This game was so much fun.
After yet another slow start, the Toronto Maple Leafs got themselves into overdrive and used a maniacal second period fuelled by offense to carry them to a 5-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Trade Deadline Boxing Day.
Frederik Andersen was astronomical in this game, stopping 31 of 34 shots for his 100th win as a Maple Leafs. I guess it’s easy to do that when your teams have more than 30 wins in a season, eh.
The team was shaky at first, but then John Tavares and Auston Matthews breathed life into the lineup and inspired Frederik Gauthier — who only played seven minutes total in this game — to score his first multi-point game in the NHL with a goal and an assist on the game-winning goal by Tyler Ennis, who also scored. Kasperi Kapanen led both teams with six shots on goal in the game, and was rewarded for his efforts with a primary assist on the Matthews goal, before scoring the brace himself on a breakaway.
Within the first 10 minutes of the game, the Leafs were getting out-shot 11-2. It looked really bad, but at the same time, I never felt worried that the Leafs were going to give up a goal. There was one flurry where the Sabres where banging the puck against Frederik Andersen’s pad a few times in a mostly futile effort, and then after that, it was a series of perimeter shots that the Leafs did a great job of cleaning up and covering off.
Unfortunately, the Leafs let the Sabres keep the pressure without pushing back to come out of it, and John Tavares ended up getting desperate and took a slashing penalty on Jack Eichel. Luckily for the Leafs, they’re somehow better when down a man and got the best of the chances between the two sides within those two minutes. Mitch Marner had a great chance at the side of the net in the second minute of the kill.
Ronald Hainsey clearing the puck all by himself on the PK. pic.twitter.com/r3JYE4d5DA— Flintor (@TheFlintor) February 26, 2019
Things didn’t get better. The Leafs bench gave up a too many men penalty. Then they lost the faceoff. Then they watched from the front of the net as Jack Eichel scored from the top of the slot past Andersen with less than a minute left in the first period.
I gave the Leafs the benefit of the doubt in the first half of the period, but they let me down, and let the Sabres continued to pressure and overwhelm them. At 5v5, the Leafs were out-attempted (12-25), out-shot (5-14), and out-chanced (4-12). In terms of expected goals, Money Puck had the Sabres ahead 0.92-0.14, which is basically a lot to very very little. Zemgus Girgensons had a higher total expected goals (0.18) than the whole Leafs roster combined!!
Leafs emotionally devastated by the loss of Par Lindholm, I guess— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) February 26, 2019
Early in the second, the Leafs were still getting stuck in their own zone, but William Nylander drew a tripping penalty against Tage Thompson, sending the Leafs to the power play. After a somewhat choppy start, Morgan Rielly got the puck over to the left side where Auston Matthews and John Tavares combined for a very pretty passing combination for Andreas Johnsson, who panged the post.
Seconds after the power play expired, Travis Dermott got the puck over to the right side of the ice for Jake Muzzin, who threw the puck on net. Tavares was battling hard in front of the net and was able to tip the puck across and into the net. Despite the penalty in the first, JT really deserved that goal. He set up Nylander at the end of the power play with a great pass that didn’t quite connect before helping his line work hard to retrieve the puck and set up the goal.
The scoring didn’t stop there! Suddenly, the Matthews line started buzzing. Kasperi Kapanen started the chaos with a shot from the wing with both Johnsson and Matthews driving the net. Auston found the rebound that Carter Hutton bobbled with his glove and tried to finish a wrap-a-round, but the puck got thrown out to the slot. Somehow, the puck came back to Matthews’ stick and he whipped the puck past a down-and-out Hutton in one motion to give the Leafs their first lead of the game.
There’s a phrase Steve Dangle says about Nazem Kadri; goals are his oxygen. That quote definitely applies to this whole Leafs roster. Once they get one, once they get the wheels spinning, there’s honestly nothing stopping them. The way Matthews celebrated his goal. The swagger. The confidence. It’s contagious.
Things got silly. Jake Gardiner pinched low to keep the play alive, and got the puck to Frederik Gauthier. The Goat was holding back Johan Larsson before getting the puck on his backhand and roofing the puck up and over Hutton! Seriously what?!
Me last summer: Freddie Gauthier probably isn't even an NHL player— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) February 26, 2019
Despite the fact that Hutton got pulled (to which he didn’t react the most positively to), it didn’t end there! Frederik Gauthier, who was on top of the mountain, showed off some more of his elite hooves when he sent a two-zone stretch pass to Tyler Ennis, who deked and scored on new goalie Linus Ullmark.
At the tail end of the adrenaline high, Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev took a pair of penalties and Sam Reinhart scored on the ensuing 5-on-3 power play.
It was an amazing period for the Leafs, they clawed back most of the shot deficit from the first period, while launching four goals in a row to take the lead. In the second period at 5v5, the shot metrics were all in favour of Toronto. Shot attempts (21-17), shots (16-6), and scoring chances (14-8). The Leafs also came to within a fraction of goal on Buffalo’s expected goals 1.18-1.47.
Oh boo. Right off the opening faceoff, Eichel took the puck, walked in off the wing, and ripped a slick shot past Andersen to bring the Sabres back within one.
The game settled into a nice lull, which was definitely to the Leafs’ advantage. When Matthews got called for a tripping penalty, Freddy Andersen stood tall yet again, stoning Eichel with stretched pads and arms everywhere. Right in the middle of that whole frantic series of events, the TSN feed randomly cut right to Jeff O’Neill in the studio going full dropped jaw.
Yup Jeff O'Neill pretty much sums up that save by Freddy pic.twitter.com/lI58ay2zYw— Casual Mats (@Casual_Mats) February 26, 2019
Less than a minute later, Kasperi Kapanen sealed the deal when a deflected puck off the referee came to him in the neutral zone and he walked in — just kidding, he came in at the speed of a jet — on Ullmark and sniped low blocker.
With the win, the Maple Leafs pull to within one point of the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, both teams are on equal terms with 62 games played. The Bruins have nine overtime/shootout losses compared to the Leafs four, meaning the Leafs carry a 38 to 34 advantage in regulation and overtime wins (ROWs). Next game for the Leafs is Wednesday night against the Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid will be back in the lineup for Edmonton.
Frederik Gauthier said Bogosian offered to fight him to get Goat the Gordie Howe hat trick. Did Gauthier think about dropping the gloves?— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) February 26, 2019
“Nope. Not at all.”
As Tyler Ennis just told us, he’s mild mannered that guy.