The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets proved once again why their rivalry is one of the most entertaining of the past five years. Similar to Thursday’s result, the Leafs won 4-2, earning their eighth win of the month. The scoring started much earlier, with Dylan Samberg scoring four minutes into the game. Ryan Reeves scored his second goal of the season, and Tyler Bertuzzi nearly scored, but it was canceled due to goaltender interference (more on that later).
The game was halted with even scoring until the Leafs took advantage of a man-advantage opportunity and scored. John Tavares broke his slump and Auston Matthews scored his 40th point of the season, which was the winning goal. Simon Benoit’s first shot as a Maple Leaf came from his own side and was sucked into an empty goal. Mason Appleton’s goal may not have affected the result, but it gave the fans in the crowd something different to cheer about and gave Reeves a chance to take a final salute.
1. Auston Matthews
The title that once belonged to Mitch Marner now belongs to Matthews. The team’s second power play of the game marked his 40th point of the season and 600th point of his career, making him the fastest Leaf player to reach the milestone.
2. John Tavares
Tavares entered this game without scoring in nine games and without a point in 11 games. Even though he did the right thing, he couldn’t pass the puck to anyone. That’s what made this postgame celebration so cathartic. Morgan Rielly set it up and Tavares redirected it. Instead of dragging out the longest slump of his career into a hiatus, Tavares could be on a new path for the second half of the season.
3. Ryan Reeves
The first period wasn’t great for the Leafs, with little to laugh about. But Reaves’ deflection goal gave them something to work on and develop further. Reaves made an extracurricular save in the final minutes of the game. He competed with Nikolaj Ehlers and was in the middle of the scrum after Appleton, giving a friendly farewell to the crowd before the night ended.
While neither drew much attention, Benoit managed to continue his record of hitting two big hits along the boards and quickly correcting defensive mistakes.
William Nylander and Nick Robertson
Nos. 88 and 89 had a clear look at Connor Hellebuyck, especially Nylander. Nick Robertson’s shooting speed caught Hellebuyck several times and allowed him to rebound on rushing chances from the third line. And regardless of what you think about officiating Saturday night, he made a spectacular penalty on the second one, denying the Leafs a scoring chance on a play they thought had gone ice. Nylander finished the game with three shots and made two short-handed rushes.
they misunderstood it
Let’s get that out of the way now.
I try to avoid discussing referees and situation rooms. Even on a good day, there are different situations and you have to find a way to get a positive outcome even when things don’t go your way. That being said, Bertuzzi’s goal should have been important.
The top-down angle of Dylan DeMelo driving Nylander into a Hellebike convinced him it was enough to turn it over. If I were Nylander, I wouldn’t know what you would do there and how to get out of the way after contacting Hellebuyck.
Before the Hellebuyck hit, Nylander’s left skate can be seen painted in blue paint, but the context of DeMelo’s push cannot be ignored. Well, I don’t think ‘can’t’ be the right word to use here, but especially after that goal was conceded on Saturday.
Juxtaposition of returns and collections
Two were planned and one was circumstantial. Two had relatively good matches, and the other had a start to a match he’d like to forget. Two were Reeves and Bertuzzi, and the other was Mark Giordano.
Goal aside, Reaves had a good game overall. He had quick shifts and sought to be the first man off the line, even with continued offensive zone pressure. He threw his body out to break the cycle and get as far in front of the goal as possible to make it difficult for Hellebuyck. Bertuzzi felt it, too, and he had a night where he did everything except score (well, he did score, but… never mind).
Giordano got off to a tough start. A turnover and pinch created two dangerous chances for Cole Perfetti and Adam Lowry. He calmed down after the first shot and taking that penalty allowed him to get back to blocking shots and correcting himself. He totaled 4:10 on the penalty kill and made two stinging blocks, including one from his knee in the third.
Of course, Giordano wasn’t the only one to make a costly mistake, as he was 5-1 on turnovers in the first period. The Jets reveled in the scoring opportunities the Leafs gave them, and the turnovers were coming no matter where they were in the lineup. Matthews, one of the team’s better defensive players, scored three points, Tavares had one, and Morgan Rielly’s corner kick led to Winnipeg’s first goal of the game.
Matthews, Riley and Tavares rebounded well, especially Riley saving the third point.
Bidding and bidding
The Leafs and Jets were almost evenly matched at 5-on-5. There was no difference by more than four all night in terms of shots (26-22), scoring chances (20-17) and dangerous chances (11-7). Hellebuyck played well in Winnipeg and Ilya Samsonov matched that with a win. As the Leafs conceded one chance after another, Samsonov made a save and Hellebuyck also made a save. Another night he seemed stable, moving only when necessary. He gave the Leafs time to settle down and recover from the start, and unlike Thursday, the Leafs had support in goal.
Final grade: B+
It wasn’t perfect, and I still see the same pattern of mistakes happening with this team, but it got the job done. Coach Sheldon Keefe is all about stringing together good days, and if you look at Samsonov and Robertson, for example, you can see two players doing that. If they hadn’t scored on either chance, and not scored on both chances, including 5-on-3, their top unit might have collapsed. This break can and should be a good reset and opportunity for the team to find another level, especially in the bottom six. We need to fire on all cylinders from now on. Despite Saturday night’s win, that only leaves them in the wild-card spot, with the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils not too far away.
What’s next for the Leafs?
When I go to break, there is nothing for a while. The Leafs won’t be back in action until Feb. 5 when they play the Islanders at Scotiabank Arena. The second half of the 2023-24 season will then begin in earnest.
(Photo: Jason Halstead/Getty Images)