A back-and-forth game on Thursday night saw the Maple Leafs get behind, fight back, and ultimately win the game in overtime thanks to some heroics by a pair of young Leafs. This game had everything except a 9-2 scoreline and a missed empty-net goal.
Following a really tough week in California, and an exhilarating win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, the Leafs showed both the good and bad sides of themselves, but seemingly learned from their mistakes against a defensively stubborn opponent. They scored five unanswered goals by the end of the night, opening the floodgates and propelling them to an historic 5-4 win.
The first line with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman dominated all game until the third when the group of veterans stepped up and dragged their team into overtime. From there, it was all the kids.
And let’s just say the goaltending situation was all but straightforward.
It was a bad start for the Leafs, who spent the entire first shift in their own zone against the line of Rocco Grimaldi, Nick Bonino, and Craig Smith. The second line of Kasperi Kapanen, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner just couldn’t get the puck out of the zone while Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci struggled against the cycling of the Preds. It was clear immediately that this game was not going to be like the free-flowing and possession style the Leafs played two nights ago.
The fourth line of Kyle Clifford, Frederik Gauthier, and Denis Malgin (nicknamed the Two and a Half Men line) were jumpy at the start and pushed back well against the Preds, who got out to an early lead in shots 1-6.
There was a scary moment about five minutes into the game when Alex Kerfoot fell into goaltender Juuse Saros while trying to get his stick on a rebound from a Pierre Engvall shot. Saros got checked over by the trainer for the Predators and he stayed in the game. Kerfoot got a penalty for goalie interference.
The penalty kill was good for the Leafs, it even gave them some good momentum after a tough first half of the period. Nashville has four even lines that rely on forechecking and strength down low. In terms of top-end talent, they have some expensive guys, but perhaps a little second-hand and past their prime. The Leafs were able to play their zone and keep things to the outside. Marner looked really engaged on the PK, presumably feeling like there was a good chance for something shorthanded.
Final five minutes of the period, the Leafs really started to come alive. Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander started to click like they did the first two seasons they were put together. I think it was always underrated how strong that trio was in the cycle and down low especially. We do well to credit each player when they are strong in the cycle around the boards and their ability to get to the front of the net, but with each of them seemingly having a career season, it’s only made them as a group so much better.
Nylander and Hyman each set up two great chances for Auston Matthews in tight, but he could get the puck around Saros or past his pad.
Alas, the first period ended scoreless. I thought it was a good period from the Leafs. They were able to adjust to Nashville’s tough-boy start and push back. This was something we didn’t see in the California road trip (which feels like forever ago, right?). I think the adjustment of Nylander to the first line with Matthews and Hyman turned that into a line that can go up physically against their opponent. Plus, all three players are super hot right now and are full of confidence.
In terms of shots, the Leafs trailed in 5v5 shot attempts (6-9), shots (5-6), but were decent in scoring chances (4-3).
40 seconds into the second period, the Predators score. Jarred Tinordi took a shot from the point towards a crowded pile of bodies in front of the net. Ceci didn’t catch Yakov Trenin pulling away from the group before he could get a hold of the rebound and fire a shot home past a diving Frederik Andersen.
Oh come on!!! Justin Holl fell down trying to play a puck up the ice and Matt Duchene picked up the pieces and beat Andersen five-hole. Ugh. I guess those things just happen, but it’s never nice to give up a goal like that, especially with how well the Leafs were playing despite the goal.
Shortly after the goal, Holl was replaced with Vincent LoVerde on the second pair with Travis Dermott. LoVerde was called up from the Hartford Wolf Pack in an unprecedented move. Minutes after the goal occured, Kyle Dubas supposedly slammed the transfer paper on the desk of Gary Bettman and dared him to deny it.
Matthews! The Leafs centre scored his 48th goal of the season with a wicked shot from the top of the circle that flew over the shoulder of Saros, right by his ear. Tyson Barrie and Zach Hyman both got assists on the goal after Hyman recovered the wide shot from the defenseman and sent the puck back to Matthews.
Late in the period, Martin Erat got a hold of a loose puck in his own zone after a great solo chance by Pierre Engvall. The 38-year-old Erat skated right through all the Leafs and slipped a backhander around Andersen on the far side. It’s a shame, Engvall had a really good chance just before. A save at one end, a goal at the other.
Perfect combination of speed and size pic.twitter.com/DL9LZhcnLJ— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 28, 2020
The second period had a lot more fireworks than the first. Literally, wow, Nashville, is it bachelor party szn or something? Luckily the roof didn’t have to be repaired. In terms of shots, the Leafs were actually really strong in the period. They were ahead in 5v5 shot attempts (13-7), shots (10-4), and scoring chances (8-4). As typical with the Leafs, bad luck cost them three goals to only one.
The Preds scored with a little more than 10 minutes to go in regulation, Phil Kessel feeding Nazem Kadri for what Preds fans felt was the dagger in the heart of this vital game.
But it wasn’t the goal that sealed the deal.
10:42 to go, Nathan Horton scored his fourth goal of the season in front of the net. Totally Mikhail Grabovski’s fault.
1:22 to go, Milan Lucic scored his second of the season, finding a rebound with Zdeno Chara next to him mucking it up in front. Dion Phaneuf did his best, but it wasn’t good enough.
0:51 to go, Patrice Bergeron tied the game. He tied the game. To send it to overtime. Poor Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarsson couldn’t do anything to help James Reimer in net. The forwards, useless.
Before the overtime started, Frederik Andersen reportedly ran to the dressing room to relieve himself in the bathroom. Jack Campbell got ready to come into the overtime cold, but when he realized Andersen was going into the bathroom alone he ran off the ice to be with his partner. I think we can all respect that decision, especially when the Leafs had to then pull out their emergency backup goalie, Sami Jo Small, from the stands and get her in net for the overtime.
Just over a minute in, Bracco snuck in behind the defense after a fantastic pass by Andrew Nielsen from the neutral zone. What a brilliant pass, deke, and finish for both kids’ NHL debuts! The future is bright and here for the Leafs! Wooo!!!