The Toronto Maple Leafs finished the Morgan Rielly suspension 5-0-0 after a 6-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes in which Auston Matthews scored his 50th and 51st goals in his home state. 

The Leafs played a dominant first period to open a 3-0 lead, weathered a shaky second period that saw their lead trimmed to one, and then finished off Arizona with a couple of Core Four goals in the third.

Ilya Samsonov earned another win, the stars piled up goals, and the inexperienced supporting cast produced a nice night as well.

Your game in 10:

1.     The Leafs started the game on fire with a good first shift from the William Nylander line as Sheldon Keefe again trotted out a line chart that split the Core Four onto three separate lines.

Nylander attempted to pass on a 2v1 when he should’ve simply shot it, but it set the tone. On the second shift, Timothy Liljegren slid it across to his left-side defense mate TJ Brodie, who took a few strides in and fired a diagonal pass toward a Leaf body at the front of the net. Bobby McMann made a beeline to the net front and beat Josh Brown for positioning, deflecting the puck in with one hand on his stick.

McMann’s goal extended the streak to seven goals in his last five games, a major storyline throughout this Rielly suspension. Just as interesting on this goal, though, was Brodie’s role in it.

Given his usage (significant minutes alongside the team’s elite offensive talent), Brodie’s offensive abilities from the point (or lack thereof) have been a hindrance for the Leafs for a couple of seasons now, but we’ve begun to see some evidence that by shifting Brodie back to his natural left side, those problems can be mitigated.

Brodie on the right side probably would’ve dumped the puck into the corner or weakly thrown it toward the net after sorting out how to handle it for a second. Instead, Brodie on the left side caught it cleanly, stepped in, and made a confident offensive play for a nice primary assist.

As of right now, even with some confidence restored for #78, it’s difficult to justify moving Brodie back to RD against Vegas when Rielly returns.

2.    The Maple Leafs kept the early jump rolling as Auston Matthews stole a puck shortly afterward and passed it off to Mitch Marner, who drew a penalty on his curl through the slot.

On the subsequent power play, the Leafs generated a couple of unconverted looks with the top unit on the ice before sending out the second unit. Max Domi ripped a shot wide enough of the net that it took a perfect carom to the other side, where Nick Robertson did what a natural goalscorer does by reading an opportunity before it happens and pouncing.

Robertson read the bounce off the end-boards, stepped up to snag the loose puck, and unleashed a hard shot off the crossbar and in to put the Leafs ahead 2-0… or so it appeared. Upon further review, the goal was called back via an Arizona offsides challenge. This was one your author caught live and the replay was pretty obvious, so it’s hard to be upset about it, but the play that unfolded was still a positive one for Robertson, who would factor into the scoring picture later on.

The challenge by André Tourigny produced unintended consequences as the break for the review allowed the Leafs to send the top unit back out on the ice. The offside coming so early in the play meant a half-minute was restored on the PP clock. The Leafs entered the zone and set up before Matthews grabbed the puck in the corner and fired this one by Karel Vejmelka from a tough angle for goal #50:

Matthews hit 50 before anyone else in the NHL got to 40 this season.

Always evolving his seemingly boundless goal-scoring repertoire, Matthews has become increasingly effective in scoring from that area of the ice — i.e. the low circle/low half wall where Leon Draisaitl has long been lethal in Edmonton. Matthews can snipe either corner from there but also can use his deceptive no-look release to open the goalie’s legs up and slide one through.

3.      The Coyotes finally showed a bit of pushback when Matias Maccelli toasted Brodie coming down the wing, leading to a couple of good chances for Arizona. Ilya Samsonov allowed a few juicy rebounds, and old friend Alex Kerfoot had a chance in tight all alone which Samsonov kicked out.

The tide then shifted back in the Leafs’ favour when Tyler Bertuzzi found Nylander all alone in the slot. Vejmelka stood his ground, but soon after, the Leafs went back on the PP due to a too-many-men penalty on Arizona. On the opening draw of that power play, Matt Dumba accidentally high-sticked Marner for an obvious penalty that drew blood and handed the Leafs 1:58 of 5v3 time.

It took the Leafs a bit of time to score the goal — Vejmelka stoned a couple of chances for John Tavares — but eventually, the Leafs’ elite skill and puck movement with a two-man advantage was far too much for Arizona to handle.

A Matthews blast went wide of the net before Tavares won a physical battle to retrieve the puck and passed to Marner, who was in alone on Vejmelka. Marner deked around the goalie and slid it through the crease to Nylander, who tapped in his 30th goal of the season.

