying numbers are really strong. In situations like this — a back-to-back against this opponent, both playing well — they probably deserved at least a little more rope than they received from Sheldon Keefe, even if it’s understandable that Keefe wasn’t in a giving mood after the struggles of Knies – Domi – Jarnkrok in the Vancouver game.
10. We can’t finish this Game in 10 without talking about Ilya Samsonov. The 16-of-17 stat line doesn’t do him justice as he made four really good out-stretched pad saves on grade-A Kraken chances, none better than his 10-bell game-saver with seven minutes left in the third. You had to feel thrilled for Samsonov after what he’s been through, with so many people on the outside writing him off so quickly.
Martin Jones just started 10 out of 11 for the Leafs in (mostly) the first half of the season — something no one would’ve predicted back in October with Woll and Samsonov on the roster — and yet so many onlookers were acting as if there weren’t more twists and turns to come at such a highly-unpredictable position. A poor 15-game sample from Samsonov, as bad as it got in December, doesn’t mean it’s curtains on his viability as an NHL starter. And Jones was bound to regress to the mean.
Now, one win against the Kraken does not mean Samsonov is fully back by any means, but he’s clearly a talented goaltender when he’s in the right mental space, and he led this team to its first playoff series win in 19 years after a great 2022-23 season. He deserved this second opportunity, and we’ll see if this confidence booster sets him on course from here. It should be his net on Wednesday with the chance to build on the momentum against a much bigger challenge vs. Winnipeg.
Miscellaneous note to finish off: You know those scoreless-but-great-effort performances scorers often need to manufacture before they end a lengthy slump? This was surely one from John Tavares (86% on the dot, all over it down low in the offensive zone).