The Toronto Maple Leafs completed their five-game road trip with a (closer than it should have been) 3-2 win over the Predators in Nashville to finish the trip with a 3-2 record.
For the second night in a row, the Maple Leafs got off to a slow start, giving up the first nine shots before getting their first shot, at the 5:30 mark of the first period.
With the Maple Leafs up 2-0 in the third period, John Tavares takes an interference call on Kiefer Sherwood for knocking Sherwood down a second after he clears the puck out of the Nashville zone. I’m not sure that it was an interference as Sherwood had just played the puck, but it’s one of those plays that’s a judgment call by the referee and can go either way.
On the ensuing power play, Tyson Barry takes one of those waist-high wrist shots from the point I wrote about recently, that are becoming commonplace in the league. Both David Kampf and Mitch Marner tried to block it but failed. Cody Glass made the perfect tip straight down and the puck bounced between Joseph Woll’s legs into the net to make the score 2-1 Maple Leafs.
After the Maple Leafs went up 3-1 on a power play of their own, they had a bit of bad luck. Nashville pulled their goalie. And, right after Woll made a great save on Sherwood, the puck ended up on Barrie’s stick again at the point. This time Barrie’s shot bounced off of Justin Holl’s leg, changing direction, and fooled Woll. The goal drew the Predators to within one, once again.
Similar to the game in Carolina the night before, once the Maple Leafs found their legs after their slow start they dominated play for a long stretch of the game. They outshot the Predators 10-3 for the remainder of the first period and followed that up by outshooting them 10-4 in the second.
A huge difference in this game was the fact they didn’t give up two goals to start the game. Instead of being down 2-0 before they got rolling, they were still tied at zeros.
John Tavares had a great game as he scored two of the Maple Leafs’ three goals and set up Alex Kerfoot on the other.
Tavares’ two goals were his 150th and 151st as a Maple Leaf. That puts him in 31st place in all-time scoring for the Maple Leafs, just ahead of Darcy Tucker and Borje Salming who are tied for 32nd, and right behind James Van Riemsdyk who sits in 30th with 154 goals.
His three points bring his point total to 349 as a Maple Leaf. That sees him occupying 32nd in all-time points scoring two points behind Red Kelly.
That is a pretty nice company that Tavares finds himself amongst, in the Maple Leafs’ history book.
Alex Kerfoot has never been known as a goal-scorer for the Maple Leafs.
He has reached double digits just once in his four seasons with the team, which was last season. In 2021-22, he scored 13 goals. His previous two seasons with the Maple Leafs saw him score nine, and eight goals.
Last season was a landmark one for Kerfoot. He was a regular on a line with Tavares and William Nylander in the top six. Not only did he set a new personal single-season record of 13 goals but he added 31 assists to give him a personal best of 51 points for the season.
While he’s been just as responsible defensively as he has in the past, this season his point production has fallen off a cliff. He’s all the way down to 30 points in 73 games compared to the 51 in 82 games last season.
As a result, Kerfoot has seen himself bounced up and down the lineup, from as high as the first line, all the way down to the fourth line. For the longest time, Kerfoot found himself behind the emerging Calle Jarnkrok and Michael Bunting on the left-wing depth chart.
Lately, Bunting has found himself falling out of head coach Sheldon Keefe’s good graces (more on that later). As a result, Kerfoot has once again found himself back in the top six. He appears to be making the most of it.
After scoring the winning goal in a nine-round shootout against the Ottawa Senators last Sunday, Kerfoot officially broke a 25-game goal drought with a goal in the Maple Leafs’ 6-2 win over Florida. He followed that with what looked like a goal-scorers goal in this game on a snipe into the top right-hand corner of the net behind an otherwise stingy Kevin Lankinen to put the Maple Leafs up 2-0 in the second period.
Joseph Woll played a solid game in Nashville, stopping 23 of the 25 shots he faced to post a 0.920% Save Percentage and get the win. The only pucks that got by him in the game were on deflections, one by an opposing player, and one by his own player. He didn’t have to make a ton of difficult saves. According to Naturalstattrick.com, he only faced four High-Danger Scoring Chances at five-on-five and nine High-Danger Scoring Chances overall in the game.
Despite his young age (for an NHL goalie) of 24, and the fact this was only his eighth NHL start. Visually, Woll looks like an NHL goalie in every sense. His positioning, his rebound control, and his movement all look more like a seasoned veteran than a rookie.
Woll’s 6-2-0 record with a Save Percentage of 0.922% and a Goals-Against-Average of 2.39 in his eight career starts, while a small sample, back up the eye test.
