By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs increased their hold on second place in the Atlantic Division, and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a convincing 6-2 win against the Panthers in Florida on Thursday night.
At the same time the Maple Leafs were beating the Panthers the Lightning were getting shellacked 7-2 by the Ottawa Senators. The Maple Leafs now lead the Lightning by five points with two games in hand over Tampa.
There were so many good things happening in this game I don’t have the time or space to report them all.
The Best Were The Best
Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander all had multi-point games for the Maple Leafs. Altogether they accounted for four goals, five assists, and nine points in the game. Collectively they were a plus ten in plus/minus.
Matthews scored twice to raise his goal total to 34 and his points to 73 in 64 games played. It is interesting to note that, despite all the talk about Matthews’ drop in scoring this season, he’s actually putting up points at a slightly better pace than his career point-per-game pace. He has scored an average of 1.13 points per game in his career. This season he has scored an average of 1.14 points per game.
For the first time in Matthews’ career, he has more assists than he has goals (39 assists, 34 goals). He needs eight assists in his last eleven games to surpass his best single-season assist totals (46).
Tavares had three primary assists in this game to bring his point total for the season to 72 in 70 games. He too has a chance to set a new personal record for assists in a season. His three assists in this game give him 42 on the season, eight shy of his best total of 50.
Tavares also passed Maurice “The Rocket” Richard to move into 105th place in All-Time Points in the NHL with 967. He needs 21 more points to move into the top 100.
Nylander’s two points give him 81 on the season, a new personal best, surpassing his previous best of 80 points set last season. He also sets a new personal single-season record for goals every time he scores. Nylander needs four more goals to reach the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his career. He is just one assist shy of his personal best of 46 which was set last season.
Marner inched closer to his personal best in goals, assists, and points. His 28 goals have him seven fewer than the 35 he scored last season. He needs just five more assists to best his previous high of 68 set back in the 2018-19 season. He needs six more points in his last eleven games to surpass his previous high points mark of the 97-point total he set last season, and eight more points to reach the 100-point mark for the first time in his career.
Matt Murray allowed two goals on 35 shots to raise his road record to 9-5-1 this season. It is the first time in seven starts that Murray has allowed fewer than four goals. According to the website Statmuse.com, despite giving up four goals in each of his last three road games, Murray has an overall save percentage of 0.919% and a goals-against-average of 2.67 on the road this season for the Maple Leafs.
Holl’s Best Game
This might have been Justin Holl’s best game of the season. He was plus three in plus/minus, and assisted on Matthews’ second goal of the game. Holl was not on the ice for a goal against including a team-high 3:49 on the penalty kill. According to Naturalstattrick.com, Holl led all Maple Leafs’ defensemen in Scoring Chances For and Against (15 For, 7 Against), and High-Danger Scoring Chances For and Against ( 7 For, 2 Against). His 71% Expected Goals also topped the team.
The only other “Good” thing I want to mention was the Maple Leafs’ good luck shortly after they went up 1-0 in the game.
Less than a minute after the Maple Leafs scored, the Panthers stole the puck in the Toronto zone, worked it out front, and appeared to have scored on a shot by Carter Verhaeghe. The referee waived off the goal immediately. The play was ruled as incidental contact by Matthew Tkachuk on Matt Murray, a call we very rarely see made in the NHL.
Just prior to Verhaeghe scoring the goal it appeared Jake McCabe pushed Tkachuk into Murray, knocking Murray down. The ruling was that Tkachuk did not intentionally interfere with Murray so no penalty was called, but the goal did not count either.
Usually, in a play like that if it is felt the opposing player knocked the goalie down on purpose there is no goal and a penalty is called on the opposing player. If the opposing player is ruled to have been pushed into the goalie by a player on the goalie’s team the goal usually counts.
In this case, there was no goal and no penalty. The referee could have just as easily ruled it a good goal and this game might have gone in a completely different direction.
The reason I brought the non-goal up under the “Good” was because as often happens the hockey gods evened things up later in the game when Murray appeared to make an amazing highlight reel stop on Tkachuk when he reached back with his glove to snag a shot out of mid-air.
The play was reviewed to see if the puck had crossed the line or not. Usually, with a play like this, you can’t see the puck inside the goalie’s glove. For it to be ruled a goal, the glove itself has to be completely over the goalline. Unluckily for Murray and the Maple Leafs, the puck was clearly visible through the webbing of the glove and was clearly over the goal line.
What appeared to be the save of the season for Murray ultimately ended up being a goal.
We all collectively held out breath near the end of the game. It appeared, by how he was crouched over holding his hand and arm close to his body, that Auston Matthews had injured his hand or wrist. That would have been a devastating blow for the Maple Leafs so close to the playoffs.
Luckily for us as fans but maybe not so luckily for Matthews it wasn’t the hand or wrist that suffered any injury, it was the area he was holding. A replay showed that, as Matthews skated out towards the point, an attempted pass from Verhaeghe to Sam Reinhart deflected off of Matthews’ stick up into his groin area.
Anyone who has ever played hockey, or any other sport for that matter, and has suffered that same fate can attest that it is not a very good feeling. But, while it hurts like hell, it is not something that usually has any lasting aftereffects.
The Maple Leafs take their 2-1 record on this road trip into Carolina for a rematch against the Hurricanes, who they defeated 5-2 in Toronto last Friday. They then travel on to Nashville for a 6:00 pm game on Sunday versus the Predators.
The Maple Leafs can take a stranglehold on second place in the Atlantic Division if they can capture both ends of the back-to-back. The Tampa Bay Lightning takes a three-game losing streak into Boston and takes on the league-leading (dominating?) Bruins on Saturday night.
Friday was a travel day for the Maple Leafs so there’s no indication of what the lines and defensive pairings will be or who the starting goalie will be. With Samsonov home with his wife in Toronto awaiting the birth of a child, Joseph Woll will undoubtedly get one of the starts this weekend.
It will be interesting to see if Sheldon Keefe sticks with an 11/7 setup while they wait for the return of Ryan O’Reilly.
By LTIR rules O’Reilly will be eligible to return for the Maple Leafs’ next home game on Wednesday versus Florida. That is when the required 10 games and 24 days will have passed since he was injured on March 4 in Vancouver.
There is a question of whether his hand will have healed enough to play by then. When O’Reilly had the surgery to repair the injury, the team stated the recovery time would be about four weeks. If that timeline is correct he would not return until the beginning of April.