Maple Leafs vs. Canucks observations: Toronto’s bottom six shines in win

It’s amazing what a little bit of secondary scoring can do.

William Nylander scored to extend his season-opening point streak to 15 games, but Saturday wasn’t about Toronto’s stars. Matthew Knies scored at the end of a power play, and the new fourth line with Bobby McMann scored not once but twice. Nick Robertson scored to pick up a point for the fourth consecutive game, and the Maple Leafs beat Vancouver 5-2 despite taking six minor penalties in the first half of the game alone.

Even with Ryan Reaves out of the lineup, Toronto’s players left no doubt that they would stick up for one another. Mark Giordano beat up Dakota Joshua following a big hit on David Kämpf, and Max Domi wasted no time dropping the gloves with Ian Cole following a high hit on Robertson. The Leafs don’t play until Friday, and they will get to enjoy positive vibes heading into the Sweden trip by taking down the now 10-3-1 Canucks.

Three stars

1. Noah Gregor

Gregor is usually a volume shooter who struggles to convert on his chances, so he wasn’t a likely goal scorer against the red-hot Thatcher Demko. He surprised everyone with an absolutely perfect shot to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead in the second:

His line gave up nothing the other way, and Sheldon Keefe rewarded them with regular shifts in the third. They rewarded their coach with yet another goal, as Gregor threw the puck on net and found Kämpf for a deflection:

2. William Nylander

Look up the word “consistency” in the dictionary, and you’ll see a picture of Nylander. He set up Bertuzzi for an A+ chance five minutes into the second, but Demko came up with a massive save. However, Nylander would not be denied, as just seconds later, he banked the puck off Demko to extend his season-opening point streak to 15 games:


Nylander had another great chance on Toronto’s next power play, but couldn’t beat Demko. His line spent the vast majority of their time in the offensive zone.

3. Max Domi

There were plenty of options here, but let’s give the nod to Domi for picking up a fight and two assists. Ian Cole’s hit on Robertson was quite high, and even though he took a penalty, I’m sure his teammates loved Domi’s quick response. He picked up a secondary assist on Knies’ goal at the end of a power play, then found Robertson in the slot for Toronto’s fourth goal.

The Leafs shutout the Canucks at five-on-five

The Canucks were second in the league in five-on-five goals per minute entering play, but the Leafs made them look lifeless at even strength. Ilya Samsonov needed a bounce-back performance after surrendering four goals on 12 shots in his last start, and he responded well by stopping 30 of 32. All four lines contributed, and Jake McCabe looks comfortable on his off-side. The Leafs suddenly have a fourth line that looks like it can handle some defensive zone starts. Elias Pettersson is the NHL’s leading scorer, but the Canucks were caved in during his minutes.

The bottom six looks much improved

Secondary scoring was a major issue to start the season, and the Leafs got not one, not two, but three goals from the bottom six. Robertson now has a point in all four games since he was called up from the Marlies, and his line continues to stay hot. However, the main story of the game was the fourth line.

McMann made his season debut, and he picked up a secondary assist on Gregor’s second-period goal. The Leafs had been outscored zero to 11 in Reaves’ minutes this season, and the only goal that the fourth line had scored was Toronto’s first goal of the season. The line hadn’t outscored their competition a single time in 14 games.

They suddenly looked like a real line that you could trust. Kämpf and McMann didn’t contribute all that much to Gregor’s goal, but McMann’s transition skill brings an element that was lacking. McMann just missed on a great chance in the early third, and Kämpf deflected home a Gregor shot to score a key insurance goal. The fourth line gave up some chances when the game was out of reach, but they weren’t on the ice for a shot against in the opening forty minutes.

Toronto’s penalty kill is becoming a problem

If there’s a negative to take out of this game, it’s the penalty kill. The Leafs ranked 30th in goals against per minute at four-on-five entering play. Justin Holl led the team in short-handed ice time last season, but is now playing for the Detroit Red Wings. Alex Kerfoot, Ryan O’Reilly, Zach Aston-Reese, Noel Acciari, and Pierre Engvall are all playing elsewhere as well. While Toronto’s penalty kill didn’t give up a goal against Calgary, the Flames had plenty of good chances, and Nazem Kadri scored a goal that probably should have counted.

Toronto took two instigator penalties later in the period, and the Canucks scored on both occasions. While Vancouver does have a strong power play, likely playoff opponents such as Boston, Tampa Bay, and Florida do as well. The Leafs did kill off four other penalties, including a brief five-on-three, but they have plenty of room for improvement here.

Game Score

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Final grade: A

It was a bit of a slow start, but the first half of the game was barely played at five-on-five. The Leafs took six minor penalties in the first 30 minutes, and it was tough to gain any momentum. Toronto carried play at five-on-five, which was nice to see given that they were playing during the second half of a back-to-back. It’s nice to win a game where Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner don’t get on the scoresheet.

I liked the fact that the Leafs stuck up for one another, and it finally feels like Toronto has four decent forward lines. You can find areas to nitpick, but Toronto’s defensive play at even strength was impressive, and beating Demko five times is no easy task this season. Bertuzzi, Kämpf, and Giordano were all in the conversation to be one of the three stars. The bench loved this fight from Giordano:

What’s next for the Leafs?

Heading to Stockholm to play Justin Holl and the Red Wings on Friday at 2 p.m. on TSN.

(Top photo: Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press via AP)

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