Maple Leafs vs. Blues observations: A strong effort across the board in win

Since Morgan Rielly’s suspension began, the script for the Toronto Maple Leafs has been consistent.

The team plays better defence than expected considering their personnel, gets a large chunk of their scoring from the dynamic Auston Matthews-Bobby McMann duo, and always picks up two points.

It’s a script that was followed closely on Monday afternoon as the Maple Leafs stymied the St. Louis Blues for the second time in less than a week to earn a 4-2 victory. Their quality of play wasn’t quite at the level of their win on February 13, but it was a strong effort across the board, uplifted by outstanding individual efforts.

Much of the matinee featured the kind of low-event hockey that coaches like far more than fans, but in the midst of that quiet, Matthew Knies produced a highlight-reel goal, Matthews did his thing, William Nylander scored on an impressive short-handed rush, and McMann used his physicality to earn an empty-netter that finished the game.

Two of the three goals were unassisted, and only the power-play goal from Matthews required a quality pass to come together.

Three stars

1. Matthew Knies

There have been times this season when Knies has played a deferential game alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner, which is understandable considering his status as a rookie and the season Matthews is having. In this matinee, the young winger did a great job of looking for his own offence, tying for the team lead with three shots a total he’s fallen short of in all but seven games this season.

Knies got things going with a confident attempt that was one of the best opportunities in a quiet first period.

To start the next frame, he showed off his top-notch hands to get on the board.

Knies now has six points in his last six games after managing just one in his previous nine.

2. Auston Matthews

In recent weeks Matthews has been a fixture on the scoreboard while centring a line that caves in the opposition, and he didn’t stray from that blueprint on Monday.

Despite missing out on a couple of chances early, the superstar came through in the third period by burying a feed from Marner to score his 49th goal of the season.

Beyond that moment of brilliance, the Maple Leafs thrived whenever Matthews was on the ice outshooting the Blues 9-5 during his five-on-five minutes. He even came close to locking in the seventh 50-plus goal season in Maple Leafs history.

Matthews has produced 16 goals and nine assists in his last 13 games.

3. TJ Brodie

It’s tough to leave Nylander off the podium, but we’re going to reward a complete outing rather than a singular moment.

With the Maple Leafs dangerously thin on defence, Brodie had an outstanding afternoon alongside Timothy Liljegren. The veteran defender’s effectiveness has increased dramatically in recent games while playing his natural left side, and Monday might’ve been his best performance during Rielly’s suspension.

During his 20:07 at five-on-five, the Maple Leafs outshot the Blues by a staggering 14-1 margin and conceded 0.04 expected goals against. That was the lowest total on the team despite the fact he played the most minutes.

Liljegren had similar on-ice numbers, but a Blues goal came off of him while Brodie gets bonus points for this tough block.

A day of experimentation for Sheldon Keefe

When the Maple Leafs coach has had Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and John Tavares available to him this season, he’s almost always put two of them on each of the top two lines.

On Monday, Keefe opted to divide his top guys between three lines.

The Knies-Matthews-Marner group remained intact, which was a reasonable decision considering that unit entered the game outshooting opponents 87-48 and outscoring them 9-2 at five-on-five since the calendar flipped to 2024. Tavares and Nylander were separated as the former played with Nick Robertson and McMann while the latter slotted in alongside Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi.

From a conceptual standpoint, the alignment gave Toronto three dangerous offensive lines. In practice, the new lines didn’t generate that much, getting out-attempted 13-21 in just under 20 minutes of five-on-five ice time with no goals for or against.

Beyond his primary lines, Keefe did some tinkering elsewhere by taking Tavares out for Bertuzzi on the first power-play unit — and using his captain on the wing with Matthews and Marner. It’s unclear whether Keefe will carry forward any of the concepts he tested out on Monday. The results didn’t stand out, and the coach was likely managing the ice time of Tavares after the 34-year-old missed two of the last three games.

Noah Gregor gets his first healthy scratch of the season

Entering Monday, Gregor had participated in 52 of his 53 of Toronto’s games, missing one contest in January due to illness. Against the Blues, Keefe opted to sit the speedy winger to keep Ryan Reaves in the lineup.

Consider that Gregor was in the middle of a 24-game goalless drought — during which his expected goal percentage at five-on-five was 45.69 — it was far from an indefensible call to leave him on the shelf. There’s an argument to be made that Gregor should’ve taken a breather sooner.

That said, the decision proved costly. While Reaves was functional during a strong outing for the fourth line, the veteran bruiser took a foolish penalty in the offensive zone trying to stay on with Matthews and Marner that helped deliver St. Louis a game-tying goal.

It’s hard to say what Gregor might’ve offered if he’d slotted into the lineup for Reaves, but it’s unlikely he would’ve authored a similar blunder.

With the Maple Leafs’ defence group completely hollowed out the team was forced to turn to Rifai to step up and give them minutes. The 25-year-old gave his team a quiet 11:33, with no special teams action.

There were very few moments when he stood out, which the Maple Leafs will happily take from an emergency fill-in with a defensive focus. His most noteworthy play was arguably his first when he came onto the ice and immediately made a fairly audacious pinch before running into Bertuzzi by accident.

The shots were even (6-6) during Rifai’s minutes, but St. Louis didn’t generate many quality chances and Toronto’s expected goal rate sat at 66.47 percent.


Why the Leafs are turning to Marshall Rifai to help their ailing blue line

Game Score

Single HockeyStatCards com 2

Final grade: A

After a slow start to the game for both teams, the Maple Leafs put the screws to the Blues from the Knies goal on. Although a sizeable chunk of this game was played with the score tied, Toronto almost always looked like the best team on the ice.

The Maple Leafs should be expected to handle opponents like St. Louis, but they were dealing with an oddball schedule and an undermanned defence corps on Monday. Beyond their sluggish start, it was a tough performance to criticize, though, as the team thrived at five-on-five and got critical contributions from both special teams units.

Monday’s only blemishes came when St. Louis outnumbered the Maple Leafs, and one of them was an unlucky bounce off Liljegren.

What’s next for the Leafs?

They head to Tempe to take on the Arizona Coyotes at 10:00 pm on Wednesday on Sportsnet.

(Top photo: Scott Rovak / NHLI via Getty Images)

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