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Maple Leafs report cards: Matt Murray’s strong goaltending gives Leafs edge over Stars

The Athletic

Matt Murray was incredible.

The 28-year-old goaltender let in a rough goal in overtime against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, but made up for it in a big way with an absolutely dominant performance. A 44-save shutout looks impressive in the box score, but it was even more incredible to witness. Jason Robertson’s 18-game point streak came to an end, and Murray saved countless odd-man rushes early on. Dallas tried to get back into the game by firing shot after shot on an extended five-on-three late in the second period, but Murray refused to give them any sort of hope.

Toronto’s depth players didn’t create much offensively, but their star players stepped up in a big way. Mitch Marner extended his point streak to 20 games, Auston Matthews scored a vintage Matthews goal and John Tavares opened the scoring. Mark Giordano continues to look like he’s in his prime, and both Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren stepped up in a major way.

The Leafs weren’t dominant, but they found a way yet again. They’ve now picked up at least a point in 12-straight games.

First star

Matt Murray

What a performance.

Murray was spectacular in the opening 20 minutes, and he needed to be, as his team was giving up plenty of high-danger chances. He made a big save on Denis Gurianov in the first minute, followed by another stop on Wyatt Johnson less than 30 seconds later. He stopped Seguin on a breakaway nine minutes in, and Mason Marchment took an interference penalty one second later. He had 10 saves in the first 10 minutes, then stopped a three-on-one chance just passed the halfway point. He stoned a Tyler Seguin chance from the slot with five minutes to go, then made a nice blocker save on him about 30 seconds later. He saved all 15 shots he faced in a busy first period.

The Leafs didn’t make his life any easier in the second. Justin Holl took a tripping penalty one minute in, and the Leafs gave up a breakaway at the end of a power play of their own a few minutes later. Pierre Engvall took a four-minute high-sticking penalty six minutes into the period, and the team took a too-many-men penalty 13 minutes in. The Stars had chance after chance, and while Murray must have been exhausted, he continued to make save after save.

Just when you thought he couldn’t do anymore, Giordano took a puck-over-glass penalty with two minutes left. Justin Holl, seeing the big contracts handed out to Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom in recent days, decided to show off his arm by throwing the puck 20 seconds later. The Stars had a five-on-three advantage for 1:38, and Toronto’s top-two penalty killers were in the box. Mitch Marner then broke his stick on the five-on-three, but Murray made save after save. Murray was a perfect 33 for 33 through 40 minutes, and there weren’t many easy ones.

The Stars kept trying to create momentum to get back into the game, but Murray simply wouldn’t let them. He made back-to-back stops on Marchment and Radek Faksa halfway through the third, then stoned Colin Miller on a wrap-around chance. He saved all 44 shots that he faced, and there were plenty of difficult ones.

Matt Murray is dialed in pic.twitter.com/OA9JRO8xOF

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

HIS NAME IS MATT MURRAY pic.twitter.com/ykCLZtvDed

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

Second star

Rasmus Sandin

Sandin entered play having played over 20 minutes in five of his past six games. When Victor Mete was injured in the first, it was clear that he was going to be a major key to tonight’s outcome. He was quiet but effective in the first, as his pairing wasn’t on for many chances against, and the ice was tilted in Toronto’s favour. He was far more noticeable in the second, as he bowled over Luke Glendening at the end of a long shift to win the puck back. He then scored Toronto’s third goal 12 minutes into the middle frame, making a good read to jump up into the play and beat Oettinger:

RASMUS SANDIN 🚨

SLEEP WITH ONE EYE OPEN! pic.twitter.com/ksuU9BC4Tg

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

Sandin wasn’t only noticeable on the offensive end, as he was a MAJOR part of the five-on-three penalty kill at the end of the second. While he’s not usually on the penalty kill, he was Toronto’s only left-shooting defenceman available with Mete injured and Giordano in the box. He made a huge block to potentially save a goal when Marner didn’t have a stick, then broke up a pass seconds later.

Third star

Auston Matthews

Matthews entered play with three goals in his last four games, and he made it four of five with a vintage effort. He stole the puck from Jani Hakanpaa in the corner, walked into the slot, hit the post, picked up his own rebound, then walked into the slot again before sniping his 13th goal of the season past Oettinger.

AUSTON MATTHEWS 🚨

RIFLE! 2-0! pic.twitter.com/OJoVSDtnHC

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

Toronto’s power play was buzzing to start the second, and while they failed to score, Matthews finished his shift with a hard back-check to help prevent Joel Kiviranta from scoring on a breakaway. He picked up an assist on Sandin’s goal, then created another great chance for himself with four minutes left in the second. Matthews struggled to score at five-on-five early this season, but he sure looks like his dominant self lately.

Player reportsA

Timothy Liljegren

Liljegren sure looks like a legitimate top-four defenceman. He’s strong enough as a puck mover to play with defensive partners, and he’s developing into a strong defensive player who can pair with more offensive partners as well. His neutral zone defence was on full display early, and he made an awfully composed play to spin around and clear the puck on the penalty kill eight minutes into the second.

He outmuscled a power forward in Marchment halfway through the middle frame and cleared the puck, then set up Alex Kerfoot for a chance at the end of the penalty kill. The Sandin-Liljegren pairing was on the ice for a key and extended five-on-three kill at the end of the second, and he had a nice rush in the third that led to a chance for Pierre Engvall. He finished with 25:47 of ice time, and did not look phased when up against Dallas’ top line.

great PK clear from Liljegren

bamboozled Seguin pic.twitter.com/UQDhKaj1jp

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

Mitch Marner

Marner wasted little time extending the franchise record for consecutive games with a point. He took a dumb tripping penalty on the game’s opening shift, and while Joe Pavelski may have fallen down a little too easily, it was a blatant can-opener that results in a penalty 95 percent of the time. The Leafs bailed him out by killing the penalty, and he picked up an assist by throwing the puck on the net from the point and creating a rebound just five minutes in.

Like most games, Marner looked like a major difference maker in all situations. He made a nice play to set up Tavares in the slot halfway through the first, then set up another good chance with 30 seconds left in the opening frame. He set-up Tavares again with an A+ chance from the slot on an early second-period power play, then created a chance for himself by taking the puck to the net. He was fantastic on the penalty kill as well, as he stole the puck twice eight minutes into the second, before throwing the puck back to his defencemen to waste time. When he broke his stick on a late period five-on-three, he continued to battle by getting into shooting lanes and blocking a shot.

John Tavares

Tavares entered play without a goal in five consecutive games, but he wasted little time putting an end to that streak. He extended Marner’s point streak in the process, jumping on a loose rebound to give his team the lead just five minutes in. He had another good chance with seven minutes left in the first and was stoned by Oettinger in the slot during an early second-period power play. He racked up five shots through the opening 40 minutes, and his line was Toronto’s best during that time. He didn’t slack off in the third either, as he outworked three Dallas Stars to create a chance for Sandin five minutes in:

John Tavares: One-man army pic.twitter.com/RpXKCwgYYE

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

Mark Giordano

Giordano entered play with eleven straight games of over 20 minutes of ice time. We expected him to take plenty of minutes against Dallas’ dominant top line, and his workload expanded further when Mete was injured in the first. He played about 7.5 minutes in the first period alone and was Toronto’s best defenceman during that time. He defended his blue line well to break up a rush with 40 seconds left, which led to a good chance for the Marner line the other way.

Two minutes into the second he sprawled out to break up a Stars pass right in front of Murray. He made a nice steal on the penalty kill eight minutes in, which sprung William Nylander for a short-handed chance. The only blip on his radar through 40 minutes was a puck-over-glass penalty with two minutes left in the second. He finished with 23:24 of ice time, and he’s been on for just seven goals against at five-on-five this season. Given that he’s 39 and playing for $800k, it’s tough to overstate how valuable he’s been for this team.

A-

Nick Robertson

Robertson improves to 3-0 for his career against his brother, and while he didn’t find the scoresheet, he certainly came awfully close. The Leafs owned 81 percent of the game’s five-on-five expected goals when he was on the ice, and while he played only 10:44, the Leafs looked awfully dangerous in those minutes. He came close to scoring in the third on a chance from the slot, but Oettinger made the save despite never seeing the puck.

