March 31, 2023

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll focus on takeaways from the 5-2 Maple Leafs’ win over the Buffalo Sabres last night. It was one of the first times this season that Toronto fans were not sitting on the edge of their chairs watching the game.

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It was a Maple Leafs’ win from the first period’s three goals until the end of the game. The team had a solid effort all game, and the 5-2 score could have been even tilted more in Toronto’s favour if it had not been for so many penalty kills.

Item One: Matthews and Marner Reunited

I’ve been a supporter of splitting up Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner as a way to balance the team’s top-six units a bit more. To make my point, I’ve used the situation in Edmonton with the Oilers’ two great forwards – Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl – as an example of what Oilers’ coach Jay Woodcroft did to balance off that team’s lines.

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That said, there’s something a bit different about Matthew and Marner as opposed to McDavid and Draisaitl. That difference was evident last night against the Sabres who have one really stacked forward line. For as good as McDavid and Draisaitl might be, the Matthews and Marner combination is defensively superior.

Although the Sabres have now lost a bunch in a row, their forward line of Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, and Alex Tuch is really solid. This line was consistently in the Maple Leafs’ defensive zone for the first part of the game.

When it became evident that, for as good as Matthews was defensively, his line with Michael Bunting and William Nylander was being worn down by the offensive pressure of the Sabres’ strong line. Then head coach Sheldon Keefe went back to the pairing he trusted the most – Matthews and Marner.  

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That lineup change moved the dial for the team. Marner and Matthews changed the game’s momentum. Together Matthews and Marner combined to register three points during the game – all assists. Against the lesser competition, Tavares and Nylander put up five points, including three goals. It was a good coaching move by Keefe and suggests how many options this team has.

As much as the Maple Leafs have a high-powered offence, coach Keefe is (to my way of thinking) a defensive coach. He likes to play solid defence in front of his goalie. He appreciates consistently reliable 200-foot players. Perhaps that’s why players such as David Kampf (and now Zach Aston-Reese and Denis Malgin) have been given prominent roles on this team.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

It’s also one reason that Matt Murray is not only surviving but prospering here in Toronto in ways he didn’t last season in Ottawa. He’s being supported more defensively this season, and his game has improved.

Item Two: Matt Murray Is Quickly Becoming My Favorite Player

The more I get to see Murray, the more I like him. He just seems to be a kid from Thunder Bay. He‘s a straight-up guy and, from what I’ve seen this season over his last three games, a really good goalie. After the first period last night, I was hoping he would be able to get his first Maple Leafs’ shutout. But too many Sabres’ power plays crushed that thought.

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As I noted earlier, there’s no doubt that the team is playing solid defence in front of him. But, he’s returning the favour with his inspiring calmness in the crease. It’s been noted several times that his solid goalie play gives his teammates a ton of confidence as they watch during games from the bench. 

Murray’s injury has not limited his side-to-side movement. He tracks the puck well, and he’s big in the net. Because his positioning is so good, he’s able to stop most first shots on the goal. Last night, the only mistake that I saw was that he couldn’t feel a puck, blinked and moved, and that movement opened the puck to the world. Otherwise, no goal. 

Matt Murray Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Plus it doesn’t hurt that he’s so good at building up his teammates. After last night’s game, when he was asked about Mitch Marner, Murray said ”His (Marner’s) hockey sense is just off the charts. He’s unbelievable.”

The other thing about last night’s game that was different was that the team didn’t put Murray in tons of difficult situations. Here I’m speaking of giving up tons of odd-man rushes. For some reason, it just doesn’t happen. As noted, this is the kind of game coach Keefe absolutely loves.

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It might not be that Matthews does not score 60 goals again. In fact, he might not score 50 this season. That said, I don’t think he’s hurting the team by not scoring. He’s such a good player (and good teammate) that, even if he doesn’t score as often, he’s still contributing.

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His pass that sent Bunting in alone was exceptional. And, he’s been making these kinds of passes all season long. He’s not a goal hog in any way. In addition, as noted, he’s playing exceptional defence. He’s a keeper for sure, and the Maple Leafs are fortunate to have him as the cornerstone of the team.

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