Matthews inches closer to 70, McCabe scores overtime winner as Maple Leafs defeat Penguins 3-2

Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Joseph Zita
2 months ago
For the third and final time this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs took on their former general manager, Kyle Dubas, and his Pittsburgh Penguins as both teams continued their final stretch of the 2023-24 NHL regular season, with both clubs looking for points in the standings for two different reasons.

First period:

It’s not just the Penguins desperate for points in the standings. The Maple Leafs, entering last night’s game, sat five points behind the Panthers with two games in hand, meaning home-ice advantage is still a real possibility for this team. However, the game started with the Benoit-McCabe pairing hemmed in the defensive zone, trying to clear the puck but having trouble doing so. The first two minutes were Pittsburgh applying pressure, but they couldn’t get clear shots on Ilya Samsonov and settled for just two.
After Toronto weathered the early storm from Pittsburgh, it was a bland stretch of hockey for the next 10 minutes. If you thought their first period against Montreal was boring, you were in for a surprise with the first 20 minutes last night. “I thought our start was flat”, McCabe said postgame. The Maple Leafs were stuck on two shots for over half the opening frame. And, after Simon Benoit and Ilya Lyubushkin were whistled for penalties, sending the Penguins to the power play, it was hard for Toronto to get things going because they were defending so much for an extended period.
Once they killed off both minor penalties and rolled all four lines over the boards, they started to look better, but Pittsburgh remained the more engaged team. With less than two minutes to go in the period, Ilya Lyubushkin turned over the puck, which got picked off by Evgeni Malkin, and he found Rickard Rakell, who snapped his 14th goal of the season – 200th of his career – past a screened Ilya Samsonov.
Toronto entered the first intermission down 1-0 and outshot 10-5.

Second period:

After a dull first 20 minutes, Toronto began the second period with urgency and applied a ton of pressure on Pittsburgh in the early going. They strung together a couple of shifts, and on their third, T.J. Brodie found Matthew Knies back door, who tapped home his 15th goal of the season, giving the rookie a point in six of his last seven games, tying the game back up.
It was great to see the Maple Leafs come out for the middle period with a better effort early on, tying the game at one. But the parade to the penalty box for the home team continued in the second frame, frequently putting Toronto short-handed. After killing off two penalties in the prior period, Toronto was whistled for three penalties, compared to Pittsburgh’s one through 40 minutes of play. Fortunately, the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill units did a solid job and continued their exceptional play short-handed, keeping the Penguins off the scoreboard on all their opportunities.
However, lost in all of the craziness of the parade to the penalty box, the whistle was blown a couple of times in the second period after these penalties, following Sidney Crosby taking a puck to the face and colliding with Auston Matthews, further prolonging the period and making some fans frustrated.
Toronto entered the second intermission tied 1-1 and outshot 19-14.

Third period:

I’m not sure many expected a 1-1 game after 40 minutes, but that’s what fans were treated to between Toronto and Pittsburgh last night, as both teams were hoping they’d be the ones to come away with the two points in the standings in this tight game. Similarly to the second period, Toronto came out attacking the Pittsburgh zone. With zone time, William Nylander drew a tripping penalty on Erik Karlsson, which sent his team to the power play for the second time. Although they were unsuccessful on their first attempt in the middle frame, it took Toronto three seconds to find the back of the net on this attempt.
John Tavares won the faceoff, and the puck made its way to Auston Matthews, who blasted his 65th goal of the season past Alex Nedeljkovic for the 2-1 lead. Matthews’ 65th goal also tied Alex Ovechkin for the most goals scored in a single season in the salary cap era.
There were six combined power plays in the first two periods, and neither team scored a single goal. In the third period, there was one, and Toronto capitalized on the opportunity. After Matthews blasted home his record-tying goal, the whistles went away, and both teams played the remaining 18 and a half minutes at five-on-five It was a decent period for the home team. But given the road team was the more desperate group coming into the game fighting for their playoff lives, a push from Pittsburgh was inevitable, and that’s what Toronto got.
With roughly seven minutes to go, the Crosby line went to work in the Maple Leafs zone and outworked their opponents, which rewarded them with a goal, tying the game at two. There were three Toronto players in the corner trying to take the puck off the Penguins player, but the puck remained in the possession of Pittsburgh. The puck made its way to the point, and Drew O’Connor banged home his 14th goal of the season after a point shot from Pierre-Oliver Joseph, tying the game at two.
Neither side could find the go-ahead goal in the remaining six and a half minutes, and they were headed to some extra hockey.

Overtime period:

For the 22nd time this season, the Maple Leafs were headed to overtime, which was probably not in their plans after taking the 2-1 lead 1:22 into the third period and holding the lead for 12 minutes. Nonetheless, these two teams treated the fans to some 3-on-3 hockey, and the Toronto fans left Scotiabank Arena in a good mood.
After nearly scoring at the start of overtime, the Penguins chased the Maple Leafs for the puck. There weren’t many chances generated by Toronto because they were playing keep-away, in an attempt to find the perfect lane to the net. Fortunately, against a tired Penguins group, Auston Matthews found Jake McCabe going to the net, and the defenceman scored his eighth goal of the season for the overtime winner, which set a new career high in points with 26.

Who stood out:

Another start, another stellar performance from Ilya Samsonov. Last night was Samsonov’s ninth start in the team’s previous 12 games, and the 27-year-old has now won five consecutive games, 7-1-1 in that stretch, improving his season record to 23-6-7, after starting the year 5-2-6. In Samsonov’s last 23 games since January 14th, he has posted a ridiculous record of 18-4-1 with a .913 SV%. This feels like the postgame article from the game on Saturday night. Ilya Samsonov looked good again, picked up another win, and the man on the hunt for 70 goals inches closer again. After scoring his 64th goal on the weekend in Montreal, Auston Matthews added another one last night to give him 65 on the season, putting him five shy of the 70-goal mark with just five games to go.
It’s no secret the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill was a complete disaster for the longest time this season. But over the past two weeks, they’ve been playing better short-handed. They’ve been more aggressive, more structured, they’re blocking shots, and of course, they’re getting saves. They went 5-for-5 last night against the Penguins.
You can catch the Toronto Maple Leafs’ next game tonight when they travel to New Jersey to take on the Devils as they close out their second-last back-to-back of the season. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET/4:00 pm PT.
(Stats from hockey-reference.com)

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