The Toronto Maple Leafs had been limping along, winning and losing; however, in a game that head coach Sheldon Keefe believed wasn’t a good game for his team, they still hung in there. Thanks to beleaguered goalie Ilya Samsonov, the team pulled out a much-needed win over a tough Winnipeg Jets team. Here are the key takeaways:
Takeaway One: Maple Leafs Samsonov Has a Remarkable Resurgence
The standout player of the night was Ilya Samsonov. The standout story of the night was his incredible resurgence. Not a week ago, Samsonov was in a deep funk. It even seemed as if his career might be over. He had been waived and had sought goalie coaching and counseling for his poor play. His confidence was at an all-time low.
Three games ago Samsonov came back and had a decent game although in a loss. Two games ago he had his first win since December 9 against the Seattle Kraken. Last night, he was out of this world amazing. He stopped everything that came his way, not only through three periods but also throughout an entire overtime session as well.
Samsonov stole the show. His impressive shutout was highlighted by two huge saves during a two-on-zero shorthanded play. In that play, caused by a defensive breakdown by the Maple Leafs’ top power-play unit, he stopped two on-the-doorstep Jets shots. He showed up big time as a player and defied expectations to rise to new heights.
Sheldon Keefe surprisingly acknowledged even the organization’s internal doubts about Samsonov. That admission suggests the depths to which confidence in the young Russian goalie had eroded. The episode adds extra context to Samsonov’s story, making his comeback even more remarkable. Two weeks ago, who would have predicted that Samsonov would reclaim the net with such conviction? For the Maple Leafs, at least for the next few days, it’s a feel-good story and a captivating storyline for the team’s fans.
Takeaway Two: Keefe’s Bold Move with the Power Play
In a gutsy move, coach Keefe decided to sit down his top power play after they gave up the two-on-zero breakaway that could have cost the Maple Leafs the game. Even if it were only for a brief time, it sent a clear message to the team. Despite getting the tough win, after the game, Keefe shared his dissatisfaction with the power play performance. Once a key part of the team’s prowess, last night the power play went 0 for 5 in the game. Toronto is now a measly one for their last 20 with the man advantage.
This season, Maple Leafs coach Keefe has become much more willing to pin accountability on his team. However, until tonight, he’s typically sat depth players after they’ve made errors. Tonight was quite different. This time he sat his entire top power-play unit – all the big guys – for an entire power play and then started his second power-play unit the next time. It was a gutsy move, but in the end paid off.
Keefe’s rare enforcement of authority by benching key players emphasized the need for harder work. After the game, Keefe attributed some of the team’s struggles to potential fatigue from the West Coast trip. He also admitted that facing a tough defensive opponent like the Jets exposed his team’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, the fact is that the Maple Leafs played a tough opponent and won.
Takeaway Three: Power Play Struggles Raise Concerns
The Maple Leafs’ power play struggles continued. That has raised concerns among both fans and the coaching staff. As noted above, a five percent power-play success rate won’t win many games. Once one of the best in the NHL, its efficacy has been – for some reason – eroded. While it might not make logical sense to bench high-scoring players, some kind of change is needed to make the man advantage advantageous once again. Keefe’s decision to bench key players served as a wake-up call, underlining the need for improvement.
Thankfully, Austin Matthews eventually scored the game-winner in overtime. Until that point, there were many swings and misses by both teams.
As the Maple Leafs prepare for a rematch against the Jets on Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada, the team will likely work to revitalize their ailing power play. Given the team’s collective firepower, you’d think there’d be a way for the team to re-assert a competitive edge in future games.
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