By Pat Cancilla
The Leafs won four in a row this week, three of them without Auston Matthews, proving the Buds have a lot more depth and heart than most people give them credit for.
NOV. 6: LEAFS V. LAS VEGAS KNIGHTS
After a dismal week in which the Buds lost three out of four games, Leafs Nation was nervous about Toronto’s first-ever meeting with the Las Vegas Knights and their 9-4-0 record.
But there was no need for nerves because the Leafs, playing in front of their home crowd at the Air Canada Centre, dominated from the start.
Nazem Kadri opened up the scoring early in the first period with a power play goal around the four-minute mark, even though it looked like James van Riemsdyk had redirected the puck into the net. Las Vegas tied it up less than a minute later (James Neal), but the Leafs were not done.
Despite the fact that Matthews was suffering from an “upper-body” injury, the Toronto superstar looked just fine as he skated the puck to the Las Vegas zone and made an impressive spinning move to shake off a couple of Golden Knights before shooting the puck at the net and van Riemsdyk finally got his goal on the rebound, putting Toronto up 2-1.
Not only was Matthews incredible offensively, he also saved a goal on the Leafs by clearing the puck from the crease after it got past Frederik Andersen and Toronto held on to its lead. There isn’t much Matthews can’t do, even when injured.
Not to be outdone by the Leafs’ shining star, Kadri took back the spotlight when he scored his second goal of the game off a great pass from Patrick Marleau and the Leafs led 3-1 after one.
As has been a common theme by the Buds this season, they got a little lax in the second period, allowing the Golden knights to come within one after scoring (Reilly Smith) on their third power play late in the frame.
The Leafs did a great job on the penalty kill during a five-on-three advantage by the Golden Knights, who managed just one shot on goal, but they shouldn’t have taken the two penalties in the first place. It seemed as if Lady Luck was on Toronto’s side tonight, however. The house always wins, after all.
It looked like van Riemsdyk had scored his second goal of the night early in the third, but it was ruled no goal.
Las Vegas tied the game shortly afterwards (Deryk Engelland), but the Leafs fought back and had a couple of great chances that, unfortunately, failed to hit their target. Matthews shot the puck wide, Morgan Rielly hit the post and JVR almost scored another goal. The Golden Knights had a few good opportunities of their own, including a close shot on which Andersen made a great glove save. But neither team could break the deadlock, and the game went into overtime.
Watching the Leafs play in OT is never boring and this was no exception. But it was scarier than usual this time, because Las Vegas outshot the Buds 5-2. Thankfully, Freddie kept Toronto in the game by stopping all five shots and the game progressed to the dreaded shootout.
It was Toronto’s first shootout of the season and Leafs Nation cringed as they recalled the Buds’ shootout record of a season earlier — 1-8.
But the Leafs’ goalie came up big again, stopping all three Golden Knights’ shots, and the Leafs were victorious after Mitch Marner scored Toronto’s only goal of the shootout. It was enough for the win and it was a great confidence booster for both the Leafs and Marner, who had endured a long scoreless streak.
NOV. 8: LEAFS V. MINNESOTA WILD
Toronto was playing without Matthews two nights later and Leafs Nation was in a panic. Although Matthews had looked spectacular playing injured against Las Vegas, he was listed as “day to day” and fans worried that the team would falter without him.
But the Buds dug deep and played their hearts out, making up for Matthews’ absence.
Kadri continued his scoring streak when he picked up his third goal in two games, opening up the scoring in the first period against Minnesota. The Wild tied the game (Jason Zucker) with less than two minutes to go and the first frame ended 1-1.
Marleau, playing center tonight due to Matthews’ absence, made coach Mike Babcock look brilliant in his line juggling efforts as he took a great pass from Zach Hyman and scored a bullet that put the Leafs up 2-1.
Even though Minnesota outshot Toronto 23-12 and the Leafs received a few questionable penalties — including a ridiculous one called against defenseman Andreas Bergman who did absolutely nothing to cause his opponent to jump and dive — the second period ended in a 2-1 lead for Toronto as Andersen was stellar in the net once again.
The Leafs scored less than four minutes into the third period when Connor Carrick was credited with a goal that went off a Minnesota player. At first glance, it wasn’t clear whether the goal was Carrick’s, Kadri’s, Rielly’s, Matt Martin‘s or Leo Komarov‘s, proving that every Leaf on the ice was working hard to make things happen, and it was 3-1.
The Wild outshot the Leafs again in the third and got one back (Zucker), but that’s all they could muster. Connor Brown scored an empty-net goal, putting Toronto up 4-2, and that’s how it ended.
NOV. 10: LEAFS V. BOSTON BRUINS
The Leafs played their third game in a row at home and were hoping for their third win in a row in the first of back-to-back games against division rival Boston on Friday night.
Again, Toronto was playing without Matthews.
Although the Leafs had several scoring chances in the first period — I counted at least three for JVR alone, including Toronto’s first shot on goal — and a couple of power play opportunities, the Buds couldn’t capitalize.
Boston had its share of chances as well, but Andersen was clutch in net again for the Leafs, and the first frame ended in a scoreless tie.
The Bruins opened up the scoring in the second period (Patrice Bergeron) and the Leafs answered by getting a penalty. Lucky for them, Boston’s power play was not successful and the score remained 1-0.
The Leafs got a power play four minutes later and Toronto evened up the score when van Riemsdyk finally put one in the net. It was destined to happen after many attempts by the Leafs’ veteran, who picked up his third power play goal of the season, tied for the team lead, as well as tying him for the team lead in power play points with nine.
Boston took the lead again in the third period, capitalizing with one second left on a penalty to Josh Leivo to make it 2-1 (David Pastrnak). The Leafs took another penalty, this time by Jake Gardiner, but Boston’s power play was powerless against the great penalty-killing efforts of Toronto, especially Rielly, who was brilliant.
The Leafs kept pressing and van Riemsdyk was the hero once again when he kept the puck in the Bruins’ zone and redirected a shot by Marner to score the tying goal with one minute left in the third to send the game into overtime.
Marleau was clutch once again, scoring the overtime goal for the Leafs, but the Bruins challenged the goal, claiming he was offside. The goal, however, was deemed good and the Leafs’ 3-2 win was their third in a row at home.
NOV. 11: LEAFS V. BOSTON BRUINS
The following night, the Leafs were in Boston for the rematch. Again, Matthews was not in the lineup. Neither was the red-hot Andersen, whom Toronto rested in favor of backup goalie Curtis McElhinney.
Could the Leafs keep their winning streak alive without two of their best players in the lineup in a back-to-back game on the road?
Toronto opened up the scoring when Marner put one past Tuuka Rask close to the nine-minute mark of the first period and who else but van Riemsdyk got his ninth goal of the season five minutes later to stake Toronto to a 2-0 lead.
Boston got one back a minute later (Frank Vatrano), but the Leafs still led 2-1 after the first frame.
Despite the Leafs being outshot in the first 40 minutes of play, the Buds were on their game defensively and McElhinney was excellent in net to keep the Bruins off the scoreboard in the second period. Toronto also managed to stay out of the penalty box in the frame, which helped matters.
The Leafs weren’t so lucky in the third period, picking up two questionable penalties early in the frame and giving Boston a five-on-three advantage for more than a minute. But Toronto’s penalty killing was phenomenal and the Bruins failed to capitalize.
Rielly added to the Leafs’ lead, scoring shortly after the Buds killed off the two penalties, and it was 3-1 Toronto.
The officials seemed to miss a couple of glaring infractions committed by Boston, which just made the Leafs more determined to win.
Even though Boston kept pressing, outshