Maple Leafs vs. Jets observations: Ilya Samsonov saves Toronto in shutout win


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The Toronto Maple Leafs owe Ilya Samsonov a steak dinner.

Samsonov earned his second consecutive start after stopping 16 of 17 shots against Seattle on Sunday, and he was the team’s best player on Wednesday by a wide margin. The Leafs had scored a goal in 190 straight games entering play, and if it wasn’t for their goaltender, this streak would be all but over. Auston Matthews scored the game’s only goal in the final minute of overtime, and both Morgan Rielly and Nick Robertson earned well-deserved assists.

It wasn’t pretty, as a depleted Jets roster outplayed the Leafs at five-on-five, and Toronto’s power play was dreadful. However, it was nice to see Samsonov look like the 2022-23 version of himself, and the Leafs will take points any way they can get them at the moment.

Three stars

1. Ilya Samsonov

There was no doubt about this one.

Most of his teammates decided to take it easy in the opening 20 minutes, and the Jets were left with a 16-4 edge in shots on goal as a result. While the Leafs were able to keep most of those shots to the outside, they were fortunate to be tied after one.

The Leafs had three power plays in the second, but once again, it was Samsonov who had the more difficult workload. After Toronto’s top power-play unit made a horrible line change, Samsonov earned a standing ovation for saving the day:

Samsonov saved all 21 shots he faced through two periods, and he was the only reason the game was tied. He was just as sharp in the third:

2. Nick Robertson

Robertson returned to the lineup against Seattle, and his coach was quite satisfied with his performance:

Sheldon Keefe put the young forward in the lineup again, and he rewarded his coach by racking up four shots on goal in regulation. Keefe then gave Robertson a shift in three-on-three overtime, and Robertson’s ability to protect the puck played a major role in the overtime winner:

3. Conor Timmins

The Leafs owned 60 percent of the five-on-five expected goals when Timmins was on the ice, and he was the only player on the team who won his minutes by that metric. Keefe played him over a struggling Mark Giordano, and while he wasn’t spectacular, he probably earned himself another game. There weren’t many options for the third star in this one!

Leafs struggle against a depleted Jets roster

The Jets didn’t start Connor Hellebuyck. Two of the team’s top forwards, Mark Scheifele and Gabriel Vilardi, weren’t in the lineup. The team’s top defenceman, Josh Morrissey, left the game near the end of the first and did not return. Vladislav Namestnikov and Dominic Toninato were Winnipeg’s top-six centres, but it didn’t matter, as they dominated the Leafs early on. Winnipeg’s two-way players gave the Leafs little time and space to operate, and the Jets looked like a team that could find a way to win even without their stars. The Leafs could not be more different; if Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander don’t play well, the team just doesn’t seem to have the depth and defensive ability to make up for it on a regular basis.

Keefe benches his top power-play unit

It sure looks like Toronto’s head coach is fed up with the team’s defensive effort. The Leafs’ star players went for an inexcusable line change during a second-period power play, and two Jets forwards were allowed to enter Toronto’s end all alone. While I’m not great at lip reading, I don’t think Keefe was saying “great job!” here:

When the Leafs received another power play minutes later, neither of Toronto’s two units featured Matthews, Marner or Nylander. The top unit did return for the team’s next power play at the end of the period, but it was the second unit that started it off. I have watched more than my fair share of Leafs games over the years, and I can’t recall another time when Toronto’s stars were benched on a power play in a tie game. It probably wasn’t optimal, but I can’t blame Keefe for sending a clear message.

Treliving needs to trade for a two-way forward

The Leafs simply aren’t anywhere close to being good enough defensively. Adding a top-four defender would obviously help, but it could not be more clear that this team needs at least one more two-way forward. This team definitely isn’t deep enough.

The Jets allow the fewest amount of five-on-five goals per minute in the league. When you look at expected goals against, the forwards with the worst results are their top scorers like Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Vilardi and Nikolaj Ehlers. When Winnipeg’s bottom-six forwards go on the ice, its goalies are often bored. The Leafs are the complete opposite, as bottom-six forwards like David Kämpf, Noah Gregor, Calle Järnkrok and Max Domi fare the worst among Toronto’s forwards.

Domi has never been good defensively, but he’s a good fit for Jason Spezza’s old role, where he can play sheltered minutes against opposing fourth lines. Gregor has also posted some ugly defensive metrics year after year, and he’s not scoring enough to justify that. Keefe just doesn’t have many options to put together a successful checking line, and Kämpf’s unit is getting caved in game after game. Acquiring a bottom-six forward shouldn’t cost much, and Treliving ought to add at least one. It wouldn’t surprise me if Brad Treliving claimed Adam Ruzicka, who was waived by the Flames, on Thursday.

Game score

Final grade: D

The Leafs failed to start on time. The vast majority of the first 10 minutes were spent in Toronto’s end, and the Jets owned nine of the game’s first 10 shots as a result. There’s no excuse for that, especially against a Jets team missing Scheifele and Vilardi. Rielly is counted on to be a leader on this team, but he was particularly awful with three giveaways by the halfway point in the first. The line change that got the first power-play unit benched was unacceptable, and while Winnipeg is good defensively, you still have to expect more scoring chances against a depleted roster.

The Leafs spend minimal cap space on goaltending. With all of the cap space allocated to their forwards and defencemen, they should be outplaying their opponents far more often.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Heading to Winnipeg to play the Jets again on Saturday at 7 p.m. on “Hockey Night in Canada.”

(Photo of Ilya Samsonov and Timothy Liljegren: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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