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Back and Better Than Ever: Leafs 3 - Rangers 2

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Auston Matthews returns triumphantly

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Auston Matthews is back, baby!. Let’s do that hockey!

First Period

[19:21] Nondescript first shift for Matthews - of course, all eyes will be on him tonight, as the Leafs could desperately use his scoring touch.

[17:00] Hyman and Staal take coincidental minors, so we’ll get some 4-on-4 action.

[16:40] Side note: Nick Holden is apparently on the Rangers top pair. That might be important later.

[15:58] Nylander gets away with one, as he trips a Ranger in the offensive zone, but there’s no call. Matthews misplaces a pass, and ices the puck as a result.

[14:14] Very slow start - I don’t think there’s been an actual chance on net for either team.

[12:28] Marner continues his hot play. He forces a turnover in the offensive zone, receives a pass from Bozak, and takes a shot from in tight. Lundqvist saves it. Immediately thereafter, the Matthews line has their customary shift taking up rent in the opposition zone, with a couple high-danger shots arriving off the sticks of Matthews and Hyman.

[10:51] Borgman has a real cannon of a shot. He takes one, with a huge screen in front of Lundqvist. Nothing doing so far though.

[9:59] Ron Hainsey makes an unforced error, launching the puck into the crowd on his backhand when trying to exit the zone. The Leafs lose their most important (non-goalie) penalty killer, and the Rangers get a chance on the power play now.

[9:39] Ughhh, Roman, why did you do that? He absolutely clobbers Zuccarello into the boards, and takes a penalty too. So 1:40 for the Rangers on a 5-on-3. Not a good look.

[8:39] So far, so good. The Rangers are strangely passive on the PP so far, and haven’t generated great shots.

[8:00] That might have been the worst power play I’ve ever seen. After a ridiculously ineffective 5-on-3, David Desharnais slashes Brown. We have 20 seconds of 4-on-4, and then the Leafs will have an abbreviated power play.

[7:06] Nylander sets up Matthews alone in the slot, but the ageless Lundqvist stops it. He hasn’t needed to be super busy, but he’s made a couple real nice saves.

[6:29] Okay, this is a pretty ridiculous comedy of errors. Andersen tries to keep the puck in play after a save, but a miscommunication results in Rielly having to poke the puck away with a dive in order to prevent a chance. In doing so, he high-sticks Michael Grabner, and the Rangers will get another power play.

[4:16] Another relatively toothless power play from New York is brushed aside. Back to 5-on-5.

[3:03] The Matthews line is just dummying the Rangers after an icing call. Controlling the puck on the boards, eluding the Rangers, using the points, and getting in front. Textbook stuff. They spent a full minute in the Rangers zone, most of it dangerous.

[2:44] And it ends as all shifts with this line should. Leafs score! Nylander gets it, off a feed below the goal line from Matthews. Utterly dominant shift, the kind that only the best lines in the league produce on a regular basis. Cannot say enough good things about that sequence. 1-0 Leafs.

[2:21] By the way, the defense pair that Matthews and co. were dummying - Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden. I told you that would end up being important. I’d also be remiss to not mention the work of Zach Hyman and the defencemen on that play (Carrick and Rielly). Hyman was a nuisance in front, and Carrick and Rielly both cycled the play effectively. There were probably three separate shots on that shift that could very easily have been a goal. Just monstrous stuff.

[1:04] Aaaand the Leafs will get a power play, as Ryan McDonagh mimics Hainsey and airmails the puck into the crowd.

[0:26] Rick Nash almost intercepts a pass to get a breakaway, but Marner does a nice job preventing that.

[0:00] The period ends, as the power play doesn’t get a whole lot going. Still, a relatively strong start from the Leafs, and from the Matthews line, who look as good as ever. Toronto will have a minute on the power play to start the second too. Meanwhile, I will try and find a way to marry the shift that led to the goal.

Second Period

[19:10] Ron Hainsey!!! A faceoff with just a few seconds left in the power play is won by Bozak, and after receiving a pass from Rielly, Hainsey absolutely leathers it into the top corner to make it 2-0 Leafs. Hainsey never gets power play time - he was just on there to make sure that the Leafs didn’t get caught out when the McDonagh penalty expired. But he made the absolute most of it.

[18:31] The Rangers are definitely going to press now, and if we learned anything from the matchup between these teams in October, it’s that no lead is safe.

[17:23] And that’s exactly why. Andersen misplays the puck behind the net, and Jimmy Vesey steals it off him and beats him to the corner of the net for the wraparound. 2-1 Leafs.

[16:43] Marner is next level right now. He very nearly finds JvR for a tap-in, but misses by an inch.

[16:06] Another set of coincidental minors, and we get more 4-on-4 action.

[13:29] For the first time this game, Kadri’s group gets some real zone time. The Leafs need to get that line going, as Kadri has struggled mightily to get into the offensive zone in recent games.

[12:02] Andersen almost has another puck-playing mishap. He and Gardiner miscommunicate about who takes the puck, and the Rangers nearly get a strong shot off the back of that.

[10:48] The pace of the game has slowed again, which makes my job a lot easier, so I’m all for it.

[9:55] Heart-in-mouth time there, as the Rangers win an offensive zone draw, and Kreider gets a chance on the doorstep. Freddie keeps the lead though.

[8:53] Borgman is really shot happy today, as he launches another one, which Lundqvist absorbs.

[8:38] My God, I’m glad Auston is back! He scores to restore the two-goal lead. Nylander keeps the play alive in the corner, Hyman fires a beautiful pass to Matthews out front (WIDE OPEN), and he shows the calmness and poise we’re used to seeing from him. 3-1 Toronto.

