It may have been their most complete game of the season thus far. And while the Vegas Golden Knights were dealing with some big names out of the lineup – due to injury – the Toronto Maple Leafs needed to capitalize on the opportunity to lock up two points against an otherwise tough team.
But the Maple Leafs went above and beyond compared to earlier efforts this season, not only winning the game and defeating the Golden Knights 4-0, but doing it with a full 60-minute effort. That’s something that Leafs Nation hasn’t seen in some time.
Even with the great effort, there are a few takeaways from the game that are worth discussing – three major ones, in particular.
Maple Leafs’ Stars Are Aligning
It’s taken some time to get them going, some line shuffling and even high levels of outside criticism, but the Maple Leafs’ core four seem to be starting to heat up – at least from the what they’ve done over the past couple of games.
Well, Tuesday night was no different with Auston Matthews finishing up with two goals, William Nylander potting one and assisting on another, Mitch Marner finishing with three points and John Tavares tallying an assist. Combined, the four players had four goals and eight points against the Golden Knights after combining for just eight goals and 10 points over their previous nine games played this season.
The core has taken the brunt of the displeasure from Leafs Nation to start the year, with trade suggestions being the primary conversation when it comes to Marner. But on Tuesday, the scrambled lines came to life for Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs accounting for all four of their goals including some vintage Marner and Matthews efforts.
Say what you will about it being just one game, but it was their best of the season and this could be the wake up call the team needed to get going.
Maple Leafs’ Liljegren Forcing Team’s Hand
As for Timothy Liljegren, he’s slotted in the past two games forcing Justin Holl to watch from the press box as the seventh defenceman. Coincidentally or not, the Maple Leafs have also won the past two games with Liljegren looking at home playing next to Rasmus Sandin on the Maple Leafs back end.
Tuesday night was easily one of his best games in a Maple Leafs uniform and it carried over from a strong effort on Saturday night when the Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings in Toronto. He finished Saturday’s game with an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 90.5 and through just two period on Tuesday had already topped that – coming in at 93.6 xGF%.
Prior to the game, Keefe justified his decision to keep Liljegren in the lineup by saying, “I just thought the D-core as a whole played a lot better [against the Red Wings]. I thought Timothy Liljegren, in particular, had a real strong game. For those reasons, we want to keep it going and get another look at it.”
If that’s the way the organization felt after the game on Saturday, you can bet that Liljegren earned himself at least one – if not two – more games, meaning Holl will likely remain the odd man out.
Maple Leafs’ Campbell Dialed In
Like most of the Maple Leafs, Jack Campbell also had one of his best performances of the year, stopping all 26 Golden Knights shots to earn his first shutout of the season and the fifth of his NHL career.
The perfect game brought his numbers to 4-2-1 on the season with a 1.99 goals against average (GAA) and .929 save percentage (SV%) to bounce him back amongst the league’s best through the first month of the season.
While Campbell might have more on his mind than hockey – working on a contract extension to remain with the Maple Leafs – it didn’t show in his performance on Tuesday. He faced nine high-danger chances from the Golden Knights, all of which he stopped and played the puck well seeing just two rebound shots against and clearing the front of the net well so he could see the puck consistently throughout the game.
Campbell has always been a player who feeds off of confidence and, like the stars who had a big game, this could just be the beginning for Campbell this season in getting back to the form Leafs Nation saw last season.
Maple Leafs Take on Tampa Next
The Maple Leafs will get a chance to refuel on Wednesday before they line up against back-to-back Stanley Cup champions – the Tampa Bay Lightning – a team that has struggled out of the gate, but seems to be piecing it together like the Leafs.
It’ll be a different squad for the Lightning as much of their depth left town following the Cup win last season and they will remain without Nikita Kucherov who is, once again, out of the lineup with a long-term injury.
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Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.