With the Leafs now leading 3-0 near the end of the first period, Marner already had two assists to his name. We’ll get to another highlight-reel play he made later, but it was clear already in the opening stanza that the best version of Marner came to play tonight. As I wrote in my notes, “Marner is flying”; he was playing with great poise and pace to his game. After a down start to the season by his standards, it sure feels like #16 is fully back.

4.      Toronto still had over 2.5 minutes on the PP after the third goal due to the double minor and the fact the goal only canceled the 5v3. The best moment of the remainder of the man-advantage time was actually a defensive one: Timothy Liljegren chased down Logan Cooley — who intercepted a poor pass by Nylander — and bowled the young Coyote over.

The Leafs went to another PP before the first period was up after a high stick by Michael Kesselring on Max Domi. The Leafs didn’t look particularly sharp on this one, but you’ll take a two-goal period on the power play every day of the week.

At the end of the first, the score was 3-0 and the Leafs were in complete control of the game, dominating play in part because of so much PP time. The 5v5 play in this game as a whole was tough to evaluate with so many penalties and heavy score effects setting in very early.

5.      Arizona created the first great scoring chance of the second period on a 4v2 rush where Samsonov was forced to make a somewhat difficult save.

We all knew coming into the second period that the officials would be looking for every opportunity to give Arizona a power play after so many calls went against the Coyotes in the first frame. They didn’t wait long, calling Tavares for a marginal high stick just over two minutes into the second.

The Coyote PP wasn’t terribly effective and Toronto killed this one off reasonably well, returning to full strength with the 3-0 lead intact. The clean sheet didn’t last long, though, as the Leafs had barely returned to five aside when Simon Benoit couldn’t seem to sort out whether he was attempting a pass to Tavares in the neutral zone or lofting it down the ice for a change, doing neither properly and turning it over in the process.

Arizona knocked it down and the puck ended up on the stick of Nick Bjugstad as he entered the zone. Bjugstad plodded into the OZ and then zinged a dandy of a pass across to Maccelli, who wired the shot by Samsonov to get the Coyotes on the board.

The score didn’t sit at 3-1 for long as the Coyotes quickly slashed the lead to one. In possession in the offensive zone, Arizona worked the puck high to the point, where Kerfoot tossed it on net. Barrett Hayton skated into the high slot with Benoit in tow, but Benoit wasn’t able to tie up the stick in time. Hayton made a tremendous deflection, completely changing the trajectory of the puck and beating Samsonov, who didn’t have much of a chance on this one.

In 70 seconds, the Coyotes suddenly re-inserted themselves into this game as two small errors by Benoit were maximally punished.

6.       Sheldon Keefe called his timeout after the second goal, hoping to settle his troops down. It didn’t necessarily help immediately; Nick Schmaltz ripped a puck off the crossbar following an odd bounce of the puck not too long after. After avoiding disaster, the game then went to 4v4 following a dust-up between Sean Durzi and Domi (among other players).

At 4v4, Timothy Liljegren again masterfully defended Cooley off the rush, shoving him to the outside and then finishing him into the boards. It was another example of Liljegren’s strength as a rush defender (arguably the best on the team) — the second of two clinical examples from the game tape tonight against one of the NHL’s most exciting young skaters.

Be it the pairing with Brodie, the increased minutes, or both, Liljegren is playing with lots of confidence right now (the best he’s looked since before the high-ankle sprain against Boston in early November). He nearly scored on a nice 4v4 rush shortly afterward.

The two teams liked the 4v4 play so much that they ended up doing it twice as Durzi found himself in another altercation, this time after irking Nylander following #88’s rush chance down the wing (a nice pushback from Nylander in the scrum).

The two headed off for matching minors, and this edition of 4v4 saw the Leafs’ two biggest stars dazzle again. Marner made an insane between-the-legs pass across to Brodie, who walked in all alone. Brodie tried to deke and then awkwardly shot it — saved by Vejmelka — before Marner collected it on the far side and backhanded it toward the net. The puck went wide on the far side, bonked Matthews up high, and fluttered into the yawning cage:

Everything is going in for Matthews right now. His 51st of the season was the 350th of his career, and the buzz seems to be picking up about the Hart Trophy race if this were to continue. He needs only 19 goals in his final 27 games to reach 70, which, for Matthews, feels very doable.

He now has nine goals in his last four games(!!) and 37 goals in his last 33 games(!!!). If he did not play a single game before December 1st, Matthews would still be second in the NHL in goals. He is now on pace for 76 goals this season.

As for Marner, he has 30 points in 19 games since January 3. These two players are playing and producing at an extremely high level right now even by their lofty standards.

