The Toronto Maple Leafs allowed a crushing late goal to former Leaf Pierre Engvall as they dropped a frustrating game by a score of 3-2 to the New York Islanders at home.
The Leafs won the territorial battle and generally tilted the ice, but they didn’t cash in enough of their chances amid a strong game from Islander goalie Ilya Sorokin. On the flip side, they again showed a propensity to hand cheap offense to the other team due to poor situational hockey, allowing goals shortly after tying the game at 1-1 and 2-2.
Those familiar issues did them in and resulted in a season-series sweep at the hands of the Isles.
Your game in 10:
1. The game started with a lot of energy from both teams. The juices were flowing early and there were notable opportunities both ways.
The Islanders made a push as Brock Nelson completed a smart pass from the offensive zone corner boards to Kyle Palmieri in the circle, where he rang the post behind Ilya Samsonov. The Islanders cobbled together a really strong cycle shift afterward in which they peppered Samsonov with perimeter shots. For the Leafs skaters, it may not have been an optimal sequence, but it was encouraging that Samsonov looked solid and projected confidence in the crease early on.
The Leafs began creating some real opportunities of their own as Matthews Knies and Auston Matthews went on an abbreviated 2v1 rush, with each player putting a quality chance on Ilya Sorokin. John Tavares followed it up by creating a quality chance while on the ice with Ryan Reaves, eventually proceeded by a rush chance for Bobby McMann.
Toronto’s forwards were starting to establish some energy and pace to their game, but much like Toronto’s goalie, New York’s was settling into the game comfortably as well.
2. The Leafs were continuing to press and generate scoring chances in bunches when all of a sudden, the game turned on its head. At the beginning of their shift, Noah Gregor fired a backdoor pass toward Nick Robertson, but his stick was whacked by Scott Mayfield before the Islanders broke the other way.
The speedy Mathew Barzal transitioned the puck up ice and before long found Mike Reilly, who blasted the shot off the post as Samsonov came across. The puck took a massive rebound off the pipe right out into the middle of the slot, where Barzal was open to collect the rebound and put the Islanders ahead 1-0.
When the Isles entered the zone, Domi and Robertson seemed mixed up in the coverage as to who was grabbing Barzal, who ended up slipping in alone into the middle of the ice to collect the rebound and finish it off into the empty net. You could perhaps quibble with Samsonov overplaying the slide across and giving himself no chance on the second opportunity, but it was certainly a tough break off the post.
A frustrating turn of events for the Leafs, who were tilting the ice for a solid stretch of time.
3. Despite the first New York goal to break the ice, Toronto went right back to creating chances. The top line was hemmed in by the Nelson line for a sequence, but the Tavares line created a few looks and then the fourth line won a shift against New York’s fourth line.
Momentum was firmly in the Leafs’ favour until, at the end of that fourth-line shift, Ryan Reaves committed a penalty in the offensive zone. Called for boarding, it was somewhere in between a debatable call and a careless penalty from a player who doesn’t contribute nearly enough offensively or defensively to be taking O-zone penalties while down 1-0 in the game.
The Leafs went on their first PK and required one big save from Samsonov on Pierre Engvall to keep the score at 1-0, also getting a boost from Simon Benoit blocking a shot that stung him pretty badly, which earned stick taps from his bench and a warm reception from the home crowd.
Toronto returned to full strength but didn’t stay there long, this time due to a ticky-tack interference penalty on Tyler Bertuzzi, who inhibited Barzal on the boards. It was a marginal call, especially when NYI just went to the power play, but Bertuzzi took a seat for two minutes.
Strong PK work from Mitch Marner killed off the part of the penalty in the first period, and the game went into the first intermission with the Islanders slated for a carryover PP.
4. The Leafs were in the process of killing off the remainder of the penalty at the start of the second period when Simon Benoit went for a huge hit on Barzal just inside the Toronto blue line. Benoit only got a partial piece of Barzal, but Bo Horvat did not take too kindly to the approach and went after Benoit, demanding a fight. The two dropped the gloves, with Horvat picking up the unsportsmanlike conduct instigator penalty.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 6, 2024
For Benoit, the altercation was another feather in the cap amid the impressive season he’s put together while establishing himself on the Leaf blue line with solid defensive and physical play. Paired with Jake McCabe, he’s got a partner who can teach him a thing or two about open-ice hitting, and I would more than welcome watching Benoit throw his weight around more against attackers traversing the neutral zone or defensive blue line.
With the Leafs desperate for offense, Benoit’s impact led to a brief 4-on-4 spell followed by a Toronto power play, creating a potential window for the team to break something open.
5. It took almost no time for the Leafs to strike off of the ensuing offensive-zone faceoff.
Tavares won the faceoff to the wall and stayed with it, winning possession and flipping a tremendous backhand pass across to Marner, who had plenty of room to walk right in on Sorokin. Defenseman Adam Pelech was between Marner and Matthews in front, with Marner making one slight draw of the puck as if to fake a pass. Sorokin appeared to be cheating ever so slightly — perhaps operating on the assumption that a pre-eminent passer like Marner would look to set up the game’s best goalscorer in Matthews — but Marner did the right thing by calling his own number, ripping the shot, and putting it underneath the bar to tie the game.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 6, 2024
6. The goal was scored while the game was 4v4, which allowed the Leafs to begin a nearly full PP momentarily after the restart of play. This seemed like a blessing for the Leafs — an opportunity to really flip the game in their favour — but as it turned out, it totally backfired.
They didn’t create a ton on the ensuing power play, turning it over multiple times and going offside once, and then disaster ensued at the end of the power play with some of the top unit still on the ice.
With Horvat serving the fighting penalty, the additional minor was served by young Kyle MacLean, an undrafted AHL player with six NHL games on his resume. With time winding down in the power play, Timothy Liljegren was unaware of the circumstances and allowed both the puck and the player coming out of the box to get in behind him. After Matthews — late in a long power-play shift — couldn’t get the puck down the wall and possession changed hands, an Islander chip out of the zone went by Liljegren and connected at center ice with MacLean, who came in all alone on Samsonov and got the better of the Leafs netminder with a nice deke.
It was a terrible example of situational hockey — something that would pop back up later in the game for the Leafs — and to give up a goal so soon after tying it on a fundamental mistake at the end of the power play was a brutal turn of events.
7. The rest of the second period followed a familiar format. The ice continued to tilt against the Isles, with the Leafs generating good looks without enough finish due to blocked shots, missed nets, posts, or strong saves from Sorokin.
Given their amount of possession time, the Leafs didn’t get enough pucks on the net in general for most of the first 50 or so minutes, and when they did, Sorokin rose to the occasion.
Among the different chances I noted over the remainder of the second period were several for Nick Robertson and Max Domi, the former of whom I thought produced another really strong game. The Tavares/Nylander line, with help from Morgan Rielly, created a great look of their own but were turned away by one spectacular save from Sorokin.
8. The third period moved along at a similar kind of pace. From below the goal line, Matthew Knies set up Matthews for a chance within the first minute of the third period, which Matthews put off all three posts. After the Tavares line followed it with a strong shift, you could tell Toronto was going to make a big push.
Max Domi toasted Noah Dobson down the wing but didn’t drive the net and then couldn’t finish the play off. Robertson/Gregor combined for a look that Sorokin turned aside. Opportunity after opportunity went to waste.
The Leafs then received a golden chance to tie the game when Oliver Wahlstrom was penalized for interference after a takedown in the center-ice area with just over 5.5 minutes to play. Mitch Marner got a look very early on the power play while stickhandling in tight but came up empty. After 45 seconds, there was an offensive-zone draw won back by John Tavares and the Leafs got their top unit set up. Nylander passed it over to Rielly, who shot it on net for a tip, which the captain applied perfectly.
That’s now goals in two consecutive for Tavares bookending the All-Star break, and both were tips on the power play off of Rielly shots. Dating back to his tying goal against Anaheim on the California trip, three of Tavares’ last four goals came off of Rielly tip plays on the man advantage in the third period of close games.
In general, Tavares looked refreshed coming off the pause and easily could’ve scored two or three more.
9. After working for nearly 33 minutes to tie the game, you’d expect the Leafs would be dialed in to take care of their hard-earned point in the final five minutes, but you would’ve been wrong to assume as much.
The Islanders punched back with a strong response shift hemming in the Tavares line and then not too long after, it all broke down for the Leafs. TJ Brodie sent a slow/weak D-to-D bank pass off the back wall to Morgan Rielly which Rielly was careless about handling, leading to a turnover up the wall.
Brock Nelson sent the puck across the zone to an open Kyle Palmieri, who couldn’t get a great shot away, but he recovered the puck in the corner and set up a look for Nelson in the slot. Nelson’s initial shot was saved by Samsonov, but Pierre Engvall was on the doorstep with positioning on Rielly to slide the puck through Samsonov’s exposed five-hole.
The wind was out of the Leafs’ sails, and it was a truly horrific shift at the worst possible time for the Rielly/Brodie pair. The Leafs now trailed 3-2 with 2:02 to play.
10. To the Leafs’ credit, they didn’t just disappear into the night. They kept the puck in the New York zone pretty consistently over the game’s final two minutes and put a few decent chances on Ilya Sorokin — including a backdoor chance for Rielly right near the buzzer — but on this night, the Russian superstar goalie won out.
The Leafs largely out-played and out-chanced the Islanders, but an inability to finish and horrendous situational awareness in key moments did them in. Hockey is as much about finishing chances as it is creating them, and tonight one team had the edge in finishing, which erased the other team’s edge in chance creation.
Needless to say, in tight games, you can’t give up breakaways at the end of power plays and you can’t hand the puck to the other team in the defensive zone with two minutes left in a tie game.
The Leafs’ core players created two goals — one at four-on-four and one on the power play — as well as a couple of posts, but they couldn’t solve Sorokin at five-on-five and the shooting success of the team’s secondary forwards remains a sore sight: Bertuzzi is shooting 7.0%, Domi 6.2%, Gregor 6.6%, Kampf 8.5%, Holmberg 7.7%, and McMann 6.1%.
One silver lining: I thought the other Ilya, Ilya Samsonov, was pretty solid tonight. He was a little frenetic and overzealous in the crease at times, with some noisy movements and examples of him overextending, but he made a lot of good saves. The loss was by no means on the goalie, and the fact that Samsonov carried over his solid play from before the break is critically important with Joe Woll “nowhere close” to a return yet, according to Sheldon Keefe.