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Knee Jerk Reaction: Matthews rescues the Leafs from self-imposed boredom

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
1 month ago
There has rarely been a dull moment with the 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that runs with a supercar engine, seemingly prone to self-inflicted disaster and unforced mistakes. Squaring off against a bottom-feeding Buffalo Sabres team that is still a year away from playoff contention, Toronto instead settled for ennui and experimentation, trying out new line combinations, while never moving past second gear.
And then came Auston Matthews.
Matthews never reached his superlative heights throughout regulation but he scored his 54th goal of the season, working his way into the slot while Mitch Marner outmanoeuvred two Sabres defenders before finding the 2022 MVP for the game-winner. And were it not for Ilya Samsonov, the Maple Leafs are probably slinking off the ice with their heads in their hands.
Samsonov was terrific when called upon and we mean this in the most literal sense. Toronto forced an anemic Buffalo attack to the outside, while clogging the middle of the ice in the defensive third. It took 15 minutes for the Sabres to record their first shot of the game, then they hammered Samsonov with 10 consecutive shots to end the first frame. Samsonov was more than ready when thrust into action, he robbed Alex Tuch with a nasty glove save in the third period. One shift prior to Matthews’ overtime winner, Samsonov made a spectacular glove save on Tage Thompson, who used his size, physicality and shot to wear down the Maple Leafs — just ask TJ Brodie and Tyler Bertuzzi, both of whom were impaled by Thompson’s ferocious release during the second period, but remained in the game.
For large stretches of the contest, William Nylander was the only Maple Leafs player with any juice. Nylander opened the scoring, after Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi connected with some nifty passing, before Bertuzzi found Nylander in the shot. Ilya Lyubushkin also deserves credit for keeping the play alive and when paired with Morgan Rielly, Toronto’s newest acquisition took a more involved playmaking role while posting a team-best 76 percent Corsi at 5-on-5. Nylander played like a man possessed, when he was on the ice, the Maple Leafs outshot the Sabres 6-1 at 5-on-5 and as a result, he was rewarded with just under two minutes of extra ice time alongside Matthews and Marner, the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency lineup. It didn’t lead to any goals but Nylander was flying around Scotiabank Arena on a night where the Maple Leafs look like they’d be haunted by complacency.
Toronto’s fourth line, which was rolling lately, struggled to make an impact and David Kampf, Ryan Reaves and Noah Gregor — who didn’t make the most of his renewed opportunity Wednesday — were caught up the ice when Victor Olofsson skated up the left wing and launched a rocket past Samsonov. Morgan Rielly should’ve closed out better but the fault lies with the fourth line’s refusal to track back.
Ultimately, the Maple Leafs bullied the Sabres for large stretches due to their talent level, but they ultimately were prone to experiment and let Nylander do all the work. When you have a player like Auston Matthews, it erases all the ennui and the perils of self-imposed boredom.

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