By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs returned to the scene of their playoff failure last season for their first road game of the 2023-24 season. In short, they left with their tail between their legs, losing 3-1 to the Florida Panthers.
There really wasn’t anything that stood out as “Ugly” to me other than the sense of deja vu from the playoffs earlier this year. That was an ugly feeling.
The end result was the worst thing about this game, losing 2-1. Well, the official score was 3-1 as the Panthers scored an empty net goal with two-tenths of a second on the clock. It evened the Maple Leafs record up at 2-2 on the season. I don’t know what it is about this team and October. In the last three seasons, their record in the month is 10-10-3.
The Maple Leafs Gave Up the First Goal (Two Goals Actually) of the Game
After playing a sluggish but defensively structured first period for the most part, the Maple Leafs gave up two goals on two shots late in the period. That put them down 2-0 heading into the locker room.
The first goal was off of a scramble behind the Maple Leafs net. With all five Maple Leafs skaters down low in their own zone, John Klingberg got his stick on the puck. Not realizing there was no one at the point to pass it to, Klingberg shovelled the puck softly up the boards. It went right to Florida forward Kevin Stenlund covering the point. Then Klingberg failed to box out Ryan Lomberg. The two of them created a screen for Stenlund, which prevented Maple Leafs starter Ilya Samsonov from seeing the shot before it was past him.
The second Florida goal was scored with just seven seconds left in the first. It was shot from almost the same location by Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This time Tyler Bertuzzi attempted to block the shot but failed. Auston Matthews and Evan Rodrigues also provided a screen for Samsonov, and once again the puck was by him before he saw it.
Scoring Is Suddenly Coming Hard for the Maple Leafs
After scoring twelve goals (thirteen if you count the shootout winner versus Montreal) in their first two games, the Maple Leafs have only managed two goals in the past two games. You aren’t going to win many games scoring one goal a game.
Bertuzzi, who missed yesterday’s practice and left the warmup early, did play in the game. He was limited to 13:53 of ice time. At one point he was moved off of the top line and replaced with Calle Jarnkrok. Head coach Sheldon Keefe stated after the game that Bertuzzi was dealing with something. When asked if we could see Bertuzzi sit a game or two Keefe said that it was possible.
Fraser Minton only saw 8:47 of ice time as it appears more and more that he will be heading back to Juniors at some point soon, most likely at the end of this road trip.
Once again Max Domi struggled. He seems to be having decisiveness issues with the puck. At one point, they showed Keefe in an animated discussion with Domi on the bench.
If you believe in the process, this was actually the Maple Leafs’ best game of the season structurally. It was definitely their strongest defensive effort. According to Naturalstattrick.com, the Maple Leafs had 67% of the High-Danger Scoring Chances and 65% of the Expected Goals in the game at five-on-five. The pairings of Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie, Timothy Liljegren and Jake Mccabe, and Klingberg and Giordano for now seem to be the best combinations.
Despite Klingberg’s errors on the first Panthers’ goal, he seems a better fit with Giordano than he did with McCabe.
Mitch Marner got his first goal of the season on the power play, when he got his stick on a rebound of a John Tavares one-timer from the slot, and knocked it past Sergei Bobrovsky. That goal pulled the Maple Leafs to within one goal midway through the second period. Tavares and William Nylander both assisted on the goal, giving them each seven points after four games. That goal seemed to energize Marner’s legs and he played a much crisper game than he had in the first three games.
Despite giving up the two goals late in the first period, this was by far Samsonov’s best outing of the young season. He stopped 21 of the 23 shots he faced to post a 0.913 Save Percentage.
The Maple Leafs now skip across-state and visit the 2-2-1 Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night The Lightning defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 Thursday night to end a three-game winless streak.