By Stan Smith
After seeing the lineup in Friday night’s game that lacked most of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top players, anyone who was expecting to see them play during the second game of this back-to-back series with the Montreal Canadiens was sorely disappointed. Most of those same players sat out this game as well. As we edge closer to the first round of cuts, it is obvious the Maple Leafs wanted to give the younger players and those fighting for a roster spot one more look.
On the other hand, Montreal dressed a number of their roster players. These included Nick Suzuki, Cole Caulfield, and the number one pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft Juraj Slafkovsky.
Despite being badly outplayed for most of the game, the Maple Leafs came out of the game with a 3-1 win.
Toronto came out strong in this game. During one early shift, Nick Robertson, Noah Gregor, Pontus Holmberg, Jake Mccabe, Marshall Rifai, and Topi Niemela kept the Canadiens hemmed into their zone for close to a full minute. On that shift, the Maple Leafs had 25 touches of the puck and five shot attempts. It culminated with a one-timer from the top of the slot by Robertson.
I always hesitate to use the term “stole the game” when I talk about goaltending. The goalie can stop the puck, but he can’t score goals. If a team doesn’t score goals, it can’t win.
Martin Jones Stole This Game
That said, Martin Jones might have stolen this game. He stole the first period, stopping all 13 shots he faced. Six of them were of the High-Danger Variety according to Naturalstattrick.com. Of the 25 Scoring Chances Montreal had in the game, 14 were deemed High-Danger Chances. Jones was by far the best player on the ice for the Maple Leafs.
Jones saved the day when TJ Brodie, who played his first preseason game, and Morgan Rielly let two Canadiens get behind them. He made two great in-tight saves. He also robbed Suzuki of what looked like a sure goal. Player stats are difficult to come by in the preseason, but looking through my own game notes Jones has allowed four goals on 65 shots for a 0.938% Save Percentage over the three games. If Jones came into camp intending to earn a spot on an NHL roster, he appears to have done that. It might not be on Toronto’s roster though.
Nick Robertson Was Finally Rewarded
Nick Robertson was finally rewarded for his hard work. After getting called for goalie interference (more on that later), he jumped out of the penalty box, corralled the puck off of a missed shot on the Toronto net by Slafkovsky that rimmed the boards out to center, used his body to fend off Montreal defenseman William Trudeau, and went backhand forehand to beat Sam Montembeault.
That goal put the Maple Leafs up 3-0 with twelve seconds left in the second period. It was Robertson’s first goal on 20 shots in the preseason.
Matthew Knies Once Again Looked Solid
Matthews Knies kept his preseason scoring streak alive as he scored on a wraparound at 6:13 of the first period. It gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead. Brodie, Alex Steeves, and Fraser Minton all did the legwork leading up to the goal, beating Montreal players to the puck on three different occasions.
Alex Steeves Earned Another Look This Season
Steeves earned a second assist in the game when he and Minton were sent in alone after Noah Gregor created a turnover inside the Montreal blueline during a power play midway through the second period. Gregor knocked the puck up to Nick Abruzzese who fed Steeves. Steeves faked a shot and set up Minton who one-timed the puck past Montembeault.
Steeves had another great scoring chance later in the game when he backed out from behind the Montreal net and went backhand forehand. He got the puck up too high on the play missing the top corner of the net by inches. While I don’t expect Steeves to make the roster to start the season, he has played well enough in the preseason to earn a look at some point.
Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan Also Kept Looking Great
Like Knies, Minton keeps rolling up the points in the preseason garnering a goal and an assist in the game.
While he did not figure into the scoring, Easton Cowan had another strong showing. He was credited with four shots on the net. His overall performance in the game was hindered somewhat by the fact he was playing alongside Kyle Clifford and Roni Hirvonen for most of the game. He was still noticeable for the right reasons and had one great shift where he singlehandedly stickhandled his way through all five Canadiens on the ice to create a scoring chance.
After the Maple Leafs had that one great shift early in the first period, the rest of the period, and into the start of the second, was all Montreal. The only wrinkle was the successful wraparound goal by Knies. How lopsided was the game to that point?
Two and a half minutes into the second period, the television coverage posted a graphic on the screen that showed the shot attempts at 32-12 for the Canadiens. Taking into account the five different shot attempts the Maple Leafs had to open the game, it means from that point on the attempts were 32-7 for Montreal.
That stat makes it more obvious how important Jones’ play was to this game.
I plan to address the futility of the Montreal power play in the next segment. The Maple Leafs had one bad power play of their own in the game. After giving the puck away after the opening draw of a power play in the middle of the third period, the Maple Leafs gave up a two-on-one. Cowan was the only player back and he made a nice play with his stick to deflect an attempted shot by Alex Newhook out of the rink.
On the faceoff that followed, Knies made what may have been his only bad mistake of the preseason. Newhook won the draw cleanly from Minton, and the puck went back to Johnathon Kovacevic at the point. Knies skated forward off the draw but rather than covering the other point man Kayden Guhle, he skated right by him. Guhle took a stride into the slot and fired a shot that beat Jones cleanly on the blocker side. You could see by Knies’ reaction that he was aware of his error.
My first ugly is the Montreal power play. In the two weekend games, the Canadiens failed to score on eleven power play chances. When you count the two goals scored by Maple Leafs players exiting the penalty box, the Montreal power play not only failed to score, it led to three Toronto goals.
The other ugly in this game was the circumstances that led to Robertson’s goal. With 2:21 left in the second period, Robertson was sent in alone by Brodie on a nice stretch pass. As he broke toward the Montreal goal, he was mauled from behind by Justin Barron. Robertson was knocked on his rear and fell backward into Montembeault.
The referee raised his hand to signal a penalty. I was so sure the call was on Barron, I watched to see if the ref was going to signal a penalty shot. It turns out he was calling a goalie interference call on Robertson. It was nice to see Robertson rewarded with a goal at the end of the Montreal power play.
Other Notes About the Maple Leafs / Canadiens Game
I wrote previously that I wondered why Brodie had not played in any preseason games. However, I had not read or heard anything about him. I found out before the broadcast that Brodie’s father had passed away the week before training camp. Our sincere condolences go out to TJ Brodie and his family.
Other news to come out of Friday’s game was that Conor Timmins was injured late in that game. He was scheduled for an MRI on Saturday, but there’s no word thus far about the extent of Timmins’ injury. If he’s out long enough to go on LTIR, it might be a break for the cap-strapped Maple Leafs.
Putting Timmins and his $1,100,000 cap hit on LTIR would allow the Maple Leafs to dress twelve forwards and six defensemen for their season opener on October 11th. If that happens, the only other question is whether or not John Klingberg would be one of the six defensemen. He is also listed as day-to-day with an upper-body strain. Hopefully, we will have some word on Timmins sometime Sunday.
I also expect to see the first cuts to be made at some point on Sunday.
Three games remain on the preseason schedule for the Maple Leafs. The first game is Monday night at home when they take on the Canadiens for the third time in four nights. That game is followed by a home and home versus the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday and Saturday. We should see the opening night roster take shape over those three games.