The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Winnipeg Jets 1-0 in overtime on a night when Ilya Samsonov stole the show and Toronto’s top power-play unit was benched — two developments many Leafs fans would’ve bet a lot of money against happening just a few weeks ago.
As the Toronto man-advantage failed to put the team ahead on five opportunities, Samsonov’s resurgent effort carried the Leafs in the first half of the game, earning the boisterous cheers of the home fans in Scotiabank Arena. The third period was more balanced, but neither team could break the tie before Auston Matthews’ league-leading 39th goal of the season sent the fans home happy in the extra session.
Your game in 10:
1. To put it mildly, the game did not start well for the Leafs, who were buried in an onslaught of shots against early on, mostly of their own doing. Over the game’s first 10 or so minutes, the Jets repeatedly capitalized on sloppy defensive-zone puck mismanagement from Toronto to create scoring chances.
Morgan Rielly had his pocket picked by Rasmus Kupari while the Leafs were going for a change, which created a good look for Winnipeg and subsequently a full minute of extended zone time for the Jets. Timothy Liljegren also turned a puck over, but Ilya Samsonov bailed the defender out with a timely save.
It just kept spiraling for the Leafs thereafter, with their goalie saving the day all the while. Kyle Connor got in behind the Leafs‘ defense but couldn’t get a great shot away thanks to back-pressure from Mitch Marner. A minute or so later, Auston Matthews made a dangerous pass in his own zone that was intercepted by Nikolaj Ehlers, but again, the ensuing chance was shut down by Samsonov.
Shots for the period were 9-1 Winnipeg to start, and it is quite possible that with a worse version of Samsonov in net, the Leafs would’ve been buried after such a miserable beginning where they handed the puck back to the Jets over, and over, and over again — and it was too frequently their best players among the worst offenders.
2. The Leafs started to show a little bit of energy after that disastrous beginning, but Winnipeg still mostly owned the opening stanza. A Marner slap shot was the first good look on Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit and then Nick Robertson got the first of a couple of nice chances on the evening, uncorking a blast that Brossoit turned aside.
Those two chances did a bit to save face for Toronto, but the first was a rotten period that had to infuriate Sheldon Keefe. The Leafs were sloppy, careless, and lethargic, while the Jets jumped all over them and repeatedly peppered Samsonov.
Natural Stat Trick recorded the scoring chances at 14-5 in favor of Winnipeg(!) and high-danger chances at 9-1 in favor of the Jets(!!). The entire trajectory of the game changed because Winnipeg was unable to score an actual goal on Samsonov among the 1.63 expected goals that they generated in that first period.
3. Two notes on Winnipeg that are worth mentioning before we move onto the second period. The first one is that star defenseman Josh Morrissey was injured blocking a Toronto shot in the first period, heading to the dressing room late in the period and never returning to the contest. Without question, his absence affected Winnipeg’s ability to create offense the rest of the way as Morrissey is by far their best offensive defenseman and an important creator from the back end and on the power play.
With the Jets already missing impact forwards Mark Schiefele and Gabriel Vilardi due to various ailments, the absence of Morrissey rendered the Jets’ attack even more toothless and perhaps provided the Leafs an ability to even the footing of the game in the latter two periods (plus overtime).
This was a very low-event game, especially in the final ~45 minutes, as most Winnipeg games are. The two teams combined to create just 1.02 expected goals combined over the final 28 minutes of 5v5, which is just how Jets coach Rick Bowness likes it. Bowness has managed to dull down the Jets’ games in year #2 of his tight-checking system, and in the process, Winnipeg has become one of the very best defensive teams in the league. The practical implication of this on tonight’s game is that the latter two periods were, to put it honestly, very boring. Outside of the power plays (which produced major storylines), not a whole lot happened at 5v5.
4. The Leafs got their first power play just under two minutes into the second period, an interference penalty on Dominic Toninato, and this brings about the flashpoint moment of the game. When a team isn’t touching the puck much or completing many plays at five-on-five, it’s of little surprise when the sloppiness translates over onto the man advantage. It’s usually not as simple as just flipping a switch.
