By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs pushed their record to 12-5-5 on the season on Friday afternoon with a 4-3 road win over the Minnesota Wild.
After starting the season 4-4-2 in October, the Maple Leafs posted an 8-1-3 record in November. They now sit second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference in the National Hockey League.
Matt Murray won his third game in a row and raised his record to 4-1-1 on the season. While he gave up three goals in regulation for the first time since returning from injury, Murray made some key saves to help the Maple Leafs preserve the win. He stopped Connor Dewar on a shorthanded breakaway in the last minute of the second period, stopped Joel Eriksson Ek on a breakaway in the third, and then completely robbed Krill Kaprizov with 12 seconds left in the game.
Mitch Marner extended his league-leading point streak to 15 games with a goal in the first period. His wrist shot from the right point off at 3:42 of the period defected off of Wild defenseman Matt Dumba past Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead.
One interesting stat of note in Marner’s point streak is that in eleven of those games Marner has had a goal or an assist in the Maple Leafs’ opening goal of the game. In the other four, it has been on the Maple Leafs’ second goal of the game.
The Maple Leafs’ Defence
A lot of credit has to go to the Maple Leafs’ depleted defence for how they have held the fort with Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, and Jake Muzzin missing due to injury. It hasn’t been pretty at times but they have been getting the job done.
Mark Giordano and Justin Holl once again played over 23 minutes. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are putting up solid analytical numbers playing together in a top-four role. They both saw over 20 minutes of ice time in this game.
With Jordie Benn joining Rielly, Brodie, and Muzzin on the injury list Victor Mete stepped in and played quite well for the Maple Leafs. He assisted on what was the eventual winning goal by William Nylander in the third period.
Mete and Hollowell
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Mete and 5-foot-9, 170-pound Mac Hollowell were the Maple Leafs’ third pair in this game. It makes me wonder if it might be the smallest defensive pair in the game. With the Wild having the last change in the game, head coach Dean Evason tried to exploit that. It seemed every time Mete and Hollowell were on the ice together he would send out the line of 6-foot-3, 225-pound Marcus Foligno, 6-foot-3, 205-pound Eriksson Ek, and the newly acquired 6-foot-2, 225-pound Ryan Reaves. Not only did Mete and Hollowell hold their own in these matchups. Hollowell finished the night at plus two in plus/minus, and Mete was plus one.
While I doubt that small of a pairing would be able to have sustained success in the NHL over a long period they played great in this game especially when you figure the two players would rank somewhere around nine or ten on the depth chart for the Maple Leafs.
Alex Kerfoot did not appear to have the best of games in this one. He seemed to be fighting the puck most of the night. His underlying numbers back up the eye test. According to Naturalstattrick.com, at five-on-five Kerfoot was on the ice for three High-Danger Scoring Chances against and zero for. His Expected Goals percentage was 43.8%. The complete line of Kerfoot, Pontus Holmberg, and Wayne Simmonds was not that effective in this game.
Tavares has been playing very well of late and he played well for the majority of this game. But, on Minnesota’s second goal, Tavares and Matt Boldy of the Wild were tied up together at the Minnesota blue line. The puck goes the other way. Boldly does not by any means speed up the ice; yet, Tavares fails to keep pace with him, leaving him wide open to one-time a pass from Alex Goligoski past Murray.
I rarely put any blame on players when they give up a goal shorthanded. I feel no matter how well they play defensively, there is no way four players can defend perfectly against five attackers. However, on the Wild’s first goal of the game, Mark Giordano has the puck on his stick with plenty of time to clear it down the ice. Marner, once he sees Giordano with the puck, gets in behind both Wild defenders thinking breakaway. Rather than simply ice the puck it appears Giordano sees Marner and attempts to pass him the puck. The pass attempt is blocked, Marner is caught behind the two Wild defensemen, and the puck ends up in the Toronto net.
The Ugly in this case is a good thing. With the injuries the Maple Leafs have on their backend, the whole team is being forced to change how they play the game. Rather than wheel and deal, the forwards have to be thinking defence first, coming back and helping to defend.
The end result is long periods spent in their own end blocking shots, dumping the puck out of the zone when the opportunity exists, and using up a ton of energy doing it. When the puck is cleared rather than thinking about creating an offensive chance they are just worried about getting off the ice to get fresh legs out there.
That is what I call “Winning Ugly.” There are situations where that is exactly how a team needs to play. That is what the Tampa Bay Lightning did against the Maple Leafs late in games six and seven of the first round of the playoffs last season.
Valuable lessons that could come in handy come the playoffs are being learned.
The Maple Leafs fly to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins tonight. They get what could be a valuable extra four or five hours of rest between games with yesterday’s game being a 2:00 start.
The good news is that the Penguins also played in Philadelphia yesterday and had to travel back to Pittsburgh for tonight’s game. In fact, their game started later than the Maple Leafs’ game on Friday.
Head Coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed that Erik Kallgren will get the start. He was in the net when the Maple Leafs lost their first game to the Penguins 4-2. Kallgren gave up three goals in that game.
I expect Denis Malgin or Nick Robertson to replace Wayne Simmonds in the lineup. Malign played in both previous games the Maple Leafs faced against Pittsburgh. Robertson played in the 4-2 loss but not in the 5-2 win.
It will be interesting to see if Keefe comes back with the same six defensemen or if we will see Conor Timmins in his first game in the blue and white.
I do wonder if Rasmus Sandin will be able to go tonight. He did appear to suffer what looked like a groin injury in the Wild game, but he finished the game and did not appear to be suffering any ill effects. I know from personal experience that can be deceiving. How it feels the next morning is the key.