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Knee Jerk Reaction: What a difference Auston Matthews can make

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
The Brad Treliving Bowl has concluded. He probably should have showed up because for the first time in five outings the Leafs got the favourable outcome barely holding on to win 4-3. A fortunate video review prevented the Leafs from blowing another two goal lead and instead we can stick with the narrative that the Leafs came back from a two goal deficit instead. Auston Matthews’ fourth hat trick of the season certainly helped with that.
Matthews’ being up to 37 goals in his 42 games played this year is truly remarkable and his performance is a testament to what happens when your star player decides that the losing streak has to end. What is additionally impressive is the variety of players picking up assists on Matthews goals. Pontus Holmberg had a pair, Gregor had one, Knies had an assist, so did Brodie, and far less surprising, Nylander had one too. Matthews being able to produce with the likes of Gregor, Knies, and Holmberg on the ice with him should be something the Leafs factor in to some line construction going forward. Holmberg has been a great fit with Matthews and that doesn’t look like it will be going away anytime soon, but it makes you wonder if he can be taking more shifts with possibly Holmberg and Knies, freeing up Nylander and Marner to add value around the rest of the lineup.
It will be interesting to see how the Leafs respond to a night where their core delivered. Marner picked up a critical goal, Nylander had two assists, Rielly was aggressive, and Tavares’ late game shot block had to provide the captain with a bit of confidence after playing some of the most disappointing hockey of his career. If the Leafs build on this outing against the Canucks a lot of the panic coming out of the last four games will be quelled and the conversation can shift from replacing Sheldon Keefe back to who Toronto needs to add at the trade deadline.

Some other thoughts…

  • The last thing I really want to do after the Leafs finally winning is go negative but there probably is a growing awareness in the organization that Martin Jones has landed back on earth and the Leafs will need to plan accordingly. The All-Star break couldn’t be coming at a better time with it being needed rest for Jones, another chance for Samsonov to take a mental break, and Woll gets some more time to heal. If things aren’t great after the All-Star break the goaltending narrative will take off again.
  • Watching TJ Brodie struggle in the first it is now becoming painfully clear that some of the slower Leaf defenders are struggling with the shift to Van Ryn’s man-to-man defensive system as opposed to the zone based approach that Dean Chynoweth preached. The move has benefited Rielly, but you can still see a lot of situations where players like Brodie and Giordano seem to be in decent position but can’t accelerate enough to pick up their coverage. If the Leafs are adding defencemen before the trade deadline I wouldn’t be surprised if they prioritize speed.
  • I’m not sure whether Domi is the ideal centre for them, but Bertuzzi and Jarnkrok seem like a good fit together from a puck control standpoint. Their hands might be made of stone but they are moving the puck in the right direction. It would be interesting to see the duo with John Tavares.
  • Finally, Giordano and Liljegren didn’t see much icetime tonight. I’m a big fan of Liljegren but he is absolutely a player that needs to work on his consistency. You can make a case for him playing 20+ minutes a night with Rielly a lot of time but then he games like tonight where you can’t fault Keefe for keeping Timothy under 14 minutes. I would have assumed that he would have looked better against Calgary than a team like Edmonton, but it was surprisingly the opposite.
The Leafs are back at it on Saturday for Hockey Day in Canada against the Canucks, followed by a game Sunday against the Kraken. It’s a safe bet that Samsonov gets a start and as long as Jones is rested, I’d assume Jones gets the Canucks and Samsonov plays in Seattle.

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