By Stan Smith
Hurray! The Maple Leafs beat a team they should beat.
I don’t want to make too much of this game. Not only are the Chicago Blackhawks one of the worst teams in the league, but they also had a triple whammy going against them. They were playing the second of back-to-back games, had to deal with the return of Auston Matthews, and had a struggling (5 wins in 22 games this season) Petr Mrazek between the pipes.
Willliam Nylander got things started right off the bat with a goal nine seconds into the game. Matthews won the opening faceoff back to T.J. Brodie, who passed over to Morgan Rielly. Rielly snapped a pass up the middle to an accelerating Nylander at the Chicago blue line. Nylander split the Blackhawks’ defence, went in alone on Mrazek, waited for Mrazek to go down, and then tucked the puck between the post and Mrazek’s skate.
It was the fourth fastest goal scored in a Maple Leafs’ game in their history and the second-fastest goal from the start of a Maple Leafs’ game in the past 69 years. The record for the fastest goal was seven seconds set in 1932 by Charlie Conacher. Ted Kennedy scored one in eight seconds in 1953, then Mitch Marner scored one seven seconds into a game against the Minnesota Wild on January 3, 2019.
Nylander would add a primary assist on a Matthews goal and a secondary assist on a Conor Timmins goal to give him three points in the game. He becomes the first Maple Leafs’ player to reach the 30-goal plateau this season. He is also on pace to set career records for goals (45) and points (95).
I always look forward to Matthews’ first game back coming off of extended injuries. Unlike some players that seem to take a while to get their game going, Matthews always seems to come out flying. This game was no different. Matthews has to have one of, if not the best, wrist shots in the game. He demonstrated that shot after taking a feed from Nylander in the high slot and beating Mrazek cleanly on his glove side. Matthews added a primary assist on Timmins’ goal later in the period.
Despite this being a “down” year for Matthews production-wise, he’s still on pace to score (only?) 40 goals and 86 points in 75 games.
It’s funny how things work out in this game. Marner made a highlight reel play on a goal in the first period. He intercepted a clearing pass, deked through three Blackhawks’ players and hit Alex Kerfoot with a no-look backhand pass. That gave Kerfoot a wide-open net into which to deposit the puck. It worked. However, it was called back on an offside coach’s challenge.
Marner then earned an assist on a dump-in misplayed by Mrazek that went right onto the stick of Kerfoot who found John Tavares alone out front with Mrazek still behind the net. Maybe that was the hockey gods giving that one back.
They showed an interesting graphic provided by Sportlogiq.com prior to the start of the second period showing that Marner has 197 passes that have led directly to scoring chances this season. That’s the most in the NHL. At that point in the game, he was three passes ahead of second-place Connor McDavid (194), and 23 ahead of third-place Nikita Kucherov (164).
Rasmus Sandin and Connor Timmins
Head coach Sheldon Keefe decided to sit Justin Holl and bring in Conor Timmins in this game. It turned out to be a great decision. Timmins scored on a seldom-seen slapshot from the point late in the second period that put the Maple Leafs up 5-2. That goal gave Timmins 13 points in 21 games played this season.
Timmins’ stat line for the game was one goal, two shots on goal, two hits, two blocked shots, and a plus-3 rating in 18:09 of ice time. According to Naturalstatrick.com, at five-on-five Timmins was on the ice for 14 Shots For and 6 Shots Against, 12 Scoring Chances For and 7 Scoring Chances Against, and 7 High Danger Scoring Chances For and 2 High Danger Scoring Chances For.
His partner on the third pair, Rasmus Sandin scored a goal and added an assist in the game. That gave him four goals and 18 points on the season. He was also plus-3 in the game. His five-on-five stats were similar to Timmins’, Shots 12-6, Scoring Chances 10-4, and High Danger Chances 6-2.
One NHL statistic that came to light following this game was that Mark Giordano is only seven blocked shots away from the NHL record for most blocked shots in a career. Giordano has 2,037 blocked shots in 1,079 games played to Kris Russell’s 2,044 blocked shots in 912 games played. The 35-year-old Russell remains an unsigned UFA and has not played a game this season. Odds are that Giordano will soon catch, and pass, Russell to become the all-time shot block leader in the NHL.
Ilya Samsonov stopped 27 of 29 shots he faced to up his record to 19-6-2 this season with a goals-against-average of 2.31 and a save percentage of 0.918. Even more impressive is his home-ice record of 16-2-1 with a GAA of 2.06 and an SV% of 0.924.
After the Maple Leafs scored just nine seconds into the game, their lead lasted for a total of 53 seconds. Calle Janrkrok attempted a cross-ice pass in his own zone to Timothy Liljegren that was picked off by Sam Lafferty. Lafferty walked in alone and went roof on Samsonov to tie the game at the 1:01 mark of the first period.
The Maple Leafs gave us an “Oh-oh, here-we-go-again moment” at the start of the second period when Philipp Kurashev scored at the 46-second mark to make the score 3-2 Maple Leafs. After being one of the best second-period teams for most of the season, the Maple Leafs had gotten into the habit of playing great first periods of late followed by terrible second periods.
Luckily this goal turned out to just be a blip. The Maple Leafs scored shortly thereafter to restore their two-goal lead. They pretty much dominated the rest of the game.
While Keefe’s move to replace Holl with Timmins provided positive dividends, another change he made did not. Keefe moved Janrkrok off the second line, dropping him down to play alongside David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. Not only were the three on the ice for the first Blackhawks’ goal thanks to Jarnkrok’s ugly giveaway, but they were also the only line that was a net-negative in a game that was dominated by Toronto.
At five-on-five the line had 47% of the Expected Goals, 45% of the Scoring Chances, and 44% of the High-Danger Chances. They compared poorly to the team’s average of 70% of the Expected Goals, 72% of the Scoring Chances, and 78% of the High-Danger Scoring Chances.
It will be interesting to see if Keefe stays with that line against Montreal to give them a chance to build some chemistry, or changes it up.
The Maple Leafs will attempt to beat the Montreal Canadiens for the first time this season on Saturday night. In the first two meetings between the two teams, both in Montreal, the Canadiens defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 in regulation in the season opener and 3-2 in overtime back in January.
While the Canadiens are last in the Atlantic Division, they come into Toronto on a three-game winning streak. In that streak, they defeated the New York Islanders, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
I would expect the Canadiens to start Jake Allen in the game. He is hot, having won his last two starts, giving up two goals against the Oilers and shutting out the Blackhawks in his last start.
The Maple Leafs then travel to Chicago for a return match versus the Blackhawks on Sunday. While Chicago doesn’t play the night before, it will their fourth game in six nights with travel. Despite the fact it will be the second of back-to-backs for the Maple Leafs, it will only be their third game in eight days. I don’t think either team will have an advantage there.
Who Will Start for the Maple Leafs?
If Matt Murray is still out with his ankle injury, Joseph Woll should get one of the starts. If I had to guess, I would expect Keefe to go with Samsonov on Saturday at home versus the Canadiens and come back with Woll in Chicago on Sunday. The Maple Leafs have Thursday off so maybe we will find out what Keefe’s goalie plans are at practice on Friday.
On a positive note, the Tampa Bay Lightning lost to the Arizona Coyotes 1-0 in a shootout on Wednesday night. That leaves the Maple Leafs one point up on the Lightning with one more game played.