It was an emotional game for the Toronto Maple Leafs after the announcement of Börje Salming’s death on Thursday — and they honoured him with patches on their jerseys and a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild.
Not only that, but a Swede had a primary point (either the goal or first assist) on all four goals in the game.
The win gave the Leafs another two points in a hot November, where they’ve lost only one game in regulation.
Let’s get to today’s grades.
Nylander’s game would have been great on a normal day.
He was noticeable in his efforts to drop down into the defensive zone to support out a D-group decimated by injuries. And he scored the game-winner — a gorgeous catch and release to beat Marc-Andre Fleury blocker side — his fifth goal in six games, and 11th of the season.
With the goal, Nylander tied Börje Salming for the second-most goals scored by a Swedish player in Maple Leafs history — On the first game after it was announced that Salming died after suffering from ALS, while wearing an honorary patch on the jersey.
Nylander has spoken at length about what Salming meant to him and other Swedish players. After the game, he dedicated the goal and the Leafs’ win to Salming. It’s only fitting that he gets the first star.
Keefe said the Nylander winner was “fitting” in memory of Salming, then pointed out the Leafs won 2-1 on Wednesday (Salming’s number) with Pontus Holmberg getting his first NHL goal.
— Lance Hornby ?? (@sunhornby) November 25, 2022
When a player is hot, it sometimes seems like anything they throw at the net might go in. That’s what happened with Marner in the first period on his opening goal.
He put the puck on net through traffic just inside the offensive blue line, Fleury lost sight of it, and the puck deflected off Matt Dumba and in. That extended Marner’s career-high point streak to 15 games.
I didn’t love what appeared to be Marner jumping the zone on the penalty kill, but he had a solid game overall, leading all Leafs forwards in scoring with 22:23 minutes in all situations. Marner played a ton against the Wild’s top defence pair and top two forward lines — 5:49 against Kirill Kaprizov. Despite those matchups, the Leafs lived in the offensive zone with Marner on the ice and out-chanced the Wild 15-5.
Murray wasn’t perfect in this game with three goals against and a sub .900 save percentage, and he potentially played some games with the net again — he probably needs to cut that out — but he gets the third star of the game for his efforts to seal the win at critical moments in the game.
Evason upset about the Murray net moorings issue tonight. Says it makes no sense that you can do that three times with no repercussions on scoring chances/extended shifts and goalie coach Freddy Chabot told him it’s a “trend with that goaltender”
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 25, 2022
In the first period, he made a few impressive saves through traffic while the game was still 0-0. In the second period, he made a big save on Connor Dewar’s short-handed chance, which allowed the Leafs to go to the second intermission still up 3-2. And then, there was the massive game-winning save on Kaprizov with 15 seconds left in regulation.
Matt Murray is that dude. pic.twitter.com/RAIUXj7yac
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 25, 2022
He’s now 4-0-1 since returning from a lower-body injury — and got the player of the game belt in the locker room from Pontus Holmberg.
Sheldon Keefe said he wanted to give Järnkrok an opportunity because “he gives you absolutely everything he has on every shift.”
Well, he took that opportunity — a run on the second line with Marner and John Tavares — and looked like he belonged. There’s reason to believe this could be a nice fit long-term, too. Järnkrok might not have the same skill as someone like Nick Robertson or other players looking for top-six opportunities, but, he’s a puck hound who does well to win battles off the wall and in the corners and can get the puck out of the trenches and into the middle of the ice where Marner and Tavares can do damage. We saw that against the Wild.
In the first period, Järnkrok parked in front of Fleury and disrupted Dumba enough at the net front that he didn’t jump out to block Marner’s point shot. He didn’t get an assist on the play, but things like that matter.
Then, Järnkrok got things started on his own goal in the second period, getting in on the forecheck and then shifting down to the net front for an easy tap-in. John Tavares did a ton of work on the walls there, and Mark Giordano put it on the net, but Järnkrok did well not to just stay on the wall and go open in front of the net. As far as top-six auditions go, that was a pretty, pretty good one.
Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren
I don’t have a ton to say about these two, other than that they had another solid game together taking on more minutes and responsibilities. Liljegren graded out as the best Leafs defender by Game Score with three blocked shots and only 0.14 expected-goals against when he was on the ice, the lowest mark for a defender in the game.
There was a scare with Sandin after he appeared to do the splits after a pinch into the offensive zone. But, he didn’t miss a shift and logged another 20-plus minute night with top power-play quarterback duties. He logged a few hits, blocks, and shots, too.
As a pair, Liljegren and Sandin were not on the ice for a goal against and the Wild only logged one shot on goal at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick.
John Tavares had a two-point night — two secondary assists — and the highest Game Score of all Leafs skaters on Friday afternoon. The reason I don’t have him higher is his poor defensive effort on Matt Boldy’s second-period goal.
Tavares failed to get the puck deep into the Minnesota zone, lost the puck battle and didn’t drop back far enough into his own zone. Yes, it was late into his shift and he might not have had the legs, but we all know how short the Leafs are on defence right now. The forwards need to support that blue line as much as they can.
On that play, Mark Giordano covered out wide, Victor Mete covered the middle, and Tavares — if he got back — could have covered Boldy. He didn’t. And Boldy was wide open on the doorstep and made no mistake. At first glance, Mete looked like he was chasing the puck and blew his coverage, but I think Tavares could have done more there.
