Perhaps the Bay Street denizens were exhausted from the week that transpired, but it was a low-energy evening from all parties involved at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night.
After pumping the Buffalo Sabres earlier this week, the Toronto Maple Leafs had three days off and settled into a somewhat uncharacteristic performance against the Minnesota Wild. Easy zone exits and breakout passes were missed, there were more than a few bad turnovers, and Ilya Samsonov needed a stellar performance to keep the Maple Leafs in the contest.
And then came William Nylander.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 25, 2023
Nylander scored one of the most spectacular goals of the 2022-23 season — perhaps the best goal of his career — waltzing through the Wild defense after forcing a turnover and tucking the puck home with perfection as the Maple Leafs emerged with a 2-1 victory. When we look back on this game, few will remember it as a low-event snoozer because of Nylander’s goal — and his performance overall — overshadowed the first 61 minutes of the contest.
“That’s an elite defensive team,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the Wild post-game. “They play really hard with really good structure and tonight they were really dialed in.”
“They’re the number one team in the NHL defending the rush. They’re not going to give you much there,” Keefe added.
Here’s what you need to know from Friday's contest:
1) William Nylander, Maple Leafs
We’re going to discuss Nylander’s overtime winner a few times, but he was quite easily the best player in the game. Nylander stole the puck off Minnesota’s Frederick Gaudreau, danced around Matt Boldy, swung his stick around goaltender Filip Gustavsson from a seemingly impossible angle and then swooped the puck into the low corner for the 2-1 win.
Nylander told reporters post-game that he knew Boldy — a forward — was in his way, so he just wanted to drive to the net and take advantage. It certainly paid off.
“I saw he was kind of flat-footed there, so it was gonna be hard if I came with some speed,” Nylander said of Boldy’s positioning on the game-winning goal.
Nylander drove Toronto’s nominal first line — they started all three periods — and carried the group offensively, which says a whole lot when Auston Matthews is at center. It’s been a banner year for Nylander and though the Maple Leafs lacked the pace and juice they’ve become known for on Friday, the 26-year-old was the only member of the "Core Four" to constantly generate menacing chances. Nylander exercised plenty of patience behind the net, before finding David Kampf for the game-tying goal late in the second frame.
It was another wonderful performance during the best year of his career, punctuated by a goal that may lead his career highlight reel when all is said and done. Nylander is now tied for the league lead with three overtime goals this season.
2) Ilya Samsonov, Maple Leafs
close call as Brodie's deflection almost goes in pic.twitter.com/yOUGGA6RxV
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 25, 2023
Samsonov made all the saves the Maple Leafs needed. He made a terrific stop after TJ Brodie almost deflected the puck into his own net and didn’t appear remotely fazed when the Wild controlled large stretches of the play, particularly during the second period.
Samsonov doesn’t get rattled easily. He noted post-game that he wanted to work himself back into a rhythm after taking his proverbial foot off the gas during Tuesday’s rout of the Sabres. Mission accomplished — the Maple Leafs likely don’t win this game without 24 saves from their No. 1 goalie.
3) Noel Acciari, Maple Leafs
Acciari is exactly what Toronto’s bottom-six needed. He’s a pain in the ass to play against and he can generate secondary offense. He did all the small things correctly, making short passes to facilitate zone exits, established the low cycle and skated around and through Wild defenders. O’Reilly is the headline acquisition for the Maple Leafs, but Acciari was excellent against admittedly easier competition on Friday night. He also helped kill off a late third-period Mitch Marner tripping penalty.
Toronto controlled 88.2 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick when Acciari was on the ice, while the Wild failed to register a shot during his 10 minutes at even strength. These types of performances are exactly why Sheldon Keefe is thrilled about the new addition.
Off night: Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
Matthews wasn’t necessarily the worst player for the Maple Leafs but he certainly had an off night. Concerns about his offensive production this season are largely overblown, but this gives Team Panic some more ammunition. Matthews was solid defensively but he only registered one shot, he was on the ice for two shots versus seven against at 5-on-5 and though it’s wild to say this about the reigning MVP, he’s no longer Toronto’s most consistently dangerous offensive player. That could change in the blink of an eye, but this wasn’t a vintage Matthews game.
Play of the game:
There’s no other choice. Here’s one more look at Nylander’s winner.
Misplay of the game: It’s always a bit cruel when it goes off your skate and in, but that’s what happened to Calle Jarnkrok. No one saw the goal in real-time, not the referees, none of the journalists in the press box, and play continued until the goal was reviewed at the next stoppage. Minnesota’s Brandon Duhaime has surely scored prettier ones but they all count the same.
the puck goes off Jarnkrok's skate and in
Brandon Duhaime gets credit pic.twitter.com/z7d52gqQrQ
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 25, 2023
Stat of the night:
Mark Giordano tied the NHL’s career record for shots blocked, entering a deadlock with Kris Russell after blocking the 2,045th shot of his career. The stat has been officially tracked since 2005-06, but there’s little value on putting qualifiers on the accomplishment. The 39-year-old has largely excelled for the Maple Leafs this season and deserves the recognition, earning every accolade, rising from an undrafted gem to bonafide star.
“Hopefully in 20 some games here I get one more,” Giordano quipped post-game.
Rosaleen Shanahan, the mother of Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, celebrated her 90th birthday at Scotiabank Arena.
Also, a quick shoutout to our friend and former Yahoo Sports colleague Ailish Forfar, who finished her final game as the Maple Leafs in-game arena host!
Black Excellence Game
As part of Black History Month, the Maple Leafs designated Friday’s game as the Black Excellence Game.
Val James, the first Black American to play in the NHL, was honoured by the Maple Leafs and presented a jersey to a Canadian Armed Forces veteran in attendance. Additionally, the Soul Power Gospel Choir were the first intermission performers, before a number of Maple Leafs took part in a pre-recorded video montage, urging fans to celebrate Black history.
Maple Leafs captain John Tavares spoke about meeting with Bernice Carnegie, the founder of The Carnegie Initiative. Bernice’s father, Herb, would’ve been the first Black player in the NHL were it not for racist exclusion by Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe. Herb Carnegie was posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2022.
“It was a great opportunity to hear from Bernice and just her dad's story and how she's carrying that legacy on and continuing to make a tremendous impact in our game, in our community,” Tavares said Friday morning. “Inclusion in our sport and how we can continue to do better. She's just a wonderful human being, great personality, her demeanor. It was great to hear her talk about her dad.”
Quote of the night: Morgan Rielly after Friday’s morning skate, on Mark Giordano approaching the career shots blocked record: “You can't really stop the game and acknowledge it. Maybe we'll get him a golden shin pad or something.”