Never a dull moment, eh?
Not with these Maple Leafs, a group that continues to find its way and will provide some exhilarating hockey as it does.
The Leafs’ up-and-down start to the 2023-24 season came into focus on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The Leafs beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-5 in overtime, shrugging off a three-goal lead built by the visitors in the first period.
Calle Jarnkrok, on a feed from Morgan Rielly, scored at 46 seconds of the extra period as Toronto ended a four-game losing streak.
The Leafs appeared to be on their way to a victory when Lightning forward Brandon Hagel stuffed the puck past goaltender Joseph Woll at 17:34 of the third period.
With the win, for a day or two at least, the Leafs should quiet those who were gathering with pitchforks and torches on Bay St.
Tampa’s 4-1 lead after one period was erased completely early in the third when Mitch Marner beat goalie Jonas Johansson, a goal that came just eight seconds after Jarnkrok buried a Nick Robertson rebound.
The Leafs scored the quickest two goals in the National Hockey League this season for a 5-4 lead, sending the crowd into hysterics. Many in the same crowd had booed the Leafs off the ice at the end of the first period. Those boos were earned; so were the cheers that followed the Leafs off the ice at the end of the second, as those in the stands seemed to have a sense of what was to come.
Woll was excellent after Ilya Samsonov was pulled in the first period, stopping 18 shots.
Some takeaways from the Leafs’ sixth win of 2023-24:
A KNIES CHANGE
Yes, Auston Matthews scored two more goals, bringing him to an eye-popping 13 in 12 games.
And yes, it was just one game, but it was refreshing to see the enthusiasm that Matthew Knies brought to the Leafs’ top line, playing alongside Matthews and Marner for the first time this season. Frankly, it took coach Sheldon Keefe too long to make the change. Jarnkrok isn’t a top-six forward and had been proving it again with mostly ineffective play on the Matthews unit before he was sent back to the bottom six. Tyler Bertuzzi couldn’t make a go of it either.
Knies, whose only two previous goals came in Tampa Bay on Oct. 21, got the Leafs on the board at 3:42 of the first when he backhanded the puck past Johansson after a feed from Marner.
Knies set up Matthews with a no-look pass in the second period, and Matthews turned it into his second goal of the game with a quick move on Johansson to get the Leafs to within one.
There’s no reason to keep experimenting with the Matthews line. Knies looked good there and should be given an awful lot of runway to keep that spot.
And in his season debut with the Leafs, Robertson brought energy on a line with Max Domi and Jarnkrok. The line had offensive zone pressure at times and was rewarded early in the third when Jarnkrok scored on Robertson’s rebound at 1:55.
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Trying to stop Nikita Kucherov on the Tampa power play brings a list of challenges, and even though the Leafs know how lethal Kucherov can be with a man advantage, they had no answer for him in the first period.
Kucherov had two goals and two assists, with one of each coming while a Leafs player sat in the penalty box. Not that he needs the cash, but Kucherov could run power-play clinics in his spare time.
A goal by Brayden Point, who was set up by Kucherov, chased Samsonov at 15:13. The netminder again didn’t look comfortable in the Leafs net and was gone after allowing four goals on 12 shots. It’s an issue that the Leafs have to address properly, and if it goes on much longer, giving Martin Jones a look wouldn’t be the wrong way to go.
As it stands now, Woll, who was sharp in relief, has to get the start against Ottawa on Wednesday. Next on the schedule after the game against the Senators are back-to-back home games versus Calgary and Vancouver on Friday and Saturday respectively. Samsonov would be line to start one, and that’s not ideal.
The line of captain John Tavares between Bertuzzi and William Nylander (who assisted on the winner to extend his point streak to 12 games) was on the ice for the first two Tampa goals, which came less than two minutes apart before the game was seven minutes old. And John Klingberg, as has been his way, made some interesting decisions in the defensive zone, the kind that give the coaching staff fits.
We’ll go back to what Rielly said on Monday morning when he referred to the Leafs’ losing streak.
“In terms of adversity, I don’t think this is anything,” Rielly said. “This is just the start of the season. This is how it goes, you go through ups and downs and then you try to right the ship and then you get going. I don’t think anyone is reading too much into it.
“I don’t think anything has really been off with the group, but when you look at the results and the play, there are areas for improvement. We’re aware of what we’re capable of, we believe in one another, we have confidence.”
That’s all well and good. The Leafs are better than they have played through a dozen games, failing on most nights to put a full game together.
Give the Leafs credit for buckling down and coming back. Now, how about playing with a similar urgency from the opening faceoff?