There may be better ways to enter the bye week and All-Star break than sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in a home-and-home, but I can’t think of many.
This was an excellent performance from the Leafs and a well-earned victory. I thought they generally carried the play, even though the refs interjected in the game. They battled through it and now enter the break on a high note, comfortably sitting in a playoff spot with tons of room for improvement.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs got off to a pretty good start to this game. Unlike on Wednesday, they were able to build shifts where they were spending time in the Jets’ zone. Even if they weren’t exactly creating quality chances, at least the puck was going in the right direction.
The Leafs recorded the first three shots of the game, and the Jets really didn’t have much going on… and then Winnipeg scored on their first shot on net of the game. It was an innocent enough play, but after the Jets simply dumped it in, Morgan Rielly was far too casual on the retrieval. If Rielly high-tailed it back, he would have had the time to turn up the ice and make a crisp play. As it was, he still had time to do something with the puck, but he seemed to think he had more time than he did.
Rielly was stripped by Kyle Connor, the puck went to the point, and just like that, the Jets took a point shot that found its way through traffic and into the net.
Rielly has put together an excellent season so far, but the first period of the last game against the Jets was arguably his worst period of the season. On multiple occasions, he was stick-lifted for turnovers in his own end, but it wasn’t magnified because the Jets didn’t score and the entire Leafs lineup was underperforming. In this rematch, he continued that approach early on, directly leading to a turnover and a goal against.
2. It wasn’t the best of goals allowed by Ilya Samsonov, so you quickly wondered how he was going to respond to the adversity of letting in the first shot against on the road against a quality opponent that has maybe the best goalie league on the other side of the ice.
For the rest of the period, though, Samsonov was excellent. Adam Lowry went on two partial breakaways. Nino Neiderreiter had a clear lane off the rush. There was a mini 2v0 in front after Mark Giordano tried to stickhandle out of pressure. Samsonov responded well, and while the Leafs created a few chances at the other end — namely, a Nick Robertson rip in the high slot — Samsonov was called on several times to keep it a one-goal game and stood tall. A two-goal deficit against the Jets in Winnipeg would’ve been a daunting task.
3. Keeping it at 1-0 turned out to be a big deal as the Leafs were able to tie the game before the period ended with a goal from an unlikely source in the form of a player dressing for his first game in a month and a half (in his hometown, to boot): Ryan Reaves.
The fourth line wasn’t creating much in terms of actual offense in the first period, but they spent a good chunk of time in the offensive zone. They generated a couple of shifts where they were cycling down low, hemming the Jets in their zone, and working the walls. All of David Kampf, Reaves, and Noah Gregor were finding each other on the cycle while ensuring a high forward was in position to protect against any threat the other way.
With a minute left, the line was rewarded. It started in the defensive zone, where Gregor was originally stonewalled on the breakout, but the Leafs won the ensuing battle to chip the puck out. As Reaves hustled on the play to apply pressure, Hellebuyck tried poking the puck away, but it caused confusion between him and Morrissey. Gregor followed up on the puck, and instead of rushing it, he got his head up, looked around at his options, and shot a puck that clearly only Reaves could reach. Reaves applied a really nice far-side tip for the finish.
It was a really cool moment for Reaves, who has now officially scored twice in the games immediately following a stint as a healthy scratch.
4. Right after the Leafs tied the game, they took the lead to close the period — or, at least, we all thought they did.
Tyler Bertuzzi‘s return in this game made a huge difference against a grinding Jets team. The second line was much better and generated a ton of chances all night; Bertuzzi was right in the middle of all of them because of the work he did on the forecheck and the walls/at the front of the net.
This goal was no exception. Bertuzzi helped maintain possession behind the net before going to the net, where a point shot deflected and landed right on his tape for a tap-in. The refs immediately called it off due to the contact between William Nylander and Hellebuyck, but the replays clearly showed that Dylan DeMelo crosschecked Nylander into his own goalie. Nylander made every effort to get out of the goalie’s way afterward.
This is as easy of a call as there is in this league when it comes to goalie interference — especially in a league where this was called a goal only four days ago:
Captain converts & we're up by a pair ✌️ pic.twitter.com/IpmQXSdh9D
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) January 24, 2024
Once the review took an inordinate amount of time (over a minute) for how easy of a call it should have been, you knew it was trouble. It was called off, and the Leafs were assessed a penalty for the unsuccessful challenge (which they killed off).
Naturally, the official wording from the league made no sense. It’s a terrible call, and it’s a terrible precedent for the league to set (if you crosscheck a player into your own goalie, it’s a disallowed goal!).
NHL ruling on Toronto no-goal: pic.twitter.com/jHD0NdNryW
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) January 28, 2024
5. To the Leafs’ credit, not only did they come out and convincingly kill the penalty, but they started to create with some regularity against a top-flight defensive team.
There was a Tyler Bertuzzi 2v1 with William Nylander where Bertuzzi shot it and Nylander picked up the rebound, went behind the net, and couldn’t beat a sprawling Hellebuyck. Nylander created a separate net drive after the Leafs gave up a 2v1; he was in all alone but couldn’t beat the goalie.
