By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs finished off another fantastic month of November by eking out a 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks. They went the whole month of November with only losing one game in regulation, a 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins back on the 11th of the month.
Their record for the month was 11-1-3 giving them 25 of a possible 30 points, which is a .833 winning percentage. That is the second dominant November this team has played in a row. Last season the Maple Leafs posted a 12-2-0 record in the month.
The Ugly for this game was that, for the most part, it reminded me of how poorly they were playing in October. As with most teams lower in the standings, the Sharks play a “defence first” type of game, disrupting plays and waiting for opportunities to turn the play the other way.
The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, looked as if they felt they could open things up more, and be more creative.
The end result was the Maple Leafs turned the puck over a number of times, especially in the first period when they gave up three breakaways. Luckily for the Maple Leafs, Samsonov was there when he was needed and the Sharks’ players that had chances failed to finish.
Until Pierre Engvall, Alex Kerfoot, and David Kampf put the Leafs up 2-1 in the 17th minute of the third period, this looked like the perfect road game for San Jose and a not-so-perfect game by the Maple Leafs.
One part of the billing of this game was the Maple Leafs’ potent powerplay versus the best penalty-killing team in the league. The Sharks won this battle as the Maple Leafs went zero for three on the power play. That could have been the difference in a close game like this one. Fortunately for the Maple Leafs, it wasn’t a factor.
Calle Jarnkrok left the game with a groin injury and the word is that he’ll miss some time.
Ilya Samsonov played his first game since November 5th. He allowed the one goal on 24 shots giving him a .952% save percentage in the game. It raised his record at home to 6-0. Overall this season, Samsonov is 7-2-0 with a .924 Save Percentage and a 2.09 Goals-Against Average. Samsonov has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his nine starts.
With all the criticism and skepticism general manager Kyle Dubas received for acquiring Samsonov and Matt Murray, to this point of the season they have been one the best goaltender combos in the league.
Goals and assists can be a funny thing in the sport of hockey. A player can score a goal simply by having the puck glance off of his butt. A player can get an assist by passing the puck to a teammate deep in the defensive zone only to have that player go end-to-end and score.
Then you can have a goal like the one Auston Matthews scored early in the second period to put the Maple Leafs up 1-0 in the game. The stat line on the goal is Matthews from Mac Hollowell and Michael Bunting. The goal was deflected into the net by Matthews on a nice fake slap-pass from Hollowell after a Bunting shot rebounded all the way to Hollowell. Both Hollowell and Bunting are deserving of assists on that goal.
But, the one player who didn’t get anything on the goal was Nylander, and his play was just a key, if not more so on the play. Nylander passed the puck out front to Bunting for the shot that rebounded to Hollowell.
Leading up to that pass, Nylander fought off four different Shark payers deep in the San Jose zone for over ten seconds before getting the puck to Bunting. It has the highlight play of the game.
And he didn’t even get an assist on it.
Mitch Marner has been by far the Maple Leafs’ best skater this past month. I say “skater” because he may or may not have been their best player. Matt Murray might have a claim on that.
In the month of November not only has Marner been gunning for a franchise record point streak, but he has also been great defensively as well, blocking shots, intercepting passes, and breaking up plays.
However, this was not one of Marner’s better games. According to Naturalstattrick, when Marner was on the ice at five-on-five, the Maple Leafs had 41.7% of the Shot Attempts, 38.5% of the Shots, 33.3% of the Scoring Chances, 40% of the High-Danger Chances, and 24.5% of the Expected Goals.
So why is Marner in the “Good” section of this? Because at the 58:49 mark of the game, Marner managed to hit the empty net to tie the franchise mark of 18 consecutive games with a point set by Darryl Sittler 44 years ago in 1977-78 and tied by Ed Olcyk in 1989-90.
This was not only a good thing for Marner; it was a good thing for the team. How close this team is was shown by how important helping to get Marner to the record was to this team as a group. Just like last season, when Matthews hit the 60-goal plateau the team obviously took pride in helping him accomplish that goal. On the downside, this quest might have actually been a distraction to the team.
Engvall scored the game-winning goal with two and a half minutes to go in the game. It ended a nine-game goalless streak for Engvall. It was Engvall’s third goal and sixth point of the season. His production, or lack of it, has been a source of contention for a lot of fans this season. One thing constantly ignored is that Engvall continues to be, as he has throughout his career, one of the best defensive forwards on the team.
Could Mac Hollowell be forcing Sheldon Keefe to keep him in the lineup? The story was that Conor Timmins was scheduled to get his first start for the Maple Leafs in this game. But, Hollowell played so well in the Detroit game going plus two in plus/minus, that Keefe felt he deserved the start against the Sharks.
It turned out to be a good move. Hollowell made a smart heads-up play on Matthews’ opening goal of the game. Hollowell played a total of 15:09 in this game, the most he has played yet. At five-on-five with him on the ice, the Maple Leafs had 62.5% of the Shot Attempts, 58.8% of the Shots, 70.6% of the Scoring Chances, and 62.5% of the High Danger Chances in the game.
After languishing in the AHL for four seasons, the 24-year-old Hollowell is showing that even at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds he might be capable of being an NHL defenseman. That bodes well for the Maple Leafs having Hollowell as either a righthand depth piece or a valuable trade asset.
After making a one-game pit stop at home following their successful four-game road trip, the Maple Leafs head out on the road for another two games. This Saturday will be a test as they are in Tampa to take on the Lightning for the first time since their loss to them in the playoffs last season. The Lightning are 6-2 in their last eight games and they play the Flyers in Philadelphia tonight.
The Maple Leafs should be a little more rested. They have their first two-day stretch without playing a game in almost three weeks. While it has been an extremely successful stretch for them, it has also been gruelling. The Maple Leafs have played 11 games in the past 19 days.
Hopefully, they can take advantage of a tired Lightning team as Tampa will be playing their fourth game in six nights with travel between each game.