The Maple Leafs got the response they needed after a leaky home loss to New Jersey as a no-stress 5-1 win over the Capitals nipped their two-game losing slide in the bud.

Your game in 10:

1.   Outside of Auston Matthews‘ second shift of the game where he nearly swatted in a rebound and TJ Oshie’s desperation play defensively prevented a sure 2-on-1 goal from Matthews to Tyler Bertuzzi, the team’s start to this game wasn’t totally solid. There were a few chaotic own-zone sequences before the Mark Giordano penalty on Alex Ovechkin. Similar to the Edmonton game, though, the team’s much-maligned PK stepped up against a hot power play and helped settle the team into the game.

This was as good of a PK as we’ve seen from the Leafs all season. There was no second-guessing or confusion on the triggers; Connor Dewar, David Kampf, Bobby McMann, and William Nylander applied pressure aggressively and in a coordinated manner. The Capitals hardly had a second to breathe with the puck in the zone. It looked like the more successful iterations of the team’s PK from earlier in the Dean Chynoweth era.

Consistency has been the challenge all year and Mitch Marner is yet to return, but it’s becoming more and more evident that Dewar adds a piece who is going to help the cause now that he’s had some time to acclimate; he covers ice and anticipates well (he broke up multiple plays on the two Capitals power plays).

The garbage-time Oilers goals and the bounce off of McCabe’s skate in Carolina make the numbers look bad, but the process has been really good at times in each of these last three games against good power plays (Hurricanes, Oilers, Capitals). We’ll see if they can build on it or if it reverts to form against the upper-echelon power plays of Florida and Tampa next week.

2.   Not long after their first kill, the Leafs opened the scoring on a nice play from Matthew Knies where he jumped on a broken play in the neutral zone, attacked the slot off the rush, recovered the puck, and set up Mark Giordano drifting in off the point. The shot was nicely placed as Giordano dusted off some of the offensive instincts and shooting ability that once saw him score 21 as a defenseman.

It was natural to start wondering if Giordano’s concussion incident was going to be his final shift in a Leaf/NHL sweater. The piling up of Timothy Liljegren, Joel Edmundson, and Morgan Rielly‘s injury situations opened the door, and it was great to see Giordano get a moment in the sun after all he has been through this year. The goal and point to the sky for his late father was one of the better feel-good moments of this Leafs regular season.

3.    The other encouraging early sign for the Leafs was the play of Joseph Woll, who hasn’t always been at his sharpest early in games since returning from injury. He allowed early goals against vs. Carolina, New Jersey, and twice against Boston in the first 10 minutes or so of the first period.

Woll needed to make maybe his biggest save of the night just past the midway mark of the first when Nick Jensen roasted TJ Brodie off the half-wall and walked in alone for a patient deke that Woll stuck with to make a nice pad save.

It was a bit of a wobbly start in their own end, but Leafs settled into the game after that big save.

4.   There was an encouraging sign for Auston Matthews’ status for this game based on the morning skate lines, which seemed to show a placeholder (Marner on RW, Domi in the middle) with the expectation that Matthews would play. Fortunately, he did dress, and he did dominate.

Somehow, he didn’t end up on the scoresheet outside of one assist (Charlie Lindgren had his number), but he was a beast in this game from his second shift onward.  On the opening shift of the middle frame, Matthews winning a puck race/battle on the forecheck retrieval and then his strength on the puck down low in the corner — he took a hard shove into the glass and shielded the puck before exploding out of the corner into space away from his check — started the sequence for the Tyler Bertuzzi bank goal off the goalie for the 2-0 Toronto lead.

Matthews was tilting the ice all night for the team and finished with a team-leading 20 shots for, six against in his five-on-five ice time while firing 10 shots on goal individually in just 18:50 of ice time (and winning 71% of his faceoffs). After Keefe called out the leadership group following the New Jersey loss, Matthews responded in exactly the dominant manner you would hope he would while playing through illness to boot.

5.   Point shots for tips don’t get much more open than the Capitals’ 2-1 goal. After three Leafs converged on one Capital on the wall — Bertuzzi committed to a hit on the puck carrier on the boards with Matthews already committed, and the puck made it through — Nick Jensen had loads of time and time to step in and shoot. Nic Dowd was on his lonesome in the slot to tip it past Woll.

That set the stage for a huge swing moment at 2-1. Dylan Strome undressed Conor Timmins inside the blue line, but Connor Dewar, without taking a penalty, made a nice desperate defensive play to disrupt the deke as Strome was cutting across Woll.

On the transition rush the other way, it was hard not to picture Noah Gregor in the same position as Ryan Reaves on this play flying down the ice ahead of everyone and firing a low-percentage shot at the goalie’s crest. Reaves set the zone before the Leafs scored a nice cycle goal, finished off by Dewar picking up the loose change for his first as a Leaf.

