By Stan Smith

The Toronto Maple Leafs travelled to the West Coast to play back-to-back games in California. They played two of their best games of the season, came away with a 3-0 shutout in Los Angeles, and squeezed out a 2-1 overtime nailbiter in Anaheim.

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The Good

Winning two back-to-back games on the road is good. Starting 2024 with a 2-0 record after finishing 2023 with a 1-6 record is great. The Maple Leafs needed the two wins in the standings and for their psyche. 

As a result of the two wins, they went from being one point away from dropping out of a playoff spot to being four points up on the Tampa Bay Lightning with three games in hand. They now sit comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division. What is even better is the Maple Leafs won the two games, not with high-scoring offence but with solid defence and goaltending. 

Martin Jones, now with the Maple Leafs

In Los Angeles, Toronto dominated the first 32 1/2 minutes of the game building a 2-0 lead while outshooting the Kings 20-9. While Los Angeles took it to the Maple Leafs in the last 27 ½ minutes of that game trying to get on the scoreboard, Toronto kept most of the Kings’ shots and scoring chances to the outside. They bent but didn’t break.

In Anaheim, despite playing one of their most dominant games of the season and outshooting the Ducks 57 to 25, they had to overcome a 1-0 Anaheim lead. They also had to beat a goalie, Lukas Dostal, who for most of the game looked unbeatable. They didn’t get down on themselves and kept at it, scoring a power-play goal with just under six minutes left in the third period and an overtime goal to win the game.  

Martin Jones

The key player in the two wins was Martin Jones.  I have said it before. Jones might be the best acquisition new GM Brad Treliving made in the offseason. While the skaters in front of Jones deserve a lot of credit for making life easier for him, Jones was outstanding in the two games. He stopped 58 of 59 shots. Jones shut out the LA Kings, one of the best teams in the Western Conference, and gave up just one goal to the Anaheim Ducks while playing both ends of back-to-back games.  

If my calculations are correct, starting with the Carolina game this past Saturday Jones played 117:49 of shutout hockey. He gave up a second-period goal to Seth Jarvis of the Hurricanes and the second-period goal by Frank Vatrano in Anaheim. That means that Jones played five full consecutive periods of shutout hockey over the three games.  

Jones is now 6-3-0 in 10 games for the Maple Leafs. He has put up a 0.930 Save Percentage and 2.20 Goals-Against-Average. Over the past two games, Jones has had an Expected-Goals Against of 5.95 while giving up just one goal. That puts him at 4.95 fewer Goals Allowed Than Expected over the two games.

[Side note: I realize this is extremely premature. While Jones has had an up-and-down career that would not be considered stellar by any means, he did backstop the San Jose Sharks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019. Is it possible that Jones could be the guy that gives the Maple Leafs the goaltending they have been looking for in the postseason?

The Defence

While I am sure the Maple Leafs were forced to play more defence in Los Angeles than Head Coach Sheldon Keefe wanted, they did it very well. While they limited the Kings to just eight High-Danger Scoring Chances at five-on-five and 10 in all situations they did give up 60% of the shot attempts in the game.  

The Toronto players as a group blocked a season-high 26 shots in the game. Timothy Liljegren led the way with six blocks while Mark Giordano and Jake McCabe had three. Altogether 13 Maple Leafs’ skaters registered at least one blocked shot.  

While the defensive core did play solid hockey, the forwards made the biggest difference. They kept coming back and getting their sticks in the shooting lanes and opposition passing attempts.  

In the Anaheim game, the defensive part of the Maple Leafs’ game was played mostly in the Ducks’ end as Toronto bottled them up and prevented them from getting out of their zone. After giving up 13 five-on-five goals in their previous five games, the Maple Leafs have now gone three games in a row without giving up a single five-on-five goal. 

William Nylander

Not only did Nylander provide more than half of the Maple Leafs’ offence over the two games with two goals and an assist, but he may have played his best defensive hockey of the season as well. Nylander was strong on the forecheck in the two games and was the first forward back on several times. He played just under three minutes on the penalty kill in the two games. Nylander has become a regular on the penalty kill as the season has progressed and has already played five more minutes on the PK in 36 games than he did in 81 games last season. 

Nylander became the first Maple Leafs’ player to reach the 50-point plateau this season. He sits tied for fourth in NHL scoring (51 points) with Artemi Panarin, one point up on David Pastrnak and two points behind Connor McDavid. That is some pretty elite company.

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Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews finished what looked like it was going to be a frustrating two days by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime in Anaheim. It was his 13th shot of the game and 16th shot over the two games. Matthews becomes the first NHL player this season to hit the 30-goal plateau. Despite cooling off a bit lately with only two goals in his past five games, Matthews is still on pace to score 70 goals this season.   

Tyler Bertuzzi

Tyler Bertuzzi was the Maple Leafs’ best forward in Los Angeles. He played a key role in two of Toronto’s goals. His strong forecheck and a great no-look pass to Nylander set up their first goal. Then, playing with only one glove, he outfought Andreas Englund for the puck along the boards in the Kings’ zone and found Calle Jarnkrok alone in front of the LA net to set up the second Toronto goal. 

After scoring just nine points in his first 27 games as a Maple Leafs Bertuzzi has seven points in his last nine games.  

The Bad

While the Maple Leafs played extremely well defensively, they struggled to score offensively. Not counting Nylander’s empty-net goal in the Kings’ game, the Maple Leafs have scored four goals on 85 shots. That is a Shooting Percentage of just 4.7 percent.  

Nick Robertson

Despite winning 3-0 in Los Angeles, Keefe stated after the game that he felt the third line did not perform well. Keefe then backed up a statement that he made when he benched David Kampf after the Carolina game about players being accountable. He replaced Nick Robertson with Pontus Holmberg.  Kampf came back from his trip to the press box with two strong games. We will have to see how Robertson responds if and when he is back in the lineup. 

The Ugly

The only ugly thing I saw over the two contests was the refereeing in the Anaheim game. There were more missed calls and soft calls in this game than I have seen in a while. I don’t know if the NHL has dictated a crackdown on cross-checking, but three times a player got pushed from behind. These resulted in crosschecking calls. That included the Jamie Drysdale call on Kampf giving the Maple Leafs the power play that Tavares would score the tying goal on. I counted nine hooking and tripping calls that were not made in the game. Interference was ignored totally. 

David Kampf, Maple Leafs

The ugliest of ugly was the five-minute major and game misconduct given to Bobby McMann. I thought it was a clean shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Pavel Mintyukov in the second period. Mintyukov did spin around and go face-first into the boards on the play and was cut. That looked bad; but, the hit itself was in my opinion not even a two-minute penalty let alone five. 

McMann did not charge. He did not leave his feet. He did not hit Mintyukov from behind. The only explanation I would have for the referees calling this a major penalty is that it was more a reaction to how Mintyukov fell than the hit itself. I will be interested to see if Player Safety looks at the hit at all.  

What’s Next?

The Maple Leafs get two days off before their next game in San Jose when they take on the Sharks. They then travel home and get two days before they play at home against the same Sharks. They have another back-to-back on the 13th and 14th after travelling to New York to play the Islanders. I’m guessing we will see Dennis Hildeby play either in the second San Jose game or the Detroit game on the second end of that back-to-back. 

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