With the Leafs’ top unit on the ice and in the offensive zone, Matthews briefly left the ice to go to the bench. The puck was deep in the zone when the Jets grabbed possession and fired it up the ice. Toronto’s point men, rather than falling back, both bit at the blue line and let it get past them.
The result for Winnipeg was the seemingly unthinkable 2v0 shorthanded rush. Morgan Barron and Adam Lowry had all day to execute it, but Samsonov stood his ground and foiled Winnipeg:
🤯 ILYA SAMSONOV!!!!! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/2PjGN1s0RV
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 25, 2024
The saves were a combination of excellent goalie play and two not-terribly-skilled forwards failing to properly execute on the opportunity, but regardless of how Samsonov shut it down, the fact that the Leafs’ top unit was responsible for the chance against infuriated Keefe to the point where he took real action to enforce some accountability. More on that momentarily.
5. The power play expired but Noah Gregor was high-sticked by Brenden Dillon less than a minute after the game returned to 5v5 and Toronto was given another chance to break the ice and open the scoring. Keefe made it clear, however, that his priority was sending a message.
The second PP unit began the man-advantage on the ice, which was the first sign something might be up, but when the second unit was relieved by an odd hodgepodge of Liljegren, Rielly, Gregor, John Tavares, and Pontus Holmberg, it was clear that this was an outright benching of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander.
The power play predictably achieved nothing in terms of on-ice production, but it created a massive talking point for internet scribes like myself and perhaps represents the first step towards greater accountability, star players included, under this head coach.
6. Once the game returned to 5v5, Keefe kept his stars on the bench for a couple more minutes before finally putting them back on the ice. Message sent.
Afterward, the middle 10 minutes of the second period trudged along in low-event fashion. Conor Timmins created one chance that I noted, but otherwise, the next point of interest came when the referees made their next penalty decision. Toninato went to the box for the second time in the game after grabbing a hold of Tavares.
Keefe again began with his second unit, but this time allowed the first unit to come on at the midway point of the power play. For the first time in the three power plays to that point, the Leafs were able to create something — Nylander’s slap-pass to Tavares created a tricky deflection, albeit one that Laurent Brossoit got a piece of. The second period expired not too long after that power play, and the two teams were scoreless through 40 minutes.
7. The first half of the third period saw the Leafs generate their best sustained pressure of the game, feeding off a fourth power-play opportunity (Winnipeg still had zero to this point). Marner recorded the period’s first chance after Laurent Brossoit nearly misplayed the puck behind his own net, allowing Marner a wraparound chance.
The Leafs went on a power play thereafter, recording several looks — a Matthews to Nylander chance spiraled into a mad scramble, and then the second unit created their best chance of the night.
Even after the power play expired, the Leafs began to press harder at 5v5, but they were repeatedly foiled by Winnipeg’s backup goalie. For all the attention given to star starter Connor Hellebucyk, who is probably the favorite for the Vezina Trophy, Brossoit has been excellent himself and he was rock solid tonight, saving 1.9 goals above expected, per Natural Stat Trick.
8. After the Leafs began pushing, the Jets pushed back around the midway point of the period. Nylander had the right pass idea to pick out a cutting Jake McCabe on the backside, but Kyle Connor read the play well and intercepted the pass, creating a rush for Winnipeg the other way.
Samsonov made a huge save on Ramsus Kupari to keep the game scoreless. Samsonov stayed hot by making a flashy glove save on Nino Niederreiter in the slot as well, and then the Leafs were gifted their fifth power-play opportunity and a chance to put the game away with 5:02 remaining in the contest.
If you are familiar with the habits of NHL refereeing, you were probably flabbergasted that Toronto had received five PPs to Winnipeg’s zero and were expecting referees to manufacture a call in favor of the Jets. You had the right idea. The referees put an end to the Leaf PP after some 82 seconds with a makeup call.