Other than that, his line with Marner and Järnkrok was excellent with the best shot share (9-4) and expected-goal (85 percent) rates among Leafs lines at five-on-five.
Zero points for Matthews in this game, but he was generating chances throughout the game and was playing well with and without the puck with three shots, two hits, and three blocks.
Bunting made a great forechecking effort that led to Nylander’s game-winning goal. He did well on puck retrievals on that line and drew another penalty to add to his league-leading penalties drawn, per Natural Stat Trick, which now sits at 17.
The third line (David Kampf, Pierre Engvall, Zach Aston-Reese)
This line had zero offensive zone faceoffs, but did well to not get consistently buried in their own zone, and generated their fair share of offence throughout the game. Overall, I liked the impact they had on the game.
Engvall was moving his feet, seemed engaged on the forecheck and was making plays. David Kampf played a key role — as usual — on the penalty kill and won his first seven faceoffs of the game, mostly in the defensive zone. And Aston-Reese scored a goal in the first period only 42 seconds after the Wild tied the game 1-1. It wasn’t a pretty one — it was ugly if you’re Marc Andre Fleury — but he scored from the line transitioning from defence to offence, winning puck battles along the wall, and getting to the net front; something this group did well on Friday.
Giordano failed to clear the puck on the Leafs’ first penalty kill of the game, which led to Kirill Kaprizov tying the game 1-1. Marner didn’t help things, but the penalty kill was out of system after that and couldn’t get back on track before Kaprizov capitalized. It’s not all on Giordano, but (obviously) you need to clear the zone when you can.
There was a bit of a miscommunication with Victor Mete in the second period that led to Matt Boldy’s goal to make things 2-2, but, I don’t put that on Giordano. He was coming off the bench into the zone, and kicked out for wide coverage. Mete had the middle and Tavares just coasted behind them.
Otherwise, Giordano had a fine game, as usual, and logged the second-most minutes on the team (23:06) with tough minutes at five-on-five, penalty kill and second power play unit duties. He also made a smart pinch on the weak side in the second period that led to Järnkrok’s goal, the Leafs’ third of the game.
The third pair (Mac Hollowell and Victor Mete)
They did as well as you could reasonably expect in pretty sheltered minutes against a big and physical Minnesota Wild team. Mete had the weird moment with Giordano, but wasn’t on the ice for any other goals against. Hollowell blocked three shots in the inner slot in his second NHL game. I’m probably grading on a curve with these two, and eventually, that will stop the longer they’re in the lineup, but I’m not sure what else you’d want from an inexperienced third pair thrown into NHL action.
Wasn’t a great game by Holl. He took a careless high stick against Kaprizov — who was riding a seven-game point streak — in the first period to send the Wild to the power play. That allowed Kaprizov to score his seventh power-play goal of the year to tie the game 1-1. There were moments in the game where he looked fine, to be clear, but also some moments where he failed to clear the zone or make a quick outlet pass up to the forwards. He was playing a ton of tough minutes again tonight with Giordano, but another mistake in the third period dropped him down for me.
On Minnesota’s third goal of the game, Holl lost a puck battle behind the net, moved to the net front and lost Mats Zuccarello behind him on the doorstep. Zuccarello made no mistake on a rebound chance to make it 4-3. He was wide open, with Holl not boxing out.
Kerfoot put himself into two pretty bad spots this afternoon after bobbling the puck. First, in the second period on the power play he couldn’t handle a pass up to the point, which sprung Connor Dewar for a short-handed chance.
Then, in the third period, the Leafs had almost a minute of sustained offensive zone time that came to an end after Kerfoot bobbled the puck, lost possession to Nic Petan and was called for slashing in his attempt to gain it back. Not many positive impacts on the game for Kerfoot today.
Wayne Simmonds and Pontus Holmberg
The other two pieces of the fourth line didn’t jump out today. Holmberg has a quiet effectiveness about him and played well in previous games, but I just didn’t see it against Minnesota. Perhaps that’s because of his wingers, or a combination of all three players being off — Simmonds, Kerfoot and Holmberg were the bottom three skaters by Game Score.
Simmonds was playing in his first game since Nov. 5 and Keefe explained at practice yesterday that Simmonds was “overdue” to play and that the lineup could use some physicality against a Minnesota team that just added Ryan Reaves to an already big lineup.
“It is a big & physical team,” Keefe said. “At the same time, we have lost a lot of size & experience out of our lineup on defence, in particular.”
It’s a tough ask for Simmonds to bring up the physicality for a team as a whole. However, he registered zero hits and zero blocks in around nine minutes of ice time. Not much of a physical impact in that stat line.
Final grade: B+
This was a pretty good effort from the Leafs against a good Minnesota Wild team — probably better than their record would suggest. They opened the scoring, and while the Wild fought back many times, Minnesota never led in this game. The power play went zero-for-three, which isn’t ideal, but three of four lines for the Leafs scored a goal at five-on-five. And, once again, with a decimated blue line, the Leafs came away with a win.
They’re now 8-1-4 in their last 13 games.
What’s next for the Leafs?
A short turnaround for Toronto, with a game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins on Saturday night at 7 p.m. on Hockey Night in Canada.
(Top photo of William Nylander: David Berding / Getty Images)