After a whirlwind of a couple of days following an embarrassing 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs fought off some of their demons by responding with a 3-2 overtime win against the Dallas Stars. The story of the game was forward Nick Robertson making his season debut against his older brother, Stars forward Jason Robertson, and the former showed up for the game in a big way, potting a pair of goals including the overtime winner.
It was a much-needed victory for the Maple Leafs after the media had a field day with quotes from Mitch Marner and Sheldon Keefe on Tuesday, regarding Keefe’s “elite players” comment after the loss to Arizona on Monday. If you missed it, Keefe called out his star players for not playing like star players that night, and when asked about it on Tuesday, Marner said that they discussed it behind closed doors and talked things out.
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Draw your own conclusions about how Keefe is perceived following that conversation. I personally believe there was nothing about that conversation that every coach hasn’t said to their own star players at some point or another, but that’s a story for a different day. Either way, the Maple Leafs bounced back with a win on Thursday night, and here are three takeaways from the game, just in case you missed it.
Junior Robertson Rises to the Occasion
Had Maple Leafs defenseman Jordie Benn not been injured to start the season, we may have been looking at a pair of brothers facing off against each other in this game. But, since he’s still out, the focus last night remained on the season debut for Robertson, and his second time facing his older brother, Jason in the NHL. And Nick couldn’t have done a better job in his debut, scoring both the go-ahead goal as well as the winning goal in overtime.
I want to shed some extra light on Robertson’s second goal of the game, because not only was it the game-winner, but it also happened because of a phenomenal defensive play he made to break up a 2-on-1 headed the other way. The only player back on an impending odd-man rush, he stripped Jamie Benn of the puck and got it to Morgan Rielly, who carried it back the other way and set him up for the game winner with help from Auston Matthews.
It was a smart decision for Keefe to pair him with John Tavares and William Nylander, given that the latter two have arguably been their best forwards so far this season. Robertson hit the ground running with them, which was definitely a positive from a chemistry standpoint seeing that they spent most of last season with a recurring cast of left wingers including Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, and Pierre Engvall. It’s possible the Leafs may have found their full-time second line left winger, which could pay off in dividends for the club in the future.
Maple Leafs’ Team Offense Still Sluggish
To be completely honest, Robertson’s game-winning goal in overtime was likely the only thing standing in the way of this piece having a totally different tone to it. It was a much-needed two points, yes, but we’re now five games into the season, and a Maple Leafs team that’s notoriously built on high-octane offense and skill hasn’t managed to score more than three goals in a game. Does that mean it’s time to hit the panic button? No, but there are visible flaws in their game thus far that can and need to be fixed.
On paper, the Maple Leafs did outshoot the Stars 43-28, so the chances were there. But one thing Sportsnet colour commentator Craig Simpson noted on the broadcast, regarding the Leafs’ inability to generate offense, was their opponents’ tendency to crowd the middle of the ice and jam up all passing and shooting lanes. The Coyotes did it on Monday night, and the Stars did it last night. If the Maple Leafs want to take that next step offensively, they need to figure out a way to adapt when their opponents suffocate them in the offensive zone.
Whether that’s moving the play away from the perimeter or something more simple like just shooting the puck more, I don’t know. But, it’s something the team will need to figure a way around.
Maple Leafs’ Samsonov Shines Again
Eerily reminiscent of Jack Campbell’s increased workload to start the 2021-22 season after Petr Mrazek’s groin injury, newly-signed netminder Ilya Samsonov was faced with the task of taking on more of a full-time starting goaltender role after Matt Murray injured his groin in practice last week. Although the sample size is small, the first Russian goalie in Maple Leafs history has looked great through his first three games.
Samsonov stopped 26 of 28 shots last night, good for a save percentage (SV%) of .929 on the night, and a SV% of .927 in three games thus far. Although he hasn’t really had to stand on his head for the team yet, he’s been stable in each of the three games he’s started, and he’s made big saves when the team’s needed it most.
The Maple Leafs are set to embark on a five-game western swing starting on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets, and won’t play another back-to-back until Oct. 29 and 30, when they’ll take on the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, respectively. Keefe did say that third-string goalie Erik Kallgren was going to see some work as well, but if Samsonov keeps playing the way he has to start the year, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him start the next four games until that back-to-back.
Maple Leafs Will Face Winnipeg Jets on Saturday
As I said earlier, the Maple Leafs will be back in action on Saturday night to take on the Jets. Keefe hasn’t said whether or not there would be any lineup changes yet, but by my own speculation, I would expect Samsonov to start again. On top of that, it may not be the worst idea in the world to dress Wayne Simmonds in favour of an Engvall or a Zach Aston-Reese. Games between the Maple Leafs and the Jets got feisty at points last season, so having a guy like Simmonds in the lineup might be worth it to just set the tone.
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The Jets are 2-2-0 to start the season after falling to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, so odds are they’ll be dialled in and ready to come at the Maple Leafs with everything they’ve got on Saturday night. As Toronto has shown in the past, they can handle any team at their best when the guys show up to play, so it will be interesting to see which version of the Maple Leafs we get for Hockey Night in Canada.