[7:42] This has been a generally excellent game for the Leafs. But the turd in the punchbowl continues to be the Kadri line, who to my eye, look as ineffective as ever. They’re not getting particularly great chances, and they aren’t so good defensively that they can get away with that. Granted, they are facing the Rangers top talent (Zibanejad, Kreider, Zuccarello), but they need to generate something offensively to, at least in my opinion.

[7:17] As I say that, Komarov draws a penalty on Shattenkirk, simply by virtue of being his annoying self.

[6:40] The Rangers take another penalty, as Grabner tries to trip Matthews at the blue line. Sort of a soft call, but I’m not complaining.

[5:13] First penalty expires - some good puck movement and decent chances, but not the best 5-on-3 I’ve ever seen.

[4:24] Second penalty expires with no further incident. Leafs still up two and playing pretty well.

[3:24] Ron Hainsey does a great job of defending a Rick Nash power move without taking a penalty. Definitely have seen Nash draw a penalty or score on those before. Freddie ends up poke-checking it off Nash.

[0:24] Weird shift near the end - Lundqvist commits a turnover playing the puck, and Kadri fires a shot from the wing. Lundqvist is literally in the net as he saves it, so there’s a review regarding where the puck actually ended up. The hard part is that Lundqvist’s body is obstructing the view of the puck, as it disappeared into his pad. If I had to guess, it would end up as no goal.

[0:13] Yep, that’s exactly what happens.

[0:00] So the Leafs end a strong second with a better lead than they entered it with. 20 minutes to lock down a win and go into Christmas happy.

Third Period

[19:01] Strong shift from the Rangers, as they totally hem in the Matthews group for about 75 seconds. That could have ended badly, but didn’t.

[18:22] Wow, Henrik with another killer save. Komarov finds Kadri in front who almost goes backhand roof. The King’s glove denies him, and just a few seconds later, he stones Marleau on a backhand in front. Lundqvist has been the only reason this game is still nominally close.

[17:00] Another shift for the Matthews group where they largely play in their own zone, which is definitely not their strength. The other lines still look strong though.

[13:11] I criticized Kadri and his group earlier in the game - they’ve been great since that time. Anecdotally, it seems like they’ve been freed up from Zuccarello’s group, which might have helped.

[11:29] Immediately after Holden gets a great chance in the low slot, Nazem Kadri draws a penalty from him. The Leafs get a chance to blow the game wide open, and get some momentum back after a relatively strong start from the Rangers in the 3rd.

[8:35] After a relatively staid power play, the Rangers make the Leafs pay. A failed breakout finds Buchnevich behind the net, who makes a great no-look pass to JT Miller. And now the finish is real interesting. 3-2 Leafs.

[7:51] Wow, that was fast. Michael Grabner doubles up, and we have a tie game! 44 seconds after the Miller goal, Grabner uses his speed, picks up a pass in the neutral zone, and absolutely snipes one above Andersen’s shoulder. 3-3.

[7:51] The Leafs are challenging the offside here, and if they’re wrong they get a penalty. This is a huge risk.

[7:51] Oh my god, it paid off. He was offside. Back to 3-2. It wasn’t even Grabner that was offside... it was Hayes, who needlessly drifted over the blueline away from the play. Wow, what a call by the Leafs to retain the lead.

[6:43] Auston Matthews grabs a loose puck in the neutral zone as JT Miller commits a heinous turnover. As he’s done the whole night, Lundqvist saved the Rangers.

[6:16] It’s a damn shame Marner doesn’t have a point tonight. He runs rings around the Rangers, and sets up Bozak for a tap-in. Somehow, he doesn’t convert. Leafs with two huge chances to icing the game.

[5:52] Another close call on the goal line, as Brady Skjei takes a sharp angle shot after blowing by Komarov. Andersen keeps it out, but it’s really nervy, and the 6 minutes left looks like a lot of time right now.

[3:20] A very pretty passing play by the Rangers nearly turns into a goal. But going the other way, James van Riemsdyk gets a breakaway! His backhand five-hole attempt hits the post, and it’s still a one goal game.

[2:39] ANOTHER BREAKAWAY! A flip pass finds Patrick Marleau all alone, but Lundqvist robs them again. He’s insane.

[2:09] Brown has replaced Nylander on Matthews’ line, as they look for more defensive solidity. I’d normally be annoyed by this, but the Matthews line has struggled in the third, in more defensive usage.

[1:24] The Rangers with an absolutely terrible unforced penalty - too many men at this time of game is unforgivable. A Toronto PP here with less than 2 minutes remaining should let them see it out.

[0:00] The Leafs survive, and win it 3-2. Man, that could have been handled better, but 2 points are 2 points.

Thoughts

  • It’s great to have Auston back. Funnily enough, he ended up in the negative in shot differential today, despite he and his line absolutely owning the Rangers through two. As mentioned, they struggled in the third. Nonetheless, he played a good game, as did his entire forward group. They were in and around the net, as usual, and when you adjust for shot location, it’s clear they got the better of whatever Rangers they were up against.
  • I criticized the Kadri group, but they had a very good game overall. I think a lot of that was self-inflicted on the part of the Rangers, but they definitely shut me up.
  • Marner looked great to my eye. Bozak and van Riemsdyk were mostly invisible.
  • The fourth line had a solid game, but I can’t say I noticed them a great deal.
  • Andersen was very solid, Lundqvist was even better.
  • On the defence side of things, I noticed Polak and Gardiner were paired together throughout the game, which is something we’ve seen somewhat regularly in the absence of Zaitsev. I wasn’t terribly impressed with either of their games.
  • Hainsey looked really good, and Borgman seemed very trigger happy. Other than that, the defensemen were mostly as expected.
  • All told, a good performance from the Leafs, and a much-needed two points after some times of struggle. They have a bit of a break now - their next game is in Arizona on the 27th. We’ll see you then, and Merry Christmas to all!