By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs opened their five-game homestand with a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders.
I’m starting with the “Ugly” because for the Maple Leafs this game started ugly. They struggled to complete simple passes. I counted 11 incidents in just over five minutes of the first period where the puck went directly from a Maple Leafs’ stick to an Islanders’ stick. The Maple Leafs did not have their first shot attempt until the 8:13 mark of the first period.
According to Naturalsttrick.com at five-on-five, the Maple Leafs have given up 450 High-Danger Scoring Chances in 48 games, an average of 9.4 High-Danger Chances per game. They gave up 12 High-Danger Chances in the first period of this game alone.
It was an ugly period for the Maple Leafs and reminiscent of their second period in Montreal.
Luckily for the Maple Leafs, Ilya Samsonov had an excellent period or this game could have been over early. The Islanders did score with 23 seconds left in the period. This goal was more about bad luck than bad play by the Maple Leafs.
After struggling to make the simplest of plays throughout the period the Maple Leafs were rewarded a power play when Adam Pelech got his stick caught up with Pontus Holmberg’s skate. The team didn’t score on the power play but they did move the puck around well and generated three shots with the man advantage.
With the power play expiring, the Islanders picked off a hard dump-in by Zach Aston-Reese. They moved the puck quickly into the Maple Leafs’ zone. Anthony Beauvillier fired a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle that handcuffed Samsonov, catching him in the area of the collar bone. Mark Giordano backhanded the rebound right to Sebastion Aho at the point. Aho fired a wrist shot at the net. The shot found its way through four Maple Leafs’ players and was deflected by Brock Nelson off the crossbar right to Anders Lee, who tucked it into the open net.
Samsonov made a great save on the original shot by Beauvillier, was totally screened on the Nelson deflection from Aho, and didn’t have any chance to recover from there.
Bad Luck on the Second Goal
The second Islanders’ goal was not a case of bad luck.
The play starts with Conor Timmins missing Michael Bunting on a long cross-ice pass through the neutral zone creating a turnover. Timmons then intercepts a pass from Alexander Romanov in the Maple Leafs’ zone but for whatever reason seems to freeze with the puck at his feet. Mathew Barzal picks up the puck and passes it back to Kyle Palmieri who relays it over to Anders Lee. Lee one-times it past Samsonov. Samsonov read the play well and was over in plenty of time to make the save. He just failed to stop it. I’m sure if Samsonov was asked about that shot he would have stated it was one he should have had.
For a game that started out so badly for the Maple Leafs the “Good’ things that happened are too numerous to mention.
The pattern of following up a terrible period with a great period held up in this game as the Maple Leafs had one of their best periods of the season in the second, outscoring the Islanders 4-1 in the period.
The William Nylander Show
We keep waiting for Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner to singlehandedly take over a game this season. However, it was William Nylander who did so for the third time since December 10. The first time was against the Calgary Flames when Nylander was in on all five goals in a 5-4 win. Then just last week when the Maple Leafs were trailing the Florida Panthers 4-2, Nylander took over the game scoring two goals, including a beautiful solo effort on the overtime winner, and added an assist, in another 5-4 win.
This time Nylander notched four points, including two goals and two assists in a span of 11:25 in the second period to put the Maple Leafs up 4-2.
Nylander has nine points in his last four games, four goals and five assists. He’s now one shy of the 400-point plateau for his career and sits in 22nd place in all-time scoring for the Maple Leafs. As well, he needs only 15 points to surpass Ian Turnbull and move into the top 20 all-time scorers for the Maple Leafs.
Nylander’s two goals put him back ahead of Matthews for the team lead with 26. His 56 points ties him for the team lead in points with Marner.
I have to say that Nylander has to be just as deserving of a spot in the all-star game as both Matthews and Marner.
Tavares” Best Period?
Tavares was no slouch himself in the second period, scoring a goal and adding two assists. When asked about the play of Nylander and Tavares after the game head coach Sheldon Keefe stated:
“I thought the second period was the best period John Tavares has played all season … (he) got Willy going. Willy finished the chances and Willy was good, but I thought JT was excellent. He led us in the second period and was really good.
He made plays … was hard on the puck … won battles … (and) got in behind their defence. The goal he scored was great, but there were several sequences where he just came out with the puck or held onto the puck, got a guy on his ass, and was getting into good ice and making plays. All of the things he does at an elite level came together at that time.”
The Old Prof and I wrote recently that we thought it was a good idea for Keefe to move the top four core players around, switching Nylander and Marner back and forth between Mattews and Tavares.
It definitely worked in this game. After a dismal first period where neither of the top two lines got anything going, Keefe started the second period with Matthews and Marner together on the first shift. They failed to score but spent the entire shift buzzing in the Islanders’ zone. This helped create momentum that carried the team throughout the remainder of the period. Then Tavares and Nylander took over.
Justin Holl had his first multipoint game of the season picking up assists on the Calle Jarnkrok goal that made the score 3-2 in the second, and again with a nice stretch pass assist to send Matthews on a successful breakaway in the third.
I decided to look back and see when Holl’s last multipoint game was. It was back on February 28, 2022, against the Washington Capitals. That game wrapped up a four-game stretch where Holl had seven points, including a three-point game versus the Detroit Red Wings. We don’t usually associate Holl with offence but he has had streaks where that part of his game has surfaced.
A little trivia. Holl may be the only Maple Leafs’ player to score in every game he played in his rookie season. Holl played in back-to-back games back in 2018 and scored in both games. It was the only two games he played in his first call-up to the NHL.
I was surprised that Ilya Samsonov started this game. I was sure with all of the physical punishment he took in the Montreal game that he would get a rest in this one. It shows what little I know as Keefe rewarded him for his stellar play in his last three straight appearances by giving him the nod for this game. It turned out to be a good choice as he stood tall in the first period keeping the Maple Leafs in the game.
Samsonov stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced in the game posting a 0.939 Save Percentage. According to Naturalstattrick, Samsonov faced a whopping 27 High-Danger Scoring Chances in this game.
Samsonov has still not lost a home game in regulation this season, posting a 13-0-1 record. According to the broadcast, he is first in the league in Goals-Against-Average at home (1.61), and second in Save Percentage at home (0.938).
The Maple Leafs take on the tougher of the two New York-based teams on Wednesday night when the 26-14-7 Rangers come to town. There are three things to watch for in this game.
#1 Who starts in goal? Does Samsonov get to make his fifth consecutive appearance, or does Keefe give Matt Murray a start?
#2 What do the first two lines look like? Does Keefe stay with the Matthews/Marner and Tavares/Nylander combos that worked so well together on Monday night?
#3 Do we see TJ Brodie return to the lineup?