Toronto created a couple of chances but nothing of note before Nylander was called for boarding on what was a pretty soft call. After the ~40 seconds of 4v4 time rolled away, Winnipeg went to their first man-advantage, but little came of it as the Jets were unable to consistently gain the zone and set things up.
Play returned to five-on-five with under two minutes to go in the game, but regulation did not finish at even strength. Calle Järnkrok was called for tripping and Winnipeg went right back on the PP — a rather clunky time to tack on another whistle, given the carryover to OT.
The Leafs killed off the 36 seconds in regulation without much trouble and both teams earned a point.
9. The Leafs were shorthanded 4v3 for the first minute-and-a-half of overtime and had to rely on Samsonov to carry the weight again. Granted, I didn’t think Winnipeg created much to really challenge Toronto despite the decisive advantage in manpower, with maybe their best chance coming with the game at 4v4 after the PP expired. Nikolaj Ehlers came into the slot, dagged the puck, and ripped it in tight, but Samsonov made a pivotal shoulder save.
Toronto hadn’t threatened much in OT when the puck was in the Winnipeg end with under a minute ago. Nick Robertson started it by knocking down the pass from Neal Pionk, who was standing behind his own net looking for Ehlers. That recovered possession, and while their first attempt didn’t go, after re-establishing possession, Robertson went down the wall to Rielly. #44 saw Matthews with position in front of the net and fed #34 for his 39th of the season:
ROBBY STARTS IT
MO DISHES IT
PAPI ENDS IT pic.twitter.com/1nikbvSsP4
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 25, 2024
Matthews has scored 39 goals in 45 games this season having missed one of the team’s games thus far due to illness. If he scores goals at this pace and plays every game for the team the rest of the way, he will finish the season with exactly 70 goals, something that hasn’t been done in the NHL in over 30 years (Mario Lemieux scored 69 in 1995-96).
For Robertson, getting a point on the OT winner was a nice reward for his efforts. Though his underlying metrics at 5v5 don’t look great (few Leafs’ metrics did in a game they were soundly outplayed in at even strength), from an eye-test standpoint, Robertson was one of Toronto’s most consistently engaged players, played with good pace, threatened the Jets’ net, and deservedly played a season-high 17:08.
Hopefully, this works to build Robertson’s confidence heading into the All-Star break even as trade discussions swirl in media circles. Nice to see Keefe reward him with the carrot of more ice time as his strong play in Seattle still didn’t budge his ice time above nine minutes on Sunday. Even if we assume Bertuzzi is back on Saturday, Robertson left little doubt he’ll remain in the lineup in the rematch, possibly forcing McMann out again with Holmberg down on L4.
10. Ilya Samsonov collected a shutout for the Leafs in the 1-0 victory, his second of the season and sixth as a Maple Leaf. Samsonov has now started three games since his late December immolation, a mixed performance against Detroit followed by two very sharp efforts in Seattle on Sunday and tonight against Winnipeg.
Given the results tonight, I expect Sheldon Keefe to give him the net one more time on Saturday night to close out January and head into All-Star weekend. Samsonov seemed to be over-sliding a bit and slightly frenetic early on, but then he really settled in. He looked poised and steady, read the play extremely sharply, and stood tall in big moments, saving several high-difficulty, high-danger chances.
The two points that Toronto collected tonight are Samsonov’s points, quite frankly. While the total expected goals look even due to the Leafs’ lopsided edge in power-play time, they were thoroughly outplayed at 5v5 and hung Samsonov out to dry far more often than Keefe would’ve liked, the 2v0 being the flashiest example.
To win two games even though his team combined to score three total goals across those two games ought to be huge for Samsonov’s confidence and building him back up to the quality NHL goalie he was last season. If there was a silver lining from tonight in terms of the performances, Robertson and Samsonov are it.
It was easy to write off Samsonov’s season — and Leaf career — less than a month ago, but speaking in certainties about the goaltending position in the NHL is a sure way to be wrong a lot. This was always a talented goalie, and now he’s looking like a talented and confident goalie again.