Auston Matthews put an end to one of the dullest Maple Leafs games of the season, capping a sleepy 2-1 OT win over the Buffalo Sabres. 

Jake McCabe missed the game due to the flu, and frankly, it seemed like both teams were sleeping off an illness in this low-event game. There were multiple five-plus minute stretches where neither team put more than a couple of shots on goal, especially in the first and third periods, which were sandwiched around a comparatively exciting second. Still, there were some takeaways, including a strong night from Ilya Samsonov in the Leafs‘ net.

Your game in 10:

1.      The dullest segment of this game was probably the opening stages, which included a prolonged dry stretch that must have made eyes glaze over for most of the fans watching at home. The Sabres did not put their first shot on net until nearly 15 minutes into the game as the Leafs, perhaps remembering their 9-3 drubbing in Buffalo before Christmas, played structured, defense-minded hockey.

Much to the dismay of those of us looking for entertainment, there was little in the way of rushes in either direction, and the Leafs were sharp in their own end. Toronto checked well, giving little space in the defensive zone and applying timely sticks to break up plays as the Sabres found no traction offensively.

On the offensive end, though, there wasn’t a ton to note for the Leafs, either. Matthew Knies tried a wrap-around that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen slammed the door on, and there were rushes for Calle Järnkrok/Bobby McMann as well as Noah Gregor (who drew in for Pontus Holmberg). Luukkonen easily shut those down, and the first period plodded along in unmemorable fashion heading into the final five minutes.

2.      Things picked up a bit in the final five minutes after the Sabres fired their first shot on goal. Buffalo poured 10 shots on Ilya Samsonov in the period’s final five minutes aided by a power play.

It began with a long cycle shift against the LeafsJohn Tavares-led third line with TJ Brodie and Timothy Liljegren on the ice defensively, hemming Toronto in for what felt like an eternity. The Sabres won the races to recover loose pucks, won the battles in the corners, and kept shooting and retrieving. Liljegren was called for a holding call, and the Leafs’ weak effort touching up with the arm in the air on the delayed penalty underscored the fatigue on display.

When Liljegren headed to the box, the first power play for either team got underway in the dying minutes of the first period. Buffalo didn’t hold the zone continuously for very long, with William Nylander standing out for several sharp defensive plays, but the couple of chances that the Sabres created were dangerous. There was a scramble at the near post that Samsonov awkwardly jumped on top of as he slid towards the goal line. A review looked at it, but there was no way to tell if the puck crossed the line, so the game stood at 0-0 after one.

3.      The Leafs got on the board pretty early in the second period. After Ilya Lyubushkin held the puck in and dumped it deep into the zone, Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi dug it out before Bertuzzi fed William Nylander in the slot. Nylander ripped it home:

There’s been a lot of discussion about this line and its propensity to give up as much as it generates. Tonight was a better showing, as Nylander showed good jump and his line mostly drew even in the underlyings while doing what they’ve often done by scoring goals. The mix of playmaking, shooting, and puck-recovery skill make this trio a true threat in the offensive zone and a plus line overall when they can mitigate the defensive shortcomings.

4.      Following the goal, the Leafs began to find a groove, with the Nylander line putting together another good shift and Ilya Lyubushkin popping up again with a savvy pass to Bobby McMann, setting the winger up for a scoring chance in the slot. Luukkonen made a shoulder save on that one, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about Lyubushkin, who played a strong game. The Rielly/Lyubushkin pair decisively won the expected goals battle (as well as shot share, scoring chances, etc) while on the ice. In general, Lyubushkin deserves a fair bit of credit for how he’s played so far in his return to Toronto.

It’s only been three games, but it’s three strong games, no doubt. Lyubushkin has looked solid and poised defensively, killing plays and looking steady in his own zone while making more plays than anticipated offensively. He’s not just holding a puck in and dumping it deep like on the goal; he’s executed some quick, smart passes and overall heady offensive plays to keep sequences moving offensively.

5.   Noah Gregor drew into the lineup with Pontus Holmberg moved to the press box after Sheldon Keefe called out Holmberg’s lack of desperation in the battles before the Boston 1-0 goal. The line combination of David KämpfRyan Reaves, and Holmberg had become one of the most quietly encouraging subplots of the team over the past few games, but with Holmberg out, we saw a different look.

The Gregor/Kämpf/Reaves combination, which struggled for much of the first quarter of the season, was okay tonight, but Gregor could have shown more in his first game after a string of healthy scratches. Goal against aside — it wasn’t on the forwards — Gregor passed up a chance to drive the net in the first period and then potentially had the game on his stick in the third period but fired it into the goal’s crest. I can only assume Sheldon Keefe puts Holmberg’s fresh legs back in against Boston after the message was sent.

To be fair, Gregor’s speed is noticeable at times — he can fly out there — but where Holmberg helped elevate this line is through driving possession, carrying the puck, and starting cycles. On a consistent basis, they’ve been able to create extended offensive-zone shifts and pressure working the walls, while Gregor brings more of a one-and-done approach.

6.     Back to the action, the Sabres scored a goal to even the game and really put a dent in the Toronto momentum. Victor Olofsson, back into the lineup for Buffalo after a long period as a scratch, made his mark by coming down the left wing and ripping a shot over the glove of Samsonov.

Olofsson’s standout skill is his shooting ability, and this was a perfectly placed shot. Samsonov could’ve gotten a little more help from Morgan Rielly, who played a soft gap and gave Olofsson more room than you’d like defending a 1v1 rush.

7.      The back-half of the second period was the special teams-heavy action of the game as the Leafs went on their first (and only) power play after drawing a penalty when Calle Järnkrok set up John Tavares for a quality look. This line, in general, was effective tonight and (notably) is drawing some tough matchup minutes for Keefe since Jarnkrok returned from injury. They kept it scoreless and the 5v5 shots at 2-2 in their 5-6 minutes vs. the Thompson line, which is the kind of matchup win that can (on many nights) set up the top lines to feast.

The power play created a few chances, but Buffalo’s penalty kill significantly disrupted Toronto’s drop-pass entry. The Sabres were aggressive in targeting the drop-pass, snatching up loose pucks and creating rush opportunities for themselves the other way while coming close to springing free on breakaways on a couple of occasions. In a game where scoring chances were at a premium, the Leafs’ man advantage should’ve been a separator, but it now sits at just three for its last 19 (16.7%).

As we’ve seen before in Toronto, this is not the time of season to shrug off a dip on the power play, and it’s something the Leafs need to address with a fair amount of urgency in the next few weeks. A failure to break through offensively is one thing, but actively hurting momentum within the game (special teams swung the first period Boston’s way after a good start by the Leafs vs. the Bruins) is quite another.

8.       The second period ended with the score at 1-1 after the second half of the second period was played mostly in Toronto’s end. That gave way to a pretty boring start to the third. The Leafs managed to flip the ice in their favour, winning the territorial battle and at one point owning shots 9-1 in the third period, but there was not much of the A+ variety.

Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, who were absent for much of this game, made an appearance but Matthews couldn’t get the puck through Henri Jokiharju. On a strong shift by his line, John Tavares got a couple of looks on a mad scramble in front, but he couldn’t get one by the Buffalo netminder. Time ticked down, and the game remained 1-1.

9.      The star of the late third period was Ilya Samsonov. He wasn’t tested much during the first 55 or so minutes, but that can be a tough situation in its own right, especially when a goalie doesn’t face a single shot for 15 minutes to start the game.

Samsonov kept his focus and was money when the game was on the line late — helping earn the Leafs a point and send it to extra time — as well as in OT. Samsonov made a huge kick save on a deflected shot with under a minute to go in regulation, helping to preserve the tie (which came after standing tall on an Alex Tuch rush down the wing).

In OT, Samsonov flashed with a glove stop on Tage Thompson in the slot, among several other saves that kept the game alive long enough for the Leafs to win it. Samsonov finished 24/25 for a .960 SV% and his first game allowing fewer than three goals since February 19. I’d expect he will be back in the net on Saturday against Montreal.

10.     The Leafs created a couple of chances to win the game in OT before they actually did. Nylander attempted to set up Jarnkrok, but the Swedish pair couldn’t connect. Rielly drove on Luukonen and dragged the puck around him but put the shot off the side of the cage. Then came Matthews and Marner, who were so quiet in regulation but were buzzing on this shift, with Marner, in particular, dancing around the ice and holding possession as he circled the Buffalo net. Eventually, Marner sent a pass out to Matthews from behind the net, and AM34 sent the fans home happy:

Goal #54 for Auston Matthews, who remains on pace for 70 as the season reaches its final quarter. It won’t be easy — he will need 16 goals in his final 20 games to get there — but he currently has 54 in 61 games. That pace would produce 18 goals in the final 20, so Matthews would only need to stay on course to achieve history.

At the very least, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Matthews (save for injury) not hitting 60 for a second time in three seasons or leading the NHL in goals for a third time in four seasons. Special stuff.

He has had the drive and the appetite. You saw this at the age of 15.

On day one, you get all of the kids into the program. They are the best kids from across the country. When you get them head-to-head, you see who rises. He rose immediately in the first days and weeks to separate himself at that point. You knew he was a special player.

Obviously, the biggest attribute is his ability to score goals. It was evident then. I am not very surprised at what he is able to do. He was very impressive at that age.

Great goal scorers have an immense appetite to score. They don’t need to go through three guys to do it. They are willing to shoot through three guys to do it.

They are always hungry for the next goal and the next way to score a goal. That is Auston, that is Ovechkin, and that is all of these guys who are great goal-scorers. They are constantly looking for different ways to add goals to their resume. Whether it is from their goal line, behind the net, or anywhere, they just have an appetite to score and score now.

They don’t really care to go through another layer of defense. They see how they can score in any situation. Most players, if it is not them vs. the goalie, they don’t think about scoring. They think they have to work their way through the next layer of defense before they can think about scoring.

The goal scorers get the puck on their stick and believe they can score from anywhere and in any situation, and they are intuitive enough to figure out how to make it happen.

– Don Granato, Matthews’ former USNDTP coach

With a one-timer flick of the wrist into the top corner, Matthews earned the Leafs the extra point on a night when they were far from their best.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Joe Bowen & Jim Ralph Game Highlights