Maple Leafs vs. Jets observations: Auston Matthews scores NHL-leading 40th goal in win

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets proved once again why their rivalry is one of the more entertaining ones of the last five years. Similar to Thursday’s result, the Leafs came out on top with a 4-2 victory and their eighth win of the month. The scoring began much earlier, as Dylan Samberg scored four minutes into the game. Ryan Reaves responded with his second of the season, while Tyler Bertuzzi almost had a goal that was instead called back for goaltender interference (we’ll get to that later).

Even-strength scoring took a break in the game until the Leafs converted on their man-advantage opportunities. John Tavares bumped his slump, and Auston Matthews scored his 40th of the season, which went on to be the game-winner. Simon Benoit’s first as a Maple Leaf came from his own end and down into the empty net. Mason Appleton’s goal may not have had an impact on the results, but it gave the fans in the crowd something else to cheer for and one final salute for Reaves.

Three stars

1. Auston Matthews 

The title that was once Mitch Marner now belongs to Matthews. The team’s second power play of the game was his 40th of the season and 600th point of his career making him the fastest Leaf to reach the milestone.

2. John Tavares

Tavares went into this game without a point in nine games and a goal in 11. Despite doing the right things, he couldn’t get the puck past anyone, and that’s what made the celebration after this one so cathartic. Morgan Rielly set it up, and Tavares re-directed. Instead of Tavares having the longest slump of his career drag into the break, he can take a fresh path to the second half of the season.

3. Ryan Reaves 

The first period was not looking good for the Leafs, and they had few things to smile about. However, Reaves’ deflection goal gave them something to work with and build on. Reaves saved the extracurriculars for the final minutes of the game. He justled with Nikolaj Ehlers, was in the middle of the post-Appleton scrum and gave the crowd a friendly goodbye before his night ended.

Quick shoutouts

Simon Benoit

Neither of them got any attention, but Benoit had two big hits along the boards and has managed to continue his streak of immediately correcting a defensive mistake.

William Nylander and Nick Robertson

No. 88 and 89 had a number of clear looks against Connor Hellebuyck, especially Nylander. The quickness of Nick Robertson’s shot caught Hellebuyck a few times, and he let a rebound out on a rush chance from the third line. And regardless of your thoughts on officiating tonight, he took a good penalty in the second to prevent a scoring chance on a play the Leafs thought was icing. Nylander finished the game with three shots and had two short-handed rushes.

They got it wrong

Let’s just get it out of the way now.

I try to avoid discussing officiating or the situation room. It’s a mixed bag on a good day and at the end of the day, you need to find a way to get positive results despite things not going your way. That being said, Tyler Bertuzzi’s goal should’ve counted.

I was sure the overhead angle showing Dylan DeMelo hitting Nylander into Hellebuyck would be enough to overturn it. If I’m Nylander, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do there and how you’re supposed to get out of the way after contact with Hellebuyck was made.

You do see Nylander’s left skate in the blue paint before the hit from Hellebuyck, but the context of the Demelo shove can’t be ignored — well, I guess “can’t” isn’t the right word to use here — especially after this goal was allowed today.

A juxtaposition of returns and recoveries

Two were scheduled, while the other was circumstantial. Two had relatively good games, while the other had a start to the game they’d like to forget. The two were Reaves and Bertuzzi, while the other was Mark Giordano.

Aside from the goal, I thought Reaves had a good overall game. He had quick shifts and tried to be the first one off his line, even if there was sustained offensive zone pressure. He threw the body to break up the cycle and got to the front of the net when he could to make it difficult on Hellebuyck. Bertuzzi was definitely feeling it tonight, and it was another night where he did everything but score (well, he did, but … never mind).

Giordano had a really rough start. A turnover and a pinch led to two high-danger chances for Cole Perfetti and Adam Lowry, respectively. He settled in after the first, and I think killing that penalty helped set him straight as he was back in his element blocking shots. He saw a total of 4:10 on the penalty kill and had two stinging blocks, including one off the knee in the third.

Of course, and unfortunately, Giordano wasn’t the only one making costly mistakes as the first period was a five-for-one deal on turnovers. The Jets feasted on the scoring chance the Leafs gave them, and it didn’t matter where you were in the lineup, the turnovers were coming. Matthews, who is one of the team’s better defensive players, had a three, Tavares had one and Morgan Rielly’s in the corner led to Winnipeg’s first goal of the game.

Matthews, Rielly and Tavares rebounded well, and Rielly, in particular, saved a goal in the third.

Tender vs. tender 

It was pretty evenly matched out there between the Leafs and Jets at five-on-five. The difference between them in terms of shots (26-22), scoring chances (20-17) and high-danger chances (11-7) didn’t differ by more than four all night. Hellebuyck played well for Winnipeg, while Samsonov matched and bested him. Samsonov made the saves when the Leafs gave up a chance after chance, as did Hellebuyck. It was another night where he looked steady and only made moves when he needed to. He gave the Leafs time to settle and recover from their start, and unlike Thursday, they gave him the goal support.

Game Score

Final grade: B+

It wasn’t perfect, and we’re still seeing the same pattern of mistakes happen on this team, but they got the job done. Coach Sheldon Keefe is all about stringing good days together, and you look at Samsonov and Robertson, for example, and see two players clearly doing that. The top unit may have been completely disintegrated if they didn’t score on either of those opportunities and they converted on both of them, including a five-on-three. The break can and should be a good reset and opportunity for the team to find another level, especially the bottom six. They’ll need to be firing on all cylinders from here on out. They won tonight, but they’re only in a wild-card spot where the Islanders, Penguins and Devils aren’t too far behind.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Nothing for a bit as they enter the break. The Leafs will not be back in action until February 5th, when they take on the New York Islanders at Scotiabank Arena. That is when the second half of the 2023-24 season truly begins.

(Photo: Jason Halstead / Getty Images)

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