7.       After the 4-2 goal, the Leafs felt firmly in control of the game again, but Pontus Holmberg was called for an offensive-zone tripping penalty behind the Arizona net and headed to the box late in the second. The Coyotes went on the power play and created a few looks before a heroic diving clear from Bobby McMann seemed to avert the pressure as the seconds dwindled in the period. Nylander tracked out to center ice and then got overzealous in pursuit of a breakaway opportunity (and possibly to embarrass Durzi after their earlier skirmish), committing another tripping penalty in the process.

During the delayed call, Clayton Keller stopped up for a moment and sent it high to Dylan Guenther, where the former lottery pick ripped the shot by Samsonov. The game was now 4-3 with just seven seconds left in the period, and Nylander headed to the box to serve the full penalty.

The game was suddenly a little dicey as the horn sounded for the second intermission.

8.       The Leafs’ penalty kill to start the third was the big swing moment in the game. Arizona generated extended offensive-zone time, but ultimately, they couldn’t put a puck by Samsonov, preserving the lead for the Maple Leafs. As the power play came to a close, Brodie swept a puck out of the zone with a spinning backhand that just so happened to bounce perfectly off the boards to set Nylander up for a breakaway.

The Swede sped in on Karel Vejmelka and fired it by him bar-down:

Nylander’s 31st of the year puts him on pace for a new career-high with 46 goals. He also has 74 points and is on pace to easily obliterate his career high of 87 with a current projection is 110. He’s now tied for eighth in the league in goals and sits alone in eighth in points.

9.      That goal took some wind out of Arizona’s sails and the momentum was preserved when Samsonov made a timely save on a chance created by Jason Zucker.

With the two-goal lead solidified, time continued to tick away without much drama before the captain delivered a dagger on a play created by McMann. The big winger outmuscled Michael Kesselring for the puck in the neutral zone and helped force it by Kerfoot and onto the stick of Robertson, setting up a 2v1. Robertson passed it to Tavares, who ripped it by Vejmelka.

It was a huge goal for Tavares — his first even-strength tally since December 11, which is an astoundingly long gap. Tavares has been an above-average finisher nearly every single season of his NHL career, but he was shooting just 7.9% entering tonight’s game. He’s never posted a season below 10.8% previously, providing some reason for optimism that this could be the start of positive upward regression in his shooting.

Also of note: McMann’s second point of the night moves him up to 16 points in 31 games after yet another hustle-and-heart play from a player who is quickly winning over the fanbase.

10.      The sixth goal was more or less the end of the game for the Coyotes. There was still nearly 12 minutes left, but Arizona never made another concerted push to get back into the game. My only note after the Tavares goal was a strong poke-check by Benoit to nullify a Cooley rush.

Otherwise, the final sixth of the game rolled away in a pretty boring fashion that suited Toronto as the Leafs coasted to their fifth straight win. The put-away goals in the third allowed the Leafs to rest their top players down the stretch of the third period in the first half of a back-to-back; Marner (18:43) and Matthews (19:34) finished below 20 minutes and no one played less than 11.

The Leafs have started their road trip 2-0-0 while closing the Rielly suspension with a perfect 5-0-0 record. Bigger picture, they are heating up in the calendar year 2024.

After ending 2023 on a three-game losing streak (and 1-4-1 in the last six), the Leafs are 14-6-1 since the start of the new year. That includes a trio of OT wins but also 11 regulation wins, which was a major problem in the first half of the season (only 10 of their 17 wins in 2023 came in regulation).

They have feasted on bad teams like Arizona tonight as well as San Jose and Anaheim, but collecting points off of bottom-feeders has been far from a sure thing for this team in the last couple of seasons. If we want to extend the sample back to November 10, the Leafs are 25-11-6 with the fourth-best points percentage in the league and significantly improved 5v5 metrics.

It helps that their world-class players are all producing like world-class players in unison, but the forward depth is showing real signs of life and the goaltending has rebounded. Samsonov was steady again tonight and continues to look rock solid while Joe Woll nears a return.

With Morgan Rielly rejoining the lineup against Vegas, it will be most interesting to watch how the defensive pairs are configured. Right now, it feels like Brodie-Liljegren and Benoit-McCabe-Benoit shouldn’t be broken up as both pairs are gelling and playing with a lot of mojo. But that would appear to leave something like Rielly-Lagesson (if healthy) as their only remaining option.

The next stretch — with multiple meetings with Vegas and Boston (plus Colorado and the Rangers) — will set the table for the trade deadline and represent the true barometer of where this Leafs team stands, but this soft stretch of the schedule was important for adding some cushion to the playoff race and gathering some in-season momentum. It is also the exact response Leafs fans were hoping to see after the rallying cry of the Rielly suspension.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts