Knee Jerk Reaction: New look lines lead Leafs to win over Canadiens

Photo credit:© Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
23 days ago
Mitch Marner rejoined the Leafs’ lineup against the Canadiens following a 12-game absence, and his return offered Sheldon Keefe an opportunity to try something new with his forward group. Spreading his big stars across three lines, the Leafs got contributions from up and down their lineup on their way to a 4-2 victory on Hockey Night in Canada to sweep the season series against their Original Six rival.
Rather than reuniting Marner with Auston Matthews on the top line in his first game back from injury, Keefe opted to keep Matthews between Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, with Marner playing alongside John Tavares and Bobby McMann on the second line. That knocked William Nylander onto a unit with Matthew Knies and Pontus Holmberg, making it more difficult for Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis to get his desired matchups and decide which group to deploy his best defensive line against.
Toronto’s new combinations didn’t exactly come out firing, managing just four shots on goal in the opening frame while struggling to generate much in the way of sustained offensive pressure. Keefe has been known to go to the line blender quickly, but he stuck to the game plan and his players rewarded him in the second period.
The combination of Matthews, Bertuzzi, and Domi has been productive in Marner’s absence, and they got the scoring started early in the second period when Domi deftly deflected a perfectly placed point shot from Ilya Lyubushkin into the net. Matthews doubled the lead just 17 seconds later with his 64th of the season on a fortuitous bounce off the skate of David Savard in front.
The Nylander-led third line got in on the action before the midway point of the period, with Knies cleaning up a Nylander rebound and tucking it behind Samuel Montembault. Not to be outdone, Marner sent McMann in all alone and he made no mistake to extend the Leafs’ lead to 4-0 just 34 seconds later.
The Leafs even got the desired results from their fourth line who played to a draw and controlled nearly 65% of the expected goals in limited ice time. Ryan Reaves made his mark with a decisive win in a mismatch against Michael Pezzetta after Pezzetta caught David Kämpf with a late hit, too.
The Canadiens battled back to make it 4-2 on goals from Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, but the Leafs were able to shut the door from there and make their second period offensive surge hold up.
Keefe has been reluctant to spread Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander across three lines in the past, but it is a look he has utilized more frequently this season and one he is assessing once again, now with just six games remaining in the regular season. The emergence of players like McMann and Knies, who have now scored 15 and 14 goals, respectively, has allowed Keefe to experiment with a more diverse deployment of his forward group and the early returns with this latest look were encouraging on Saturday night.
The Leafs have been victimized by a lack of secondary scoring in postseasons past, but Saturday’s win over the Canadiens offered a glimpse at how things could be different with this group and Keefe should continue rolling with it down the home stretch.
Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com and NHL.com

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