The Maple Leafs extended their winning streak to four with a 4-2 win over St. Louis powered by one power-play goal courtesy of Auston Matthews, one (gorgeous) five-on-five goal via Matthew Knies, one shorthanded goal via William Nylander, and an empty-netter courtesy of Bobby McMann.

While the competition hasn’t been the strongest, the Leafs are now 4-0-0 post-Morgan Rielly suspension.

“We’ve answered the bell. I think Mo lit the fire in the team. We’re battling for Mo.”

– William Nylander

Your game in 10:

1.  Let’s start with a note about the line combinations, which featured some interesting wrinkles from Sheldon Keefe. In this space, we’ve been hyper-critical of the head coach’s unwillingness to reward or empower non-core players with more minutes as part of spreading out his talent across three-plus lines at the forward position.

Today, we saw the red-hot Bobby McMann play with John Tavares and Nick Robertson while receiving a secondary power-play shift and 6-on-5 time late in the game. Max Domi — whose game has been coming on strong of late — skated alongside William Nylander and Tyler Bertuzzi, and the line actually played about the same amount as the top line at five-on-five. After he scored a power-play goal against Anaheim as part of a four-for-four night for the Leafs‘ PP, Bertuzzi remained on the top power-play unit throughout the game in place of John Tavares.

Personally, I would quibble with asking Tavares (in his first game back after injury, to boot) to drive a line with lesser wingers over some of the other options; he’s not a high-level play driver at this point in his career and does depend on Nylander for his puck transportation abilities (which — in addition to Bertuzzi’s forechecking skills — have helped him play mostly on offense, where he’s at his best as an off-the-puck type of producer down low and around the net).

However, as a general philosophy, credit where it is due: This is how you build a proper team with support players who are involved and invested. This is how you reward more than just a handful of star players with minutes and opportunity and actually build up their confidence and offensive contribution.

2.  The first period of this game was not much to write home about. To start, it looked like a Leafs team that plays almost no afternoon games adjusting to a 1 p.m. start, but fortunately, Ilya Samsonov made a couple of nice saves — most notably, on Jordan Kyrou after he caught Jake McCabe sleeping and broke in alone four minutes into the game.

The Leafs didn’t give up all that much even though they didn’t tilt the ice nearly as much as they did in the first period of last week’s game against St. Louis, and Samsonov was there when the team needed him. Auston Matthews went on a partial breakaway of his own in the first five minutes that he rang off the post on his backhand, but the period ended at 6-6 in shots on goal, so we’ll just end the discussion about the opening 20 minutes right here.

3.   The Leafs got off to the perfect start to the second period courtesy of Matthew Knies. You could feel something coming in the first period with the jump in Knies’ stride, including leaning into a hard shot off of Joel Hofer’s shoulder off the rush earlier in the period and then ripping a one-timer later in the period. But this goal was prettier than any of us could’ve imagined — one of the nicest individual efforts leading to a Leafs goal we’ll see all season.

The goal started with the urgency of the puck pursuit on the forecheck by Auston Matthews to force a turnover on the Blues’ half-wall before bumping the puck into the middle to Knies, who appeared at first to have no play available to him in an out-numbered situation. Quickly throwing the puck toward the net and then following it up for a possible rebound or forced stoppage was the sensible and safe play in the situation.

Instead, Knies took on Colton Parayko one-on-one, making a nice dangle through the tripod of the big defenseman before sending a quick backhand-forehand snap into the far top corner, all in one smooth move. It was a supremely confident move that was flawlessly executed in a flash by Knies, who — after just 17 points in his first 46 — has found an offensive groove of late with six points in his last six games.

While he’s still learning time and place at times — as seen late in the game vs. Philadelphia — Knies currently looks like he believes he can make a difference whenever he touches the puck. His puck pursuit has been diligent, too, and it’s probably no coincidence for a player out of college that this productive stretch is coming after a week off. He’s also shooting a little more, with 14 shots in seven games since the break (after just 59 shots in 45 games pre-All-Star break).

4.   Amid a decent second period for the Leafs as the road team playing with the lead, a familiar problem reared its head late in the period.

Bad offensive-zone penalties have been something of a theme of late for the Maple Leafs, including among fourth-liners who should be taking extra care not to cost the team at critical junctures in games.

A sloppy tripping penalty by Ryan Reaves gave St. Louis a chance to tie it late in the period, and the Leafs’ PK continued to look out of sorts in the subsequent shorthanded situation.

5.  It was a miracle the Blues’ PP didn’t score earlier than they did as they worked it around with ease and the Leafs PK was running around in a completely disorganized manner. Jordan Kyrou missed a wide-open backdoor chance on a seam pass across the low slot among a few other good looks, but it looked like the Leafs were going to survive it.

Mitch Marner — who took a number of strange routes on his first PK shift — looked dead tired when he was back out on the ice after a quick breather to finish the PK. After he was all over the zone earlier in the PK — not necessarily in a good way — he couldn’t settle the puck down on the wall and then seemed to be standing and hoping as the Blues set up Brandon Saad in the slot, where he had tons of time and space to shoot for the 1-1 goal (which took a fortunate deflection off of Timothy Liljegren).

Coming off of the Flyers game where the Leafs’ PK looked too passive against the Flyers’ power play late in the game, Kampf and Marner have attempted to up the aggressiveness in their puck pressure in the past couple of games, but there has been little coordination or sense of spacing that’s been maintained in the process.

This has to be sorted out soon as we’re getting too late in the season for the PK to look so disorganized, and the Leafs — as Anthony Petrielli noted this morning — are the worst current playoff team in terms of PK efficiency.

6.  Fast starts to periods in tie-game situations were a big part of this win for the Maple Leafs. After making the difference early in the second, Matthew Knies drew a high-sticking penalty by getting a fast jump off the opening draw at center ice in the third period.

The Leafs’ stars are obviously capable of scoring highlight-reel goals on the power play as well as any team in the league, but the thing that’s stood out during their recent hot stretch — which ended a notable slow period on the PP — is their work habits away from the puck to recover possession. They won multiple loose puck or contested puck situations in the build-up to this 2-1 goal.

That included a subtle stick lift by Tyler Bertuzzi on Nick Leddy, allowing Mitch Marner to recover the puck below the goal line, where few in the league are better at surveying the ice and picking out the right pass against vulnerable defenders facing their own net. Auston Matthews buried for his 49th of the season and seventh in his last three games.

7.   While the PK struggles inside the bottom 10 in the league in kill efficiency, one upside to the personnel shuffle and heavier integration of star talent on the PK is that the Leafs now have five shorthanded goals in 2023-24 after scoring just seven all of last season.

When the puck is anywhere in his vicinity, William Nylander is a threat to strip one loose and break the other way. Today, he put the game in hand doing just that with his third shorthanded goal of the season, tied for fifth in the NHL, to make it 3-1 Leafs. Pavel Buchnevic and Torey Krug got away with it once when trying to outwait or dangle around Nylander high in the zone but certainly not the second time.

Nylander has now been on the ice for four goals for and four goals against while shorthanded; only 10 players in the NHL with more than 40 minutes on the PK have a GF% of 50 or higher, and unlike the vast majority of those 10 players, Nylander does not play on a top-10 penalty-killing team.

Offensively, Nylander has been really clinical in those odd-man situations where he outwaits the goaltender until the netminder is deep in his net/forced to hit the ice before roofing it short-side high.

8.  On that note, it wouldn’t have been a 2-on-0 the goaltender had to respect if Pontus Holmberg didn’t blow past Torey Krug in the race up the ice.

At five-on-five, Holmberg played a strong game on the fourth line alongside David Kampf as the pair did not give up a single shot against in over eight minutes of ice time at five-on-five. Holmberg was a constant presence on the forecheck and away from the puck in general, including setting up a look early in the second period for Kampf after lifting Krug’s stick and stripping a puck on the backcheck at the offensive-zone blue line (he sent Kampf in alone with a nice slip pass, and Kampf drove across the crease but couldn’t bury).

It was hard not to picture Calle Jarnkrok sliding onto the right side of this line and it being a proper checking line with a touch of secondary scoring ability which Keefe could trust against good players, freeing up his top lines more (Keefe mentioned earlier in the year that he was still looking for lines he could trust beyond his top few, and suddenly, this is looking like a credible option).

9.  Despite an early St. Louis goalie pull, the game was petering out at 3-1 without too much drama when David Kampf won a defensive-zone draw and Tyler Bertuzzi sailed an empty-net attempt high over the net. The Leafs still maintained puck possession afterward and were playing a small bit of keep-away before McCabe turned it over to the Blues in the neutral zone, Kampf and Benoit couldn’t get it out up the defensive zone wall, and a Krug point shot was tipped by Buchnevic as McCabe didn’t take his stick away.

Suddenly, the final 1:08 was shaping up to be a little more intense than it should’ve been. In response, Keefe sent out a five-man unit of Brodie – McCabe, Marner, Matthews, and Bobby McMann in place of Knies.

After Marner flipped the puck out of the zone, McMann was in pursuit of Krug up the ice and took a bit of a risk extending a free arm to win the puck battle, but he got away with it and buried it into the empty net for his sixth goal in his last four games.

Final: 4-2 Leafs.

10.  Keefe used McMann in an empty-net situation against the Blues last week, but it was with a multi-goal advantage and he was sitting on a hat-trick opportunity, so this was another level of trust in a one-goal game with a minute to go. Another example of the coach using the carrot of more opportunity and trust, allowing a player to build momentum, evolve within their role, and feel important overall.

McMann’s speed and size allow him not just to win puck battles/races like this one up the ice but — most importantly — to make strong plays on the walls in critical situations to get pucks out of the zone, which made him valuable as a PKer (five shorthanded goals in 91 games from 2021-2023) and in close-out situations for the Marlies. When the scoring inevitably slows down or even dries up entirely for periods of time, those are the kinds of contributions that a coach will remember and can keep a player in the lineup.

As for Marshall Rifai‘s debut, it was 11:33 long with one shot on goal (a sifter into a decent spot for a tip), and he got himself into the game by crunching Calle Rosen along the wall on his first shift. He moves around well out there, and there were no glaring mistakes on his record tonight. There was nothing too notable, either, and we may not see him again depending on William Lagesson and Mark Giordano‘s status for Wednesday, but it’s always interesting to get a glimpse at a player who went the undrafted or unsigned out of college -> AHL contract -> NHL contract route, which the Leafs have had success with with McMann and Justin Holl before him.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Maple Leafs 4 vs. Blues 2