Mitch Marner had an empty net off a rebound and put it across the crease, with Auston Matthews also nearly finishing off that play. On a separate play, Nylander again broke in on the penalty kill, catching the Jets off guard and winning a race to a puck against a very casual Winnipeg defender.
The Leafs weren’t rewarded in the second period with a goal, but it was encouraging to see them stringing shifts together and generating zone time compared to the flow of play in the first game against the Jets a few days ago. Natural Stat Trick gave the Leafs the edge in 5v5 shot attempts and high-danger scoring chances, and the teams were basically even in expected goals (the Leafs were up .02).
6. On the flip side, the Leafs also took two more penalties in the period, and coupled with the carryover penalty from the failed challenge, they spent over a quarter of the period in the box. Kudos to them for fighting through it.
The first penalty was off the no-goal call (which, again, was definitely a goal), the second call came after a missed icing, and the third penalty came on a play where Timothy Liljegren was taken down behind the play and his stick came up (this one was a penalty at least, but you could question the contact Liljegren took beforehand).
Add in the fact that the Leafs had yet to receive a power-play opportunity in the game, and a lot of teams might have unraveled in this type of situation. The Leafs dug in with several good kills.
Mark Giordano laid a huge block on a Kyle Connor one-timer at one point, and Ilya Samsonov stood tall in net once again. Samsonov made two big saves on Connor in the slot toward the end of the period (the Jets also hit the crossbar on one of the rebounds).
7. Tyler Bertuzzi was robbed of a goal, but we noted how well he was playing regardless, and to me, the difference between Bertuzzi and no Bertuzzi (on Wednesday) was night and day.
He is not a big hitting and fighting power forward, but he is a grinder who works the walls and the front of the net, which the Leafs sorely needed on Wednesday. They couldn’t sustain zone time in that game, but they did tonight, and Bertuzzi was often in the middle of it.
To start the third period, Bertuzzi created a great scoring chance and drew a penalty in the process. Bertuzzi — and his line — creating for the team tonight was particularly important considering the top line did not have a great night.
The top line gave up a ton of chances to the Jets; we already mentioned the Lowry breakaway where Matthews was beaten, and they gave up an odd-man rush where all three forwards were below the goal line and lost the battle.
In the third period, the top line was hemmed in for over a minute but was bailed out by coincidental penalties. At the same time, the second line was full marks, and their drawn penalty was a big moment in the game.
8. With the power play’s notable struggles of late (one for 20), there was finally talk of breaking up the top unit this week should the issues persist. In response, the top unit came out with a real purpose and created a number of chances right away. They sustained pressure and generated a chance in tight through William Nylander.
The puck never left the Jets zone, and eventually, it worked its way to Morgan Rielly at the top, where he had tons of space in front of him. Rielly did what he should do in those situations as he intentionally shot for a tip and John Tavares found some open space in the slot, where the captain did what he does best by tipping the puck.
The Leafs’ biggest issue on the power play — beyond gaining the zone — has been their tendency to be too cute. They have high-end shooters and an elite tipper. This goal came from a simple shot with some traffic and a deflection. Not everything can be a backdoor tap-in.
It also broke the goal drought for Tavares — a perfect time to do it right before the break instead of leaving him to think about it for another week and a half.
9. The Leafs kept pushing after the 2-1 goal and generated chances to extend the lead. John Tavares had another chance in the slot created by yet another Tyler Bertuzzi forecheck. William Nylander went on another shorthanded mini-breakaway.
The Leafs’ penalty kill was full marks in this one. Their energy and really quick shifts were noticeable. Their PKers were taking 30-second shifts while going full throttle to get pucks out.
The Jets did make a push, but they took a stupid offensive-zone penalty, and almost immediately on the subsequent Leafs’ power play, there was a slashing call that was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Tavares took a slash, sensed his stick was broken, leaned on it, and broke it to show the ref. I can’t believe this was called.
From there, it was straightforward. The Leafs went high to low, Mitch Marner found Auston Matthews for a one-timer, and so marked 40 goals for #34.
I don’t think there’s anything I enjoy watching more right now than Matthews lifting his stick and calling for a one-timer. It’s an incredible goal-scoring season he’s putting together. Goal #40 effectively iced the game.
10. That wasn’t the end of the notable events in this game. Up 3-1, Keefe rewarded the fourth line with a shift, and Ryan Reaves went out there and did what many have wanted him to do: He ran Jets players and caused trouble with one of their best players, Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Leafs retrieved the puck before another fan favourite — Simon Benoit — scored a long-range empty-net goal. It was a fun sight to watch the celebrations for Reaves and Benoit.
After the Jets scored a meaningless goal in the dying seconds on a bad bounce off Jake McCabe (who was quietly excellent at beating forechecks all night and almost scored on one play), all hell broke loose. McCabe took a hit from behind afterward and responded. Perhaps even better, Reaves jumped in and grabbed the Jets’ top defenseman. Reaves was ejected and gave the Leafs fans in the building — of which there were many — a salute on the way out.
When Reaves plays like this, he can earn a spot in the rotation for this team. Forget the goal; he was good on the cycle, he was physically and emotionally invested, and he wasn’t a liability. There were too many games where he was a nonfactor (and a liability). This was certainly not the case tonight.