Maple Leafs vs. Stars observations: Core 4 shines in high-scoring win

That game was a roller-coaster.

The Maple Leafs jumped out to an early lead thanks to a power-play one-timer from William Nylander, but they were otherwise dreadful in the opening frame. Dallas led 2-1 heading into the first intermission, and the Stars held Toronto to just four shots. Just two of those four shots came at five-on-five, so Dallas definitely didn’t look like the team that gave up 48 shots to the Buffalo Sabres the night before.

The second period started just like the first, as the Leafs took advantage of an early power-play opportunity. Nylander was involved once again, as he found John Tavares in the bumper spot for yet another one-timer goal. As the game wore on, Toronto’s penalty kill suddenly looked excellent, and the Leafs took the lead with their third power-play goal just past the halfway point.

Evgenii Dadonov tied the game on a penalty shot in the third, but Mitch Marner and Nylander each scored less than a minute later to seal the victory for the Leafs. While it wasn’t always pretty, Sheldon Keefe’s team came away with a 5-4 win.

Three stars

1. Mitch Marner

Marner didn’t pick up a point on Nylander’s opening goal, but he deserves his fair share of credit for providing an excellent screen. He was dangerous on the penalty kill, as he sent Matthew Knies on a breakaway, then later made an excellent pass to set up Auston Matthews. He made another great play to set up Matthews in the second, but he didn’t have a point to show for it yet.

His hard work was finally rewarded on the scoresheet halfway through the third. Less than a minute after Dadonov tied the game on a penalty shot, Marner responded with a massive goal:

2. William Nylander

It’s easy to remember a time when Nylander wasn’t on the top power-play unit, or when he spent most of his time in the net-front role. He’s been firing a ton of shots on the power play this season, and he showed off his Alex Ovechkin impression six minutes in:

While he did lose the faceoff ahead of Dallas’ first goal, he found a way to make up for it by icing the game in the third:

3. Auston Matthews

Like most of his teammates, he was quiet in the first before impressing in the second. He and Marner teamed up for some excellent short-handed chances, but he did his damage on the power play. While this goal was quite lucky, his ability to win the puck back is what led to the chance in the first place:

Matthews set up Marner for an excellent chance in the third, but Scott Wedgewood was up to the challenge. However, he set up Marner yet again moments later, and his longtime linemate made no mistake the second time around. Tavares was worthy of being one of the three stars as well, but there were four major standouts for just three spots.

The Core 4 take over 

Nylander opened the scoring, followed by Tavares, Matthews and Marner. Nylander then scored again for the eventual game-winner. Three of the four set up a goal as well, and while Marner didn’t, he definitely deserved an assist or two. The Leafs are built around having four high-end forwards who can take over games, and this was a good reminder of what they’re capable of. I barely noticed Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz, so Toronto’s stars clearly outplayed Dallas’ top forwards.

The Leafs sure are relying on the core forwards a lot this season. This total will now increase:

Toronto’s 5-on-5 offence finally shows up in the third

Here’s a quick look at how Toronto’s forwards had produced at five-on-five over the previous 10 games:

The power play was absolutely buzzing, but the Leafs didn’t have an excuse for the lack of five-on-five scoring chances in the first two periods. Despite an awfully slow start at even strength, the immediate response from Marner once Dallas tied the game was excellent to see. However, the insurance goal from the second line seconds later might be the bigger story. Tavares made an excellent play to set up Nylander, and given all of his power-play success as of late, he’s finally starting to look like his former self again.

Improving defensively could help the team spend more time in the offensive zone, and Elliotte Friedman reported in tonight’s 32 Thoughts Column that the Leafs are looking for another centre. The big move will likely come on defence, but one player who I’d keep an eye on is Nic Dowd of the Washington Capitals. Dowd is not a pure rental, as he offers plenty of surplus value with a $1.3 million cap hit through next season.

An unspectacular performance from Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov made his fifth straight start, and the Stars hit the post a few minutes in. The Leafs were able to kill off Dallas’ first power play, but the Stars scored immediately on their second opportunity:

Less than three minutes later, Evgenii Dadonov beat him through the five-hole:

You never like to see a goaltender get beat five-hole, but he did bounce back nicely in the second by stopping all 12 shots he faced. Dadonov beat him once again in the third, this time on a penalty shot:

He ended up with 27 saves on 31 shots, as Wyatt Johnston pulled the Stars within one in the final minutes:

Entering play, Samsonov boasted a .943 save percentage in four starts since returning to the lineup. I wouldn’t call this his best game, though. He was largely fine, but unspectacular.

Game score

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Final grade: B

The Leafs deserved an “F” in the first, as having just two five-on-five shots in a period was completely unacceptable. However, they were the better team in the second, and their power play deserved an “A+” for scoring three goals on their first three attempts. Pontus Holmberg and Ryan Reaves both played well, and the officials missed a potential major penalty when Mason Marchment laid a blindside hit on Jake McCabe. Keefe’s team deserves credit for maintaining their composure, responding to Dallas’ game-tying goal and scoring five times against a tough opponent.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Heading to Ottawa to take on the Senators on Saturday at 7 p.m. on Hockey Night in Canada.

(Photo: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)

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