Maple Leafs Commentary: Nylander, Tavares & Matthews

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs commentary, we’ll look at the play of three players during this round-one series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Maple Leafs are on the verge. If they can win tonight in Florida, they’ll have moved past the first round of a series for the first time since 2004.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs: Revisiting the Nazem Kadri Trade

One key to that potential success is to start the game on time. For whatever reason, the Maple Leafs have had to hold off an initial onslaught in even the games they’ve won. As we suggest later in this post, the easiest way to win a seven-game series is to win before you have to play the seventh game. The Maple Leafs have that chance tonight. Can they succeed?

Comment One: William Nylander Has Been a Force Over the Past Two Games

We had mentioned that we felt William Nylander was the best player for the Maple Leafs in Game 4, but that wasn’t really saying much. The Maple Leafs were outplayed badly by the Lightning. Nylander scored two seemingly meaningless goals late in the game that gave the woeful Maple Leafs a glimmer of hope.  

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Those goals did bring the team within two goals and provided them with an opportunity to pull Campbell. That move ultimately failed, as Tampa scored two empty-netters in between a Muzzin goal. 

Sign up for our regular 'Maple Leafs Newsletter' for all the latest.

However, those two goals finally put Nylander on the scoreboard. He’d been held scoreless in the first three games. Those goals might also have restored some self-confidence in the 26-year-old Swede because he showed up big in Game 5. 

Related: Grading Steve Yzerman’s Tenure as Red Wings GM

Nylander contributed to the first three goals in this game. His slap-pass on the power play near the beginning of the second period was deflected into the net to make the score 2-1 Tampa. Nylander also had the zone entry early in the third period before he dished off to Tavares, who ultimately found Morgan Rielly wide open in the slot to tie the game at two. Finally, it was Nylander who shot a laser into the top corner of the net to give the Maple Leafs a 3-2 lead later in the third period.  

After not being involved in the Maple Leafs’ first 13 goals scored over the first three games of the series, suddenly Nylander was a key player in five of their next six goals. Nylander also made a tough play where he drove hard for the net and was on the receiving end of a vicious hit by Cal Foote of the Lightning. He seemed surprised that he was alright when he picked himself off the ice following the hit. 

When the game was over, Nylander was named the first star as the game’s best player. It meant a lot more than being the Maple Leafs’ best player in Game 4. If the Maple Leafs want to get through this first round, they’ll need Nylander to play the same as he has in the last four periods.

Comment Two: Johnny Toronto Has Arrived

Prior to Game 5, John Tavares had not contributed much to the offense of the Maple Leafs. He had registered only two assists in the first four games. He was also at or near the bottom of the forwards in most of the underlying stats. Keefe had stated that he felt it was only a matter of time before Tavares broke out. 

Related: 3 Things the Maple Leafs Need to Advance to Round 2

Tavares broke out in spades in Game 5, scoring the Maple Leafs’ first goal on a nice tip of a Nylander slap-pass, and doing most of the hard work behind the Tampa goal before setting up Rielly for the goal that tied the game 2-2.  

However, one area Tavares has been consistently good at is the faceoff dot. There he’s clicking along at a 72 percent pace in draws won. Tavares was chosen as the second star of the game Tuesday night and could have easily been the first star. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares screens Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

We’re also seeing Tavares work hard on defense. As we’ve watched him on the ice, he’s consistently in the middle of the scrums digging hard for pucks in front of both goalies. Could it be that he’s chosen to sacrifice his offense for team defense? Tavares has made that choice throughout his career. We think he’s a valuable player for this team, even if his offense seems a bit lower than normal. (from “Leafs captain John Tavares’s approach has been defence first, but the offence is sneaking through again,” Mark Zwolinski, The Toronto Star, 02/05/2021).

Comment Three: Matthews Is Amping Up His Physical Game

Auston Matthews scored the winning goal in Game 5 off of a beautiful “bounce the puck off of the goalie’s pad” pass from Marner. That gave Matthews three goals and seven points in the five games to lead the team in scoring. 

However, the other number that jumps off the statistics sheet was the seven hits that Matthews had in the game. Those were the most hits thrown by any player on either team.  

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After five games in this series, Matthews leads the Maple Leafs’ forwards with 17 hits. These hits are coming from a player who earlier in his career suffered injuries to both shoulders and was once considered fragile for a player of his size. 

Matthews has seemed to amp up his physical game; and, during those scrums that seem to come after every stoppage in play, when he’s pushed he pushes back. That physical aspect of his game seems to be a new addition. Who’s to say he can’t become one of the most feared players to play against in the NHL?

In this case, Matthews seems to be leading this team by example. 

What’s Ahead for the Maple Leafs?

We wrote following Game 4 that this series has been all about momentum. Whichever team has made the most of the momentum when they have had it has won each game. The first four games were won by the team that had the momentum early in the game, as they have used that momentum to build insurmountable leads.  

Related: 4 Reasons Why This Could Be the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup Season

Game 5 was different. The Lightning had the momentum early, using it to build a two-goal lead. After that, the momentum swung to the Maple Leafs who carried it throughout the remainder of the game and were able to eke out the win. 

Now it’s up to the Maple Leafs to carry that momentum into Game 6 in Tampa. The best way to avoid another seventh-game disappointment is to avoid having to play the seventh game altogether.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]