By Stan Smith
If I were a betting man, I would have taken the under on the over/under for total goals in this game.
If Juuse Saros is not the best goalie in the game right now, he is definitely the hottest. In the two games previous to this one Saros stopped an amazing 64 of 67 shots he faced in a 5-3 win over the Carolina Hurricane and followed that up with a 31-save shutout of the Ottawa Senators. In a league where most of the goalies are literally giants, Saros, at 5-foot-11 is showing that small goalies may still have a place.
It appears that the rumoured demise of the Maple Leafs’ goaltending has been premature. After a stretch of about a month where both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov struggled to keep the puck out of their nets, they have come up with three solid performances in a row, two of them by Murray.
In this game, Murray stopped 32 of the 33 shots. According to Naturalstattrick.com, more than half of the shots Murray faced (17) were High-Danger Shots. It also seemed to me that the shots came in bunches. Murray had to make the second, third, and sometimes fourth saves on certain plays. It was not a one-and-done shot night.
The reason the Maple Leafs won this game was that Murray out-goalied one of the best goalies in the game.
Tavares scored the opening goal in the game and assisted on the winning goal. Tavares has scored in four straight games, totalling five goals and eight points in those games. That spurt has put Tavares back on a point-a-game pace, giving him exactly 42 points in 42 games.
If not for the pandemic-shortened 56-game season in which Tavares came one goal short of the 20-goal mark, potting 19, he would have scored at least 20 goals in every one of the 14 seasons he has played in the NHL. The only NHL player to score 20 or more goals every season of Tavares’ 14-season career is Alex Ovechkin.
It seems every time we think that Tavares is slowing down, losing his edge, or getting old, he puts together a string of games such as this.
With Auston Matthews out, head coach Sheldon Keefe moved Nylander over to center in his place. Nylander played an important role in both the goals the Maple Leafs scored. He broke in on the right wing and saucered a pass over to Tavares for the first Maple Leafs’ goal. Then he sold a shot and fed a perfect pass to Mitch Marner on the game-winner.
Nylander is now tied for second in Maple Leafs scoring with Matthews. Each has 47 points, three less than Marner.
By the eye test, Marner did not appear to have the greatest of games in this one. For most of the game, his timing with the puck seemed to be off. Plays that we have been accustomed to seeing him make seemed to keep coming up a little short. Even on the first goal of the game, the puck bounced right over his stick (which turned out to be a good thing) as it went from Timothy Liljegren to Nylander.
But, Marner made no mistake on the game-winning goal late in the third period. He shot the puck into the middle of the wide-open net after receiving the perfect pass from Nylander.
After setting a record for the longest consecutive game-point streak in Maple Leafs’ history earlier this season, Marner has now tied the record for the longest consecutive home game points streak by registering points in 18 consecutive home games. Darryl Sittler set the record back in 1977-78.
Marner has also started a new streak by registering points in his last six games. He has three goals and five assists for a total of eight points in that stretch. Marner is also the first Maple Leafs’ player to hit the 50-point plateau this season.
Having Matthews out of the lineup did leave a big hole in the Maple Leafs’ offence. Nylander seemed to be out there all by himself playing alongside Michael Bunting and Pierre Engvall for a good part of the game. The line did seem to get some life once Keefe replaced Engvall with Alex Kerfoot.
While it was obvious the Maple Leafs missed Matthews’ offence, less obvious might have been how much they missed Matthews defensively. That might have been one reason the Maple Leafs gave up so many High-Danger Chances in this game.
On the one goal Nashville did score, Nylander let Filip Forsberg get in behind him. The way Matthews has been playing this season, he would have most likely been right on Forsberg on that play.
The Power Play
For the majority of this game, the power play could have gone under “Ugly.” It got upgraded to just “Bad” when Marner scored to win the game.
There are times in a game when there is so much going on that I can see where little things could be missed by the referees. A tug here, a little hook there, I can understand not being called. There were three times in this game, I thought there were very blatant calls missed by the referees.
#1 An interference call where Tavares was bodied heavily to the ice as he was skating toward the puck in the Predator’s zone in the first period.
#2 A trip in Nylander along the boards in front of the benches in the second period.
#3 A hit to the head and at the very least an interference call on David Kampf in the third period. Kampf even had to go to the quiet room under the NHL’s concussion protocol for the hit to the head he didn’t receive according to the refs.
I thought for a minute the referees had also missed the stick to the face that Morgan Rielly received with 4:22 left in the game as no arms went up by either ref on the play. Thankfully the call was made. I am guessing by one of the linesmen.
The Maple Leafs take their three-game winning streak into Detroit tonight to take on the Red Wings in their third of four matches this season. The Maple Leafs won the first two games these two teams played, 4-2 in Detroit, and 4-1 in Toronto in what was the first game of their present winning streak.
Ilya Samsonov will try to repeat his performance from the last time these teams met when he stopped 22 of the 23 shots he faced.
The Tavares, Marner, and Jarnkrok line will also try and duplicate the game they had in their last meeting. They each had two points that night.
It will be interesting to see if Matthews returns or gets one more game off before the Maple Leafs roll into Boston to take on the Big Bad Bruins. The one thing the Maple Leafs can’t do is look past this game toward the visit to Boston.