By Stan Smith
Is it me; or, does the start of the 2023-24 NHL season seem to have a distinct 1980’s vibe to it? I realize scoring has been increasing in recent seasons and it is usually the goalies who have it the toughest in the early going. Still, the 6-5 and 7-4 scores the Maple Leafs have won their first two games by seem more of a throwback to the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky era.
Good does not seem a strong enough word for the hockey Auston Matthews is playing right now. Great would be closer. Unbelievable might be the most accurate way to describe Matthews’ two hat tricks to start the season. And, except for the 6-3 goal in this game, these aren’t meaningless goals by Matthews. This is not a case of someone padding their stats with cheap 5-1 or 6-1 scores.
Matthews’ first goal in the Montreal game tied the game at two. His second and third goals in that game were both scored with the Maple Leafs goalie on the bench. The first one pulled Toronto to within a goal, and the second tied the game and sent it into overtime. In Saturday night’s game, after the Maple Leafs gave up the first goal Matthews scored to tie the game and then scored again to take a 2-1 lead.
Five of the six goals Matthews has scored have been key goals to the Maple Leafs at a time when they needed them.
Matthews’ six goals give him the early goal-scoring lead in the league and the six points tie him for first in overall NHL scoring with Evgeni Malkin, Elias Pettersson, and Jake Guentzel.
The second-best Maple Leafs player in this game as well as in the Montreal game has been William Nylander. Nylander scored two goals and an assist in this game to go along with his goal and assist in the first game. He sits one point out of the lead in NHL scoring with three goals and two assists.
Nylander scored a highlight reel goal when he received a pass from John Tavares, broke in on his wrong wing, and made Joel Eriksson Ek look like a pylon before going backhand to forehand to beat a sprawling Filip Gustavsson to make the game 3-1 Maple Leafs in the first period.
Note: I have repeated often that I wondered if Nylander might be as good or better on the left wing. He appears much stronger breaking for the net from that side of the ice.
John Tavares quietly picked up two assists in this game to go with the three he had in the Canadiens’ game to give him five points in two games.
After being out-shadowed by newcomer John Klingberg in the Montreal game on Wednesday, Morgan Rielly was the Maple Leafs’ best defenseman in this one. He was on the ice for four five-on-five goals-for and zero even-strength goals against. He finished the game at plus-4 in plus/minus rating.
After Rielly assisted on a power play goal by Tyler Bertuzzi that put the Maple Leafs up 4-1 early in the second period, the Wild scored two goals. They were then pressuring the Maple Leafs for the equalizer. At the midpoint of the third period, Rielly crunched the Wild’s Matt Boldy with a hard hit as Boldy entered the Toronto zone with the puck. Rielly then joined the rush the other way and was the puck carrier entering the zone.
After Fraser Minton missed on a cross-ice pass in front of the Minnesota net, Bertuzzi got the puck back to Brodie at the point. Brodie cycled the puck down low to Rielly. Rielly didn’t hesitate and hit Calle Jarnkrok standing in front of Gustavsson. Jarnkrok made no mistake by shovelling the puck into the net.
Rielly was key to this goal in three ways. First with the hit on Boldy; second by jumping into the rush and getting the zone entry. Last, he fed a perfect pass to Jarnkrok. This all started with a physical play, not something the Maple Leafs or Rielly are known for. After the goal the broadcast showed Boldy laboring on the Minnesota bench.
Speaking of hits, Ryan Reaves was credited with five hits in the game. One of them was an old-time, open-ice bone cruncher that had Frederik Gaudreau down for the count. The broadcast crew discussed whether or not the hit was legal (which it was) or late (which it wasn’t). There was no call on the play (which there should not have been).
Marcus Foligno challenged Reaves after the hit and Reaves obliged. There was no decisive winner in the fight. This is two fights in two games for Reaves and one hit that I don’t remember seeing a Maple Leafs’ player throw for quite some time. Even with averaging only 8:51 time on ice, Reaves is already having a much larger impact than Wayne Simmonds did all last season.
For the second game in a row, the Maple Leafs gave up the first goal of the game. A wrist shot from the point by Kirill Kaprizov was deflected by Ryan Hartman with his stick and then off his foot past Ilya Samsonov. Matthews was covering Hartman in front of Samsonov, but elected to try and stop the puck from getting to Hartman instead of tying him up.
After the Maple Leafs went up 4-1 at 3:35 of the second period, just 34 seconds later Boldy fired an unscreened wrist shot from a bad angle that beat Samsonov cleanly. This was one I am sure Samsonov would want to have back.
Then, 5:42 later in the same period after John Tavares failed at a clearing attempt, Marco Rossi pulled the Wild to within one by batting the rebound of a Foligno shot out of midair past Samsonov. Samsonov had made a nice poke check on Brock Faber just before that.
After the Leafs went ahead 7-3 late in the third period and the game was over, the Maple Leafs got sloppy in their own end and the Wild capitalized. Connor Dewar and Tavares both chopped at the puck at the same time near the Maple Leafs’ blueline. The puck took a funny bounce in front of Samsonov. Brandon Duhaime, with his back to Samsonov, batted the puck down between his legs and between Samsonov’s into the net.
While Samsonov was better in this game than he was against Montreal (0.875% save percentage to 0.792% save percentage), he still wasn’t great. His goals-against average after his first two games stands at 4.42.
While I try to be as unbiased as possible when I write these reports, I readily admit I am an unabashed Maple Leafs fan. Hence, I write them from a Toronto-centric point of view. But, I have to say two really ugly penalty calls went against the Minnesota Wild in this game. The first was the interference call on Jon Merrill against Nylander in the first period that led to the 2-1 Matthews power-play goal.
Merrill played that play exactly like any good NHL defenseman should. Nylander had just played the puck and it was lying at his feet. Merrill took the body on Nylander taking him out of the play. He didn’t hit him hard. He just put his body between Nylander and the puck.
Three minutes after that, Mark Giordano dumped Mats Zuccarello in the Toronto end with the puck nowhere near them. Right after that, Tavares ran a pick play on Zuccarello in the Minnesota end. Both of those plays were more blatant interference calls than the one on Merrill.
Later in the game, Reaves grabbed Alex Goligoski by the shoulder and spun him around in the Wild zone. There was a penalty called as a result of that play. It was on Goligoski for unsportsmanlike conduct for complaining to the referee about not calling the hold. Odd.
The Maple Leafs take on the Connor Bedard-led Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night in the last game of this season-starting a three-game homestand. Then they head out on a five-game road trip that takes them to Florida with games against the Panthers and Lightning. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has confirmed that Joseph Woll will get his first start of the season against Chicago.
At one point during the Wild game, Keefe swapped Jarnkrok and Max Domi, moving Jarnkrok alongside Tavares and Nylander and Domi alongside Fraser Minton and Matthews Knies. Both lines seemed to be stronger with those moves. Keefe kept those combinations together for Sunday’s practice.