“A gong show.”
That is how Auston Matthews described the spiraling debacle -- on the ice and on the trainers’ table - that brought the Toronto Maple Leafs’ eight-game point streak on the road to a screeching halt on Sunday.
Heading into this frigid weekend back-to-back in the northernmost outposts of the Central Division, Minnesota and Winnipeg, things had been going so swimmingly for the lads in Blue and White that the events of the past 48 hours served up a harsh reminder of some of the club’s weak spots.
Let’s dig into a few takeaways from the Leafs’ 6-3 loss to the Jets on the night Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler celebrated his 1,000th game.
Dubois ragdolls Matthews
Referee Brad Meier might be wise to steer clear of Leafs Twitter for a minute.
Here’s where the gong began to clang.
With the score 5-3 Jets in the third period, Meier dinged both Matthews and Pierre-Luc Dubois for coincidental minors for this exchange:
Matthews took the high road post-game, allowing only that he’d be leaving the rink with a sour taste in his mouth.
“One of the best players in the world is in a situation that should be a power-play there,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, grabbing his sniper’s back. “That’s how it should work, and it didn’t.
“On the very next shift, you get one of your guys carried off and there’s no call there. Should be a 4-on-3, a five-minute power-play in a two-goal game, and it’s not. I just felt at that point, we needed some response.”
Pionk takes Sandin down with controversial knee
Through 26 games, the full health of the Maple Leafs' seven-man D corps was a lingering source of mild tension, as every night a deserving blueliner was getting scratched.
Well, if Rasmus Sandin’s injury is as serious as it appeared, GM Kyle Dubas will be thankful he didn’t pull the trigger on a trade and settle on six.
Immediately after Sandin let a shot fly in the third period, Jets defenceman Neal Pionk clipped the 21-year-old with a knee-on-knee hit.
No penalty was called on the play.
Sandin left the ice with assistance from Wayne Simmonds and Ondrej Kase and did not return. There was no immediate update on his condition.
“It looks to me like it’s a five-minute major. It’s a knee-on-knee. A guy gets carried,” Keefe told reporters postgame. “Obviously, [the officials] didn’t see it. I think if they see it, they probably would’ve called it differently. The league, I’m sure, will have a look.”
After an injury-plagued 2020-21, Sandin has been breaking this season and establishing himself as a full-time NHLer. (Keefe had only scratched him once.)
The Pionk hit set the Leafs off, captain John Tavares admitted.
So, we saw mild-mannered Jason Spezza lunge at Pionk’s head; Kyle Clifford scrap Brenden Dillon; and Simmonds chuck knuckles with Logan Stanley, capping off his 18 PIM night as the thing winded down to its messy conclusion.
Both Spezza (in-person) and Pionk (phone) will have hearings with the NHL's department of player safety for kneeing.
Power-plays on fire
To be clear: When it came to the actual hockey portion of the hockey game, the more deserving side earned the two points.
That's thanks, in large part, to Winnipeg’s reawakened offence, which struck thrice on the man-advantage.
The Maple Leafs, too, looked dangerous on the PP, with Michael Bunting and Matthews both cashing in on clean shots.
Matthews extended his goal streak to six games and is the first player to have four goal streaks of at least five games in a single calendar year since Brett Hull.
Toronto has 16 power-play goals over its past 18 games, solidifying it as a weapon. Which is probably why Keefe believed a couple whistles might’ve salvaged his club a point.
Not unlike Tavares’s absence in the 2021 post-season, when you subtract Mitchell Marner from the Leafs lineup, the trickle effect exposes a lack of depth on the wings and on the PK.
Spezza filled in admirably in Minnesota and on the man-advantage, yet the rejigged first line took on water against the high-powered Jets attack.
With Pierre Engvall dropping to Spezza’s spot on the fourth line and Nick Ritchie moving to David Kampf’s line, that checking unit had a rough go dealing with Winnipeg’s speed.
The Leafs fed the home team’s transition game and exposed rookie goalie Joseph Woll to a rash of odd-man rushes. Plus, Marner’s instincts could’ve come in handy on the kill.
“[Marner] is not a guy you can just replace,” Matthews said. “But we have a lot of belief in our group. No matter who I play with, I have confidence in every single guy out there.”
Campbell or bust?
The 3-0 career start of Woll is a lovely story.
He’s a great, hard-working kid who has endeared himself to the big club.
But until he stared across at Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets, Woll had only faced offences in the weaker half of the league: Sabres, Islanders, Sharks. Non-playoff teams, all of them.
The likes of Wheeler, Dubois, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Nikolaj Ehlers pumping 41 shots in your direction?
That’s a whole other animal.
Sure, Woll could’ve used more help in his own zone, and he got hit in the head by Dubois when he left the crease and lunged trying to play a puck.
But Woll let in six -- a reminder why Toronto spent millions on an NHL-proven backup over the summer.
So… how’s he doing?
Petr Mrazek lost 5-1 to Laval on Sunday starting for the Marlies in Game 1 of his AHL conditioning stint, stopping 22 of the 26 shots he faced. Coach Greg Moore liked what he saw.
“He looked good, didn’t look like he was hesitant. I thought he gave us a great effort and kept us in the game and a lot of mistakes and reasons for the pucks going in the net were on us,” Moore said.
After 53 days between starts, Mrazek said he felt great despite the loss.
“It’s good to get the action going and see the plays from the ice and how the game goes,” Mrazek said. “So, happy to be back and happy to see the action.”