The Maple Leafs lost 6-3 to New Jersey in arguably their worst defensive performance of calendar 2024.

William Nylander and Auston Matthews both tallied for an injury-riddled Leafs team, but Toronto’s poor attention to detail and unfocused defensive effort allied with some subpar goaltending by Joseph Woll sunk their ship. The Leafs opened the scoring and led 3-2 at one point, but they couldn’t outscore their problems. A razor-sharp Jake Allen kept them at three before New Jersey padded their lead.

Your game in 10:

1.    As a general statement about this game, it lacked defensive intensity and tight-checking “playoff-style” hockey across the board. From the very first minute, it was open and free-flowing, with the first two periods akin to a casual shinny game. Neither team played with much structure or diligence inside their own end.

Toronto looked very dangerous early. William Nylander set up John Tavares for an A+ opportunity turned away by goalie Jake Allen inside the first minute, setting the tone for this up-tempo, offensive game. Only moments later, Max Domi uncorked a great stretch pass for Tyler Bertuzzi, who took a clever route in behind the defense at the offensive blue line to break in all alone on Allen.

Bertuzzi deked Allen supremely and tucked the puck in the net to give Toronto a 1-0 lead. Domi made a number of tremendous passes in this game (and one really poor one), with this being maybe his best of the night to spring Bertuzzi, who is increasingly showing the finishing skill that once made him a 30+ goal scorer in this league (nine goals in his last 14).

2.      The Leafs were all over the Devils for the first four minutes of this game. They held the line well and put considerable pressure on Allen, but they couldn’t find a second goal to translate their dominant play onto the scoreboard. New Jersey’s first shot attempt of the contest came at the 4:25 mark of the first period on a solo rush in transition for Luke Hughes, who walked inside the blue line and shot a puck on Joseph Woll that may have knuckled a bit off of Ilya Lyubushkin‘s stick before finding the twine.

Regardless of the potential knuckle puck, this shot didn’t move all that much in the air, it was from far out, and there was no traffic in front of the net. It can’t go in. As the Leafs were throttling New Jersey, a harmless first shot of the game hitting the back of the Toronto net was a major buzzkill.

3.      Despite the brutal first goal, Woll played pretty well in the next few minutes of the game. The first glimmers of the Leafs‘ dreadful defensive performance emerged in the subsequent minutes after the 1-1 tie, but Woll came up big to keep the score level.

There was a good shift for Jack Hughes and Alexander Holtz, leading to a quality scoring chance in front that Woll shut down. Ilya Lyubushkin committed a brutal defensive-zone turnover, giving Dawson Mercer chances in front on a mad scramble, but Woll kept the puck out again. The Lyubushkin pair with TJ Brodie (perhaps unsurprisingly) was exposed several times by the speed and skill of New Jersey in the first period as the duo lacked the mobility and puck-moving ability to deal with what the Devils were throwing their way.

After Woll helped Toronto weather the storm, the Leafs went back to pouring it on the Devils at the other end. The Leafs registered a staggering 25 shots on goal in the first period, throwing everything at the net and getting a lot of it through to Allen. The Jersey netminder was reprising performances past against the Leafs from his time in Montreal, where the team in front of him would get caved in routinely only for Allen to frustrate Toronto’s attack.

Allen didn’t allow another goal in the first period and Jersey managed to leave with a lead after the Leafs got caught with four deep with two minutes remaining in the period (not the time nor the place). Jake McCabe had pinched in and the high forward, Bobby McMann, made a young mistake to jump into the fray with three Leafs already committed. It created a 2-on-1 the other way, and Timothy Liljegren didn’t inhibit the pass in the slightest. The combo of Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier finished it off in a manner that gave Woll no chance.

The two teams hit the locker room with Toronto vastly outplaying New Jersey, yet the Devils led 2-1 on the scoreboard.

4.      The Leafs went to a power play late in the first period — one that was going to carry over to the second — and they failed to do much with it. That would happen again with their only other PP, which carried over from the second to the third, making it difficult to fully assess the effectiveness of the man advantage with the interruption in between (strangely, this also happened twice in the Carolina game, which means four of their last six power plays came with an intermission interruption).

While some may have still been rueing Toronto’s inability to score on that PP opportunity, William Nylander tied the score anyway, flying down the wing and beating Allen on a shot that at first glance didn’t look like it should beat the NJ goaltender, but credit goes to the deceptive release from Nylander, too:

Nylander’s 40th of the season cemented a second straight 40+ goal campaign and tied the game at 2-2.

Credit Conor Timmins on this play as well for a smart, poised play in the neutral zone to pause, buy some time, suck in a New Jersey forechecker, and lay it off to Nylander winding up to his right.

5.      The Leafs quickly jumped out to the lead afterward as Auston Matthews tallied his 59th of the season. A stellar stretch pass from Lyubushkin(!!) set Matthews up less than two minutes after the Nylander goal as AM34 skated into the New Jersey zone and ripped a wrist shot by Allen:

This play was really close at the blue line, but New Jersey did not opt for an offside challenge. The TSN replays showed it was as tight as can be, but credit Matthews for timing it nicely at the line.

Matthews is now one away from his second career 60+ goal season and is on pace for 68 goals.