It was no surprise Keefe called it a “coach’s goal” afterward — good defensive play (by the eventual goal scorer) leading to offense at the other end, and an ugly goal off the cycle with traffic in front by a fourth line playing to its identity.

6.  After the New Jersey debacle, it was notable that the Leafs conceded next to no odd-man rushes or breakaways in this game. There were a few moments where an individual defenseman got beat 1v1 inside of their structure, leading to one-on-one situations with the goalie (Brodie was beaten off the wall by Jensen, Timmins was beaten by Strome), but they maintained F3, didn’t make low-percentage gambles up ice, and kept everything in front of them for the most part. They didn’t get in their own way and the offense came naturally as they pulled away throughout the game.

They had a few shaky own-zone sequences in the first 10-12 minutes of the first period, but after Giordano scored and they received one big save from Woll on Jensen, they locked it down well.  After conceding six in the opening frame, the Leafs gave up three total high-danger chances in the final 40 minutes, including just one in the third. The Capitals are no offensive juggernaut (particularly at five-on-five), but that’s about as clean of an effort as you’re going to see protecting the lead over the final two periods.

Keefe seemed to press the right button after the New Jersey game in terms of raising alarm, calling out the leaders, and getting the team’s attention about re-committing to the structure this late in the season.

7.   The Leafs scored the put-away 4-1 goal early in the third period to make the final period satisfactorily uninteresting. John Tavares set up Bobby McMann on an odd-man rush for a goal that snuck through Charlie Lindgren. It was another quick goal to start a period in the game for the Leafs, but it actually started with a bit of a broken play in their own zone on the breakout.

Nylander put the puck behind Simon Benoit, but Benoit did the right thing by just haggardly banging it off the glass (have to appreciate Benoit recognizing that the oh-shit meter is ringing alarm bells there and playing within his limitations). After the Capitals misplayed it in the neutral zone, it sent Tavares in for the 2-on-1. The Leafs’ under-manned defense did a pretty good job of simply flipping pucks when the situation called for it rather than forcing plays in this game.

8.   Speaking of Simon Benoit, this was a really solid game from him. He picked up the assist on the McMann goal, but he also made a number of nice defensive stops that allowed the Leafs to transition back onto offense. He threw five hits while finishing just behind Brodie for the most five-on-five minutes on the defense.

Assuming Rielly-Lyubushkin and Edmundson-Liljegren are all healthy and represent two of the playoff pairs, it’s pretty hard to look at the body of evidence 70+ games into the season and conclude that Benoit-McCabe shouldn’t receive the first look over Brodie – McCabe in the playoff lineup.

Prime Brodie was indispensable on this Leaf team with his ability to defend the rush effectively with good gaps and a good stick, retrieve pucks well with his feet, and make clean exit plays with consistency. The current Brodie has lost a full step, is prey for forecheckers, and is producing nothing offensively without thriving in the physical intensity/competitiveness piece of the game (never his strength). Besides betting on the experience in the hopes that it all suddenly clicks back into place, it does not leave much argument for Brodie over the younger, tougher Benoit, who works alongside McCabe and bolsters the scrappy identity they’re trying to foster on the blue line as they hope to overcome the obvious limitations in talent on the defense.

9.  Tyler Bertuzzi was in the right place at the right time on the forecheck to jump on a total gift from Trevor van Riemsdyk to make it 5-1, giving him his 11th goal in his last 15 games.

Bertuzzi’s quote about having “no idea” what’s leading to more goals besides “doing the same thing and getting lucky,” as well as Keefe’s quote about Bertuzzi scoring from the below goal line tonight after he couldn’t score from above it into empty nets before, were funny and accurate. He has seen an uptick in high-danger chances in the last 15 games (playing more alongside Matthews recently probably plays a big role), but even after his six-shot game vs. Washington, he is shooting at essentially the same rate per 60 as his first 55 games.

With a little more than a minute more per game in ice time and some opportunity alongside a top-five player in the world, he’s getting some well-earned bounces, gaining confidence from those bounces, and he’s doing it at the time of year when he’s typically ramped up and thrived historically. He wasn’t brought here for gaudy regular season numbers; he was brought in to score greasy and important goals when the going gets toughest. It’s trending in the right direction at the right time.

10.   The Leafs doubled up the Caps in shots on goal at 48-24, all four lines were on the ice for a 5v5 goal, and every single Leaf finished as a plus-player for just the second time this season.

Paired with the Panthers’ loss, this sound team win gives the Leafs everything to play for in their biggest matchups of the year against Tampa and Florida next week, but first, the week ends with a quietly interesting game on Saturday vs. Buffalo. The Leafs owe the Sabres one in that building after the 9-3 debacle in December. A statement win would be a good tone-setter heading into a big week.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Joe Bowen & Jim Ralph Game Highlights