For whatever reason, sometimes one team has another’s number. For the Maple Leafs, the Stars are one of those teams.
Make it six in a row against a tired but very good Dallas team as the Leafs got a much-needed two points at this point in the season.
Your game in 10:
1. The Leafs got off to a decent start to the game, beginning with a shift from the John Tavares line that was relatively even followed by a good shift by the Auston Matthews line. The third line then got dominated (it set the tone for them as Max Domi – Nick Robertson was out-attempted 18-4 on the night), putting the fourth line behind the eight-ball for a rough shift of their own. By the time the third line got back on the ice, Robertson drew a penalty and the top unit quickly went to work.
The power play looked good from the start and is showing real signs of life after a really bad stretch of play. They snapped it around, created man-advantage plays in tight areas both down low and up high, and eventually worked a really simple play that they need to execute more often.
As Morgan Rielly possessed the puck on the point, all of Matthews, Tavares, and Mitch Marner went to the net. Rielly completed a simple cross-ice pass, and William Nylander unleashed a one-timer with traffic in front that made it through. There are great shooters on this team. Create traffic and tee them up.
2. With an early lead at home against a tired team with a backup goalie in net, you would hope the Leafs could build on the 1-0 advantage. Instead, Dallas slowly started to take the game over.
The shots in the period favoured Dallas 10-4 and the shot attempts were 30-11 for the Stars. They were building shifts through possession and cycling with a proper three-line attack compared to the Leafs‘ loaded-up two lines. The Leafs‘ top lines were able to trade chances and create some looks of their own, but the bottom two lines were battling. The Leafs took two penalties as a result of the Stars’ pressure.
On the first Dallas power play, their penalty kill was excellent. Nylander, in particular, is turning into a legitimately good penalty killer; he’s obviously fast, and if there is a 50/50 puck, he is strong and skilled enough to win it back and clear the puck. Marner also made a nice play to spring Matthew Knies on a mini-breakaway.
3. On the Leafs’ second penalty of the period, though, Dallas made them pay.
After the Leafs lost the faceoff, Dallas took all of eight seconds to score on a set play. The Stars walked it to the middle, bumped it to the half-wall, and as soon as TJ Brodie stepped up on the shot, they passed it low to the goal line followed by a quick one-touch to the slot for a one-timer. It’s hard to blame Ilya Samsonov on this goal, but the puck went through him, and you’d like to see him squeeze it.
On the broadcast, Craig Simpson was quick to point out that the team was missing David Kampf for the faceoff, but I’m not sure Kampf would’ve taken the draw anyway. He has struggled in the faceoff circle this season to the point where Keefe has pulled him off of shorthanded faceoffs multiple times, and it was also on the right side of the ice, so it would’ve been on Kampf’s weak side.
If anything, we are starting to see Calle Jarnkrok receive the faceoff assignments where he can pull it on his backhand; plus, Nylander is strong on faceoffs on the right side. When Dallas went to a power play in the second period, Nylander won the faceoff cleanly just as he did on the first penalty of the game, too.
Lost draws are going to happen. The issue was how easy it was for Dallas to score after they won the faceoff.
4. Dallas deserved a lead in the first period, and a few minutes later, it came to fruition.
There were two fundamental issues on this 2-1 Dallas goal. The first is that the Leafs didn’t get the puck in deep; the turnover at the blue line opened up a quick transition opportunity. Bobby McMann was weak on the puck instead of making good contact and making sure it went in deep. He was also beyond casual on the backcheck (as if he is a player who can afford not to get pucks deep or not backcheck hard).
From there, it was still a pretty clean 1v1, and while Jake McCabe was coming across the ice after a line change, he didn’t square up Evgenii Dadonov at any point, opening up the inside cut-in move.
Under no circumstances can McCabe allow an attacker to cut in like this. There’s really nothing else to say; it’s terrible defending from a defender who has been quite good so far this season. He also took a dumb penalty and got torched for a goal against in the first period.
5. As bad as the first period was, the Leafs came out with some real purpose in the second period. Early on, Ryan Reaves stirred it up with a hustle shift — going after Radek Faksa and Ty Dellandrea — and Morgan Rielly also got in on the action as he was upset after he was tripped into the boards.
On the next shift, the Leafs drew a penalty, and the power play went back to work. This goal was a lot more simple. Off a faceoff won back to the point, Rielly passed it to Nylander on the half-wall, where Nylander showed why we’ve wanted him on the half-wall for years. He is a shooting threat, which the opposition PK has to respect.
Nylander held the puck for a split second longer to free everyone up and then easily made a backhand pass to Tavares, who found space in the high slot to rip a one-timer home.
Tavares’ goalless drought is now in the past, and hopefully, a hot streak is just getting started. Goals often come in bunches, and the captain is now on a three-game goal-scoring streak.
6. With the game tied, the Leafs took yet another too-many-men penalty. Noah Gregor took his time getting off the ice, which felt like one of those self-inflicted wounds that could end up biting the team.
