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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The TLN Three Stars: Shesterkin spoils Matthews’ return, Leafs fall to Rangers in OT

For the first time since what feels like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Leafs faced a non-Canadian team tonight, welcoming the New York Rangers to Scotiabank Arena. It was a refreshing break from the monotony of the last 66 games: while last season’s North Division had some initial charm and ignited some hostilities between Canadian franchises, it quickly became overkill playing the same six teams over and over again for months. Let’s honestly never do it again. Variety is the spice of life.

Speaking of the overdue arrival of Americans, the Leafs also welcomed Auston Matthews back to their lineup for the first time this season after wrist surgery, and boy he came to play.

Recap

Before we get into a recap, a quick disclaimer: I watched the first period on any extremely pixelated treadmill television while chugging through a 5k run, so my recollections of the first 20 minutes are hazy.

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Toronto got an early opportunity to break the ice when William Nylander was high-sticked by Barclay Goodrow during the second shift of the game. Our first glimpse of the new-look powerplay featuring Matthews was encouraging as the unit zipped the puck around, opening Matthews up for two excellent opportunities from his office near the top of the left faceoff dot. Nylander also had a good chance off a Mitch Marner feed from his new powerplay spot in the bumper position but failed to capitalize.

Mika Zibanejad capitalized, however, to give the Rangers the first goal of the game. Jack Campbell, always eager to help, skated a loose puck behind the net and just did not get enough weight on his shot around the rim to reach Michael Bunting on the half-wall in time. Some excellent forechecking pressure by Ryan Reaves (?!) caused Bunting to lose possession of the puck. John Tavares picked up the loose puck and did something every coach I ever had in house league hockey told me never to do: threw it up the middle. Zibanejad beat Nylander to the errant pass, then ripped a perfect shot over Campbell’s glove that hit the post then goal-line camera so fast that play continued without acknowledgement of the goal. Upon review of the play, Zibanejad was awarded an unassisted tally. The Rangers entered the first intermission with a 1-0 lead.

The Leafs equalized early in the second period off an extremely Hyman-y goal by Bunting. Morgan Rielly did an excellent job here of entering the offensive zone and moving laterally east-to-west to stretch out the Rangers defence. This also gave Bunting time to arrive at the far side of the net, where he got his stick/torso/leg/whatever on Rielly’s bad angle shot, making just enough contact to have it trickle over the line.

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The early goal galvanized the Leafs, who went on to outshoot the Rangers 17-2 in the period. However, it was the play of Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin who kept the game tied, as he stopped Grade A scoring chance after scoring chance, including this series of point-blank saves, first on Travis Dermott’s snap shot from the slot and then on an Auston Matthews backhand on the rebound:

After 40 minutes it was 1-1, despite the Leafs winning the Corsi war 68%-to-32% and the Expected Goal battle 62%-to-38%. Matthews at this point had five shots on ten attempts.

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The third period was more evenly matched with both teams trading chances. Campbell, having only faced 12 shots after two periods (including just two in the middle frame), made several ten bell saves to keep the game tied, mirroring Shesterkin’s second-period heroics with some magic of his own.

Campbell took away a tap-in for Chris Kreider here with a masterful sweeping poke check.

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And he came up big in the final minute to get the game to overtime:

WOW, what an overtime it was. But rather than having me describe it for you, just watch this and marvel:

Matthews had no less than FIVE opportunities to finish the game but Shesterkin stood tall on every attempt levied by the world’s greatest goal scorer. Nylander also made a brilliant play on a 1-on-1 against Artemi Panarin, almost squeaking a backhand across the Rangers netminder’s body.

If the game of hockey has taught us anything, it’s that if you do not capitalize on your opportunities, they will come back to haunt you. That they did. Panarin scored the overtime winner off a broken faceoff that Tavares lost and skated away from, allowing Zibanejad to feed Panarin, who buried a wrister far side on Campbell.

Three Stars

Third Star: Jack Campbell

Mika Zibanejad could have easily been the third star for his 1G-1A performance but the tie goes to the Leaf. Campbell’s third period and overtime heroics saved the game for the Leafs on multiple occasions. He played out of his mind when needed after a sleepy first two periods.

Second Star: Auston Matthews

Matthews came out flying in tonight’s game, finishing the game with 8 shots on a career-high-tying 16 attempts and could have easily scored a hat trick were it not for tonight’s first star.

First Star: Igor Shesterkin

What a ridiculous performance from Shesterkin, who absolutely stole this game for the Rangers. His 2.26 Goals Saved Above Expectation (GSAx) was the fourth-highest total of his career. On any other night, the Leafs probably win this game 4-2. Remember this stolen game if the Leafs lose out on home-ice advantage in the first round by a single point.

40th Star: Nick Ritchie

Ritchie seems to be having a hard time keeping up with his speedier linemates and looks a few steps behind the play. He’s averaging one shot per game and not making much of an impact away from the puck, often taking himself out of position to attempt hits. At one point in the third period, Sheldon Keefe replaced Ritchie with Nylander to try to get the go-ahead goal. It’s early, and he still needs to acclimate to his teammates and new systems, but Ritchie may find himself down on the third or fourth line soon if he does not find a way to be more impactful.

Tweet of the Night

Same, Auston.

Final Thoughts

I’m having a hard time finding much wrong with this game. The Leafs had ample opportunities to score but were stymied by a world-class goaltender having one of the best games of his life. It happens.

It’s very early, and Matthews has been out of the lineup for three of four games, but the Leafs are scoring at just a two-goal-per-game pace to this point in the season. The Leafs are putting up the fifth-highest shots per game in the league, so from a volume standpoint the goals should start coming when they stop shooting at a 5% rate. Bunting and Nylander account for half of the Leafs’ goals.

Of forwards to play in all four games, Tavares (15 shots), Marner (13), Ondrej Kase (11), Nick Ritchie (4), and David Kampf (3) have yet to score. Tavares especially has had some unreal chances early in the season: it’s just a matter of time before they start going in. As for Marner, it has been 21.5 months since he scored a powerplay goal in the regular season and I’m not sure if he ever will again at this point.

The Leafs have the next three days off before welcoming the San Jose Sharks to SBA on Friday, October 22nd.