Nick Roberston was robbed pic.twitter.com/oajVIpalRU

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

B+

Michael Bunting and William Nylander

Matthews’ wingers were both quite effective, even though neither player was able to find the back of the net. Bunting hasn’t scored in ten games, but he continues to find a way to rack up assists. His strong forechecking helped to win the puck back for his team eight minutes into the second, and Sandin quickly extended Toronto’s lead to 3-0. He didn’t have a shot on goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he finished with three against the stars. He now has a six-game point streak.

Nylander was pretty much invisible in the first, as he wasn’t on for any of Toronto’s scoring chances. He was far more noticeable in the second, and it was actually the defensive side of his game that really stood out. He made a hard back-check four minutes into the middle frame, stole the puck, then outworked his opponent to draw a penalty and put his team on the power play. He spent more time on the penalty kill than usual and had a solid scoring chance eight minutes into the second. He finished the period by setting up Matthews for a great chance, but couldn’t find his way onto the scoresheet.

B

Justin Holl

Holl started off well, outmuscling his opponent down low in the defensive zone seven minutes in. His teammates were scrambling around and exhausted, and Holl was able to win a puck battle and get the puck out. While he was solid defensively at five-on-five, staying out of the penalty box was a major issue. He took a tripping penalty one minute into the second, then handed the Stars 1:38 of five-on-three time by trying to throw the puck out of the defensive zone. Thankfully, Murray bailed him out on both occasions.

The second penalty looked to be simply reactionary, and he finished with 25:58 of ice time. I gave him a ‘B’ grade despite the penalties, as the Leafs won his minutes in terms of expected goals, and he played a major role in shutting down Dallas’ dominant top line.

C+

Conor Timmins

Timmins made his Leafs debut next to his former world juniors partner, Victor Mete, but that was short-lived as Mete left the game with an injury in the first. He got off to a rough start, as his shot was blocked nine minutes in and he proceeded to fall down, leading to a two-on-one the other way. He fell down again with no one around him on the power play a few minutes later, and the Leafs lost about 25 seconds of power-play time as a result. He finished with just 14:49 of ice time, but the Leafs fared okay in his minutes. He wasn’t overly noticeable once his skate blade was fixed.

Timmins denies the dump-n-chase pic.twitter.com/03MfmAjJJp

— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) December 7, 2022

C-

The third line (Alex Kerfoot, David Kämpf and Pierre Engvall)

Kerfoot scored an empty-net goal with just under four minutes left, but other than that, this line was a complete zero offensively at five-on-five. They all contributed on the penalty kill, but Engvall took a four-minute high-sticking penalty in the second. Kerfoot had a couple of nice rushes to gain the zone in the third, and Kämpf won a key face-off on the five-on-three, but the Leafs were completely caved in during their minutes. Oettinger was awfully bored when they were on the ice.

The fourth line (Zach Aston-Reese, Pontus Holmberg and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev)

Just like the third line, they failed to generate much of anything offensively. I don’t expect them to look like Matthews and Marner out there, but they can’t just generate absolutely nothing. Der-Arguchintsev graded out okay in terms of expected goals, but he had two questionable giveaways. The first giveaway came on the power play and led to a three-on-one the other way, and perhaps it was just a matter of not being in sync with his teammates yet. He made another giveaway in the offensive zone halfway through the second, which led to a too-many-men penalty for the Leafs. He finished with just 7:16 of ice time, and Sheldon Keefe stapled him to the bench in the third while the team was defending a lead.

MIA

Victor Mete

Mete took a hard hit from Hakanpaa with five minutes left in the first, and left the game with a lower-body injury. He finished with 3:04 of ice time.

Game Score

Final grade: B+

This was always going to be a tough road game. Jason Robertson entered play with 21 goals and 34 points over an 18-game point streak, and Keefe was both without the last change and without several of his best defencemen. The Stars entered play with the best goal differential in the Western Conference, and the Leafs were down to five defencemen by the first intermission.

On a night where the Ottawa Senators pulled Cam Talbot after allowing five goals on fourteen shots against the Los Angeles Kings, Murray looked as dominant as ever. Toronto’s most important players were excellent, and Dallas’ dominant top line was kept in check. The Leafs continue to rack up wins in games that don’t involve three-on-three overtime.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Heading back home to take on the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday at 7 p.m. on TSN.

(Top photo of Auston Matthews and Matt Murray: Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

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