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Knee Jerk Reaction: Leafs head into break on a high note

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Photo credit:© James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
29 days ago
Things can change quickly in the NHL and the Leafs are riding high heading into the All-Star break after the temperature in Toronto was approaching a boiling point a week ago. Following an impressive 4-2 victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night, the Leafs have won three straight games on the heels of a rough stretch that saw them go 1-4-1 in their previous six outings.
The Leafs have managed to come away with points in plenty of games where they may not have deserved them this season, but whether it be through strong goaltending, stingy defense, or big contributions from their special teams units, they have earned everything that has come to them on their current three-game winning streak.
It wasn’t long ago that it looked like Ilya Samsonov might have played his last game as a Leaf, but he has been spectacular since returning from a stint away from the team, and he was a big part of the story again against the Jets. He’d probably be the first to admit that he’d like another crack at Winnipeg’s opening marker off the stick of Dylan Samberg, but he shut the door the rest of the way until a meaningless goal in the final seconds off a scramble play. Samsonov finished with 24 saves on 26 shots, including some big time stops when the game was tied, and he has now stopped 72 of the 75 shots (.960 SV%) he has faced in the last three games.
Though it wasn’t a spotless performance defensively, the Leafs did a good job of limiting high-quality chances against, and they controlled the play for a large portion of the game. They have now outshot their opponents by a total of 86-75 and outscored them 8-3 on their current streak, showcasing their ability to win tight checking games rather than having to rely on their offensive stars to lead the charge every single night.
The defensive issues and Samsonov’s struggles have been concerns all season long, and the Leafs have to be encouraged to see improvements in those areas, but they also managed to buck a couple of more recent trends that have been problematic as of late. The power play’s recent struggles have been well documented, and culminated with an ugly shift that led to the top unit being benched for a part of Wednesday’s game against the Jets, but they broke through early in the third period to end a stretch where they had converted on just one of their previous 20 attempts. It wasn’t just the power play as a whole getting off the schnide, as captain John Tavares broke his longest pointless streak since his rookie season, deflecting a point shot from Morgan Rielly in vintage Tavares fashion. The top unit would cash in again to extend the lead to 3-1 late in the third period, with Auston Matthews hammering a one-timer from the high slot for his 40th of the season on a rare two-man advantage for the Leafs.
The penalty killers did their part too, neutralizing a struggling Jets power play by killing all all four opportunities they had. The Leafs have not allowed a power play goal against since last Saturday’s loss to Vancouver, another encouraging sign for a team that has struggled mightily while playing down a man this season.
Sticking with the theme of positive developments for the Leafs, Ryan Reaves got back into the lineup for the first time since December 14th, and played what was inarguably his best game as a Leaf. He opened the scoring for the Leafs and tied the game in the first period with a deft tip in front of the net, but it was the result of a strong effort chasing down a contested puck, and he was noticeable on the forecheck throughout the game. Reaves also had a key block with the Jets pressing in the third period, and made sure to get involved physically when tensions boiled over with the clock winding down.
With the walls seemingly closing in on them, the Leafs needed to string together some wins in a bad way, and they have done just that. Perhaps more importantly, the wins have been due in large part to getting contributions from players and parts of their game that have been areas of concern throughout the season.
With their bye week and the All-Star break on the horizon, the Leafs will have eight days before they return to action against the New York Islanders, but there is plenty for them to feel good about as they recharge and prepare for the stretch drive.
 
Statistics from NHL.com

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