Maple Leafs vs. Devils observations: Solid process yields a tough result

Early in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, it looked like it was a matter of time until they’d break out and distance themselves from their opponents.

Toronto outshot the Devils 25-10 in the first period, and even though they found themselves down 2-1, it seemed likely New Jersey would crumble under the onslaught of the Maple Leafs’ offensive pressure. That did come to pass in a sense, as a pair of goals from William Nylander and Auston Matthews gave the team a brief 3-2 lead, but Toronto never found its form from the first again — and the offence dried up as Jake Allen shut the door time and time again.

Meanwhile, the Devils had little trouble beating Joseph Woll at the other end of the ice despite a low volume of opportunities. Goaltending wasn’t the only factor that decided this one, but it was the most significant.

Three stars

1. Auston Matthews

When Matthews manages to put nine shots on net and lights the lamp, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll wind up in this spot.

His line didn’t dominate the play until a series of third-period flurries, but it more than held its own, producing two of Toronto’s three goals — including the centre’s 59th of the season.

Matthews also came extremely close to reaching 60 goals for the second time in his career as the stick of Luke Hughes erased a prime opportunity late in the second.

Matthews has seen his goal-scoring pace slow in recent weeks, but he still leads the Maple Leafs in points this month with 15 in 12 games.

2. Tyler Bertuzzi

Bertuzzi deserves a mention here, and not just because he got the goal scoring started with a strong breakaway attempt 64 seconds in.

The winger also authored some of the game’s best chances that failed to find the twine. In the second period, he perfectly set up Pontus Holmberg for a chance in the slot …

… and he pulled off a deflection attempt early in the third that demonstrated his stellar hand-eye coordination:

Bertuzzi’s fine effort was one of several solid efforts he’s strung together lately. The feisty winger has produced 56.25 percent of his 2023-24 goal total in his last 14 games, collecting 34.29 percent of his points in that time.

3. Ilya Lyubushkin

Lyubushkin drew a difficult assignment on Tuesday playing with T.J. Brodie — a defenceman he’d played less than 10 five-on-five minutes with this season in the midst of some significant struggles.

The burly defender rose to the occasion and provided a steady 18:47, which included setting up the Matthews goal with the kind of beautiful stretch pass that he’s not known for executing.

During Lyubushkin’s five-on-five minutes, the Maple Leafs outshot the Devils 18-9 and outscored them 2-1.

William Nylander scores his 40th

Nylander set his career-high in points back on March 19, and one week later the winger hit another milestone by reaching the 40-goal mark for the second consecutive season.

Although his offensive skill level has rarely been questioned, it was never a forgone conclusion that Nylnader would get to this point with his scoring. Between his first full season in 2016-17 and the end of the 2021-22 campaign, his 131 goals ranked 59th in the NHL.

Entering Tuesday’s action, he was 10th in the league in goals since the 2022-23 season began. Nylander has gone from an excellent scorer to one of the NHL’s most dangerous triggermen, which is one of the biggest reasons he earned such a rich contract extension in January.

The next big milestone coming Nylander’s way is 100 points. He needs six in 11 games to get it done.

The Simon Benoit-Conor Timmins pair returns

Following the trade deadline, coach Sheldon Keefe demonstrated that neither Benoit nor Timmins was in his preferred top-six, but injuries, illness, and TJ Brodie’s struggles have pressed them into action consistently in recent weeks. The duo was in the press box for the team’s loss to Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, but they returned as the third pair in this one.

The results weren’t impressive as the most notable play either made was the primary assist Timmins got on the Nylander goal — and the pair was on the ice together for one goal for and two against with unimpressive possession numbers.

Benoit and Timmins may not have a road to top-six roles for Toronto in the playoffs if everyone’s healthy, but they’ve generally been an effective pair. In their 125:26 together at five-on-five this season, the Maple Leafs have outshot their opposition 61-46, outscored them 6-4, and produced a 57.48 percent expected goal rate.

With Brodie, Ilya Lyubushkin, Joel Edmundson, John Klingberg and Mark Giordano all headed for free agency (or retirement) either or both could be third-pair options for the team next season. Timmins is under contract with a $1.1 million cap hit while Benoit is a restricted free agent who wouldn’t command a hefty deal.

Joseph Woll misses chance to build momentum

Prior to this game, there was plenty of talk about Woll making consecutive starts for the first time since December coming off a masterful effort against Carolina.

Unfortunately for the young netminder, he was unable to provide an impressive encore, allowing five goals on 24 shots — including the team’s first attempt of the game from a relatively harmless spot.

Woll has now conceded 20 goals in his six appearances since returning from an ankle injury with a save percentage of .884. He’s produced a save percentage above .900 in just two of those starts.

Toronto’s goaltending situation remains fairly fluid, but Woll is running out of opportunities to unseat Ilya Samsonov as the 1A option and Game 1 starter come playoff time.

Game score

Single HockeyStatCards com 10

Final grade: C+

This grade can only go so high for a regulation home loss against a team outside of a playoff position.

At the same time, it’d be unreasonable to judge this performance too harshly. The Maple Leafs nearly doubled the Devils’ shot total and earned 60.33 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five. They were undone by a combination of losing the goaltending battle and failing to get fortuitous bounces.

Toronto deserves criticism for failing to carry its momentum forward from an overwhelming effort in the first period, and failing to hold a 3-2 lead for more than a minute. A better performance would’ve resulted in the Maple Leafs pressing their advantage — either in the first or after getting their one-goal edge.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Thursday, the Maple Leafs host the Washington Capitals at 7:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.

(Top photo: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

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