When you add to that Woll’s 16-2-1 record with a 0.930% Save Percentage and a 2.29 Goals-Against-Average this season for the Marlies in the AHL, it appears Woll just might be the real thing.
It has been 30 years since the Maple Leafs have had a goalie they drafted and developed in their system become a bonafide NHL first-string goalie. While it might be a tad early to tell if Woll will become the next Felix Potvin, he at least is showing that he could be.
Goaltending is a fickle position. Many goalies have gone from zero to hero and back to zero again over the years. At the very least, Woll is earning himself a full-time position on this roster next season.
With him signed for two more years at just $767,000 per season, if he can, at the very least, fill the backup role next season, it can make life much easier on the salary-cap-starved Maple Leafs.
Plus, you never know. With Matt Murray’s injury-prone history and Ilya Samsonov’s past struggles in the playoffs, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Woll may get his chance to shine in the playoffs this season.
Part of what makes Michael Bunting effective is his ability to get under opposing players’ skin.
As a result, he is one of the best players in the league at drawing penalties. But, he also leads the Maple Leafs in penalty minutes taken with 80. The player with the second most penalty minutes on the team is Mark Giordano with 51 minutes. Bunting does walk a fine line in that sense.
With the score 2-1 in the third period, Bunting and Cal Foote got into some extracurricular activities following a whistle in the Nashville end. Afterwards, the camera catches Keefe tapping Bunting on the shoulder on the bench and talking to him. We can only guess that Keefe might be reminding Bunting that with the Maple Leafs up a goal late in the game, it might not be the best time for Bunting to risk getting a penalty call going the wrong way. That often happens in situations like that.
What was ugly was Bunting’s body language and his appearance of ignoring Keefe, or at the very least not engaging him. Bunting is not known as the best defensive player. After the “conversation,” he didn’t see much ice time for the remaining six minutes of the game. His reaction, or non-reaction, to Keefe’s message on the bench might have earned him a spot on the bench for the rest of the game.
As the regular season winds down, it appears that Bunting is falling out of favour with his coach. After spending most of the last two seasons on the top line, he’s been supplanted by Janrkrok and most recently Kerfoof in the top six.
It will be interesting to see how the relationship between Bunting and Keefe progresses (or regresses) over the last nine games of the season and into the first round of the playoffs.
With my writing this late, we now know the Maple Leafs increased their lead over the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning to seven points with a game in hand. As well, with the Ottawa Senators beating the Florida Panthers 5-2 on Monday night, the Maple Leafs have officially secured a spot in the postseason for the seventh consecutive season. The last time they accomplished that feat was way back between 1973 and 1981 when they made the playoffs eight seasons in a row.
The Maple Leafs take on those same Panthers at home on Wednesday night. Florida will be playing desperate hockey as they are seeing their playoff hopes dwindling. The Panthers have lost four in a row and presently sit three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the last wildcard spot. They’ve played one more game played than the Penguins, and are just two points up on both the Senators and the Buffalo Sabres.
The Maple Leafs then get two days off before paying a visit to Ottawa to take on the Senators. The Maple Leafs were lucky to come out of Ottawa with a shootout win last weekend as the Senators outplayed and outshot them 52 to 29 in that game.
There is a possibility we might see Ryan O’Reilly return to the lineup at some point this week. He’s eligible to come off of LTIR prior to the Panthers game and he’s been practicing with the team.
What Goalie Might Start?
As for who might play in goal, it’s anyone’s guess. Samsonov’s wife gave birth to their child last week and I would expect him to rejoin the team in Toronto. If the Maple Leafs do reactivate O’Reilly, they are close enough to the cap limit they might have to send Woll back to the AHL to clear enough room for him.
If I were to take a wild guess at who may start the next two games, I would say the priority for the Maple Leafs would be to get Murray and Samsonov ready for the playoffs. With that in mind, I will guess Murray will go Wednesday night versus the Panthers, giving Samsonov a couple of days of practice before he starts Saturday in Ottawa.
Who Might Play on Defence?
Another question that needs to be asked is who plays on defence. After making some key mistakes in his last two games, Timothy Liljegren appears to be playing himself out of a roster spot. Justin Holl, on the other hand, has played some of his best hockey of the season.
Erik Gustafsson remains absent dealing with a personal matter; and, Conor Timmins, who’s fallen to 10th on the defensive depth chart, hasn’t played a game in over a month.
It will be interesting to see if Keefe goes back to the 11/7 setup that has been commonplace of late.