6.     You can argue the swing moment of the game came immediately afterward when Toronto quickly gave one right back.

With the Leafs’ fourth line on the ice, the Leafs couldn’t kill the cycle before it started via David Kampf high in the zone, where he appeared to have a good chance of stripping a puck at the line for a possible break the other way but couldn’t corral it. In a down-low battle, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt got the better of Kampf and McCabe as Bratt rounded the net with the freedom to feed a puck into the slot, where Timo Meier beat Woll just 44 seconds after Matthews’ goal.

Connor Dewar did sense the danger but didn’t pick up Meier quickly enough, but several Leaf skaters were a beat slow in their individual reads or battles against a highly skilled offensive line on this goal. Keefe trusted his fourth line for a shift against the Devils’ top line following a go-ahead goal, and you want to see a little more attention to detail from a line that has to prioritize the details above all else. A 4v3 situation around the net in the Leafs’ favour shouldn’t result in a completed pass to an open Meier in the slot.

7.     The game was now tied 3-3, and this is when the period began to transform from one where the Leafs were totally tilting the ice in their favor to one where they were frequently ceding high-quality looks.

When the Devils went on their first power play after Lyubushkin was sent off for tripping, Woll was sharp on this kill as the Leafs allowed some decent looks. When play returned to 5v5, we were back to open, free-flowing hockey.

Jack Hughes went on a breakaway that Woll stopped after a hazardous attempt to tee Nick Robertson up at the point for a wind-up slapper. The Leafs nearly scored at the other end after a nifty drop-pass feed from Bertuzzi to Pontus Holmberg, but Allen shut it down with a great glove save.

The Devils broke the tie with a strong shift and a juicy rebound. John Marino rushed down the wall, where Conor Timmins forced him wide before Simon Benoit finished a hard hit. The puck still went low to high, where Curtis Lazar directed a shot toward the net. Woll made the initial save, but the rebound popped out for an unmarked Maxwell Willman (a player I had never heard of before this game) to collect and score.

The lack of NHL experience on this line — three forwards who have yet to surpass the 80-game mark in the league — has shown at times in both the Carolina and New Jersey games. Knies and Holmberg were idly puck-watching and failed to shoulder-check on this one as Willman slipped down the weak side to the net front to bury the rebound.

8.     The Leafs created many good looks in the final period while down 4-3, with the Matthews, Domi, and Bertuzzi line leading the way. They continue to show undeniable chemistry offensively, and it felt like the ice was slanted for the Leafs in the third whenever the trio was on the ice. For the game, scoring chances were 12-5 and high-danger chances were 8-3 in the line’s favour at 5v5. They peppered Allen, who continued to turn the Leafs away and keep New Jersey’s lead intact.

The Devils got an opportunity to expand their lead when they went to their second power play after Bobby McMann was called for tripping. New Jersey managed to snap the puck around on the PP, but it felt like they over-passed it. The Toronto PK continues to struggle to disrupt puck movement with their pressure, and even though they escaped this game without surrendering a PPG, it didn’t feel completely reassuring.

9.     As the minutes ticked down in the third period, it was natural to watch for the next Matthews line shift as Toronto’s best opportunity to tie it. Unfortunately, they were on the ice when the Devils put the game away.

Bertuzzi and Domi nearly linked up to tie the game as Domi slipped a pass to the front and Bertuzzi fired it into the pads of Allen. Later in the shift, the puck went high to the point, where Domi turned and fired a no-look pass at the blue line that was reminiscent of Alex Galchenyuk’s fatal OT error in the 2021 playoffs. The puck was easily intercepted by Curtis Lazar, who flipped it ahead to Jack Hughes.

On his second breakaway of the game, Hughes solved Woll this time for the put-away goal with 3:13 remaining. Domi wore 100% of the blame on this one.

10.      The Leafs did end up pulling the goalie, but they didn’t get far with it. The puck was shot down and Lazar won a race against a tired-looking Liljegren, with the Devils forward also winning the ensuing puck battle. He got it around to Jack Hughes, who scored through Tavares at the goalmouth to make it 6-3. Game over, and an ugly loss for Toronto.

The Leafs allowed six goals tonight for only the third time in calendar 2024, yet it still felt like it could’ve been more. The Devils’ east-west passing off the cycle split the Leafs open repeatedly inside their defensive zone, and they gave too many gifts in transition for breakaways and odd-man rushes against. There was little attention to detail across the roster.

The Leafs possessed the puck a ton early in the game and piled up the shots on goal and scoring chances, but the reason the word “immature” was bandied about after the game by the players and head coach alike is that they can’t allow the intoxicating amount of puck time and scoring looks to suck them into playing a foolish, unserious brand of hockey.

For as badly as the Leafs played defensively, they also should’ve scored a lot more than three goals given their 45 shots. If New Jersey were playing Vitek Vanecek and not Jake Allen, this one may well have turned out to be a 7-6 barnburner in Toronto’s favour. It didn’t feel like playoff hockey, but hopefully, the outcome tonight will slap the focus, intensity, and structure back into the Leafs’ game on Thursday night when they take on a hot Washington Capitals team fighting for their playoff lives.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Joe Bowen & Jim Ralph Game Highlights