Instead, it ended up being a momentum-turning point in the game in the Leafs’ favour. Without Kampf or Jarnkrok — and Gregor tired after his recent shift in this case — Auston Matthews has been picking up more penalty-killing shifts much earlier in the penalty kill (the coaching staff more frequently sends him out at the end of the penalty kill to get the team going at five-on-five).
This time, Matthews and Marner went out for a power kill. They created a 2v1 where Matthews was in all alone, but Wedgewood almost looked like he fell on the play, tripping up Matthews. He could have done just about anything with it, but it already looked like he made up his mind to go five-hole, which was the one play Wedgewood was in a position to stop.
Nylander then went on a mini-breakaway but lost the handle. The Leafs spent most of the penalty kill in the Stars’ end, the home crowd got into it, and it went straight to the Leafs’ legs. They started to build momentum off that kill, and due to the jumbled lines and absences of players, we saw a few shifts where Max Domi played with Matthews and Marner, or Tyler Bertuzzi moved up for a shift. The lines were moved around, and it looked good.
7. Due to an injury to Kampf, Pontus Holmberg has been forced back to the center position and is not currently flanked by particularly skilled players in McMann and Reaves. It makes it difficult to really evaluate him as a center — and he/his line really struggled on Monday against the Islanders — but in this game, he was much more comfortable in the middle.
Holmberg’s highlight of the night was walking Miro Heiskanen — one of the best defensemen in the league — and drawing a penalty. This is one of the “little things” a depth line can contribute that helps a team win games (Holmberg was also quietly good in the faceoff circle, winning 66.7%).
The power play once again converted, making them 3/3 on the night. A sure sign of a power play that is rolling is how hungry they are to recover loose pucks. After the Leafs created a good chance from a Rielly point shot, the puck eventually made its way to the corner, where Jani Hakanpää had a little time and space to clear it. Instead of whacking the puck down, the big Stars defenseman tried to handle it — a crazy decision when Matthews is anywhere remotely in his radius of the ice. #34 is one of the best pickpockets in the league as he showed by lifting Hakanpää from behind. Tavares was also relentless in getting in there.
The turnover resulted in a down-low 2v1 with Matthews and Nylander, and while the goal itself was a lucky deflection, it was a nice hustle play from the top unit.
8. The game took a bit of an emotional turn at the end of the period. Mason Marchment delivered a late, cheap, uncalled hit that left Jake McCabe bloodied. McCabe was understandably furious, and it was all the more maddening considering the Leafs were killing a penalty at the time due to a cheap holding call on Holmberg.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 8, 2024
In the third period, McCabe was furious and challenged Marchment to a fight, which Marcment declined. McCabe still ran him multiple times anyway, and later on in the period, Simon Benoit took a massive run at him (Benoit also played 22:45, producing yet another big game as a staple on this defense core).
While Ryan Reaves was physical in the game and was seeking out hits, he didn’t really respond to a bad hit against a teammate who is basically the Leafs’ second-best defenseman at this point. Paint it any way you want, but it’s a huge (only?) reason Reaves is in the lineup.
9. The antics and “game within the game” aside, the Leafs came out for the third period really strongly. They created a ton of chances and gave up very little defensively. It was hard to understand how they didn’t find an insurance marker.
McCabe walked in all alone, but the puck deflected wide. Domi had a through-the-legs chance off an odd-man rush. Marner was all alone in the slot by himself but was robbed by Wedgewood. The Leafs put a few shots on net with traffic, but nothing was dropping. Of course, when this is the case at one end, it often comes back the other way for a goal against.
Making it particularly tough to stomach is that the 3-3 Dallas goal came on the most innocent of plays off an offensive-zone faceoff for the Leafs. The Stars did nothing special; they simply rimmed the puck around the far side as Dadonov flew the zone. Mark Giordano can’t let Dadonov behind him there, plain and simple.
Giordano has taken a step back to the point where it’s hard to trust him on a nightly basis at this point. Dadonov made a nice move on the subsequent penalty shot to make it 3-3.
10. The tie game was short-lived as the Leafs responded on the very next shift. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were unfazed by the goal, immediately going to work and winning the puck back.
Matthews possessed the puck at the top of the zone, and with the Stars focused on #34, he slid it down low to Marner, who was in all alone and scored the type of goal that has become his bread and butter: a little forehand shot to the top right corner.
Not to be outdone, the very next shift, John Tavares shielded the puck on the rush and dropped it to Nylander, who took a short-side shot that fooled Wedgewood, giving the Leafs a two-goal lead.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 8, 2024
From there, the game seemed all but over, and the Leafs created multiple chances at the empty net. The Leafs missed two opportunities, the Stars kept coming, and eventually, Dallas scored on an innocent shot. I’m not entirely sure it would’ve hit the net if it hadn’t deflected off of Ilya Samsonov‘s glove (there was no immediate screen in front of Samsonov, either).
Sheldon Keefe shifted Tyler Bertuzzi up with Matthews and Marner to close the game, which proved effective. Bertuzzi is good at getting in lanes. The Stars fired one shot that took a weird bounce, but afterward, they never really threatened.
A much-needed two points in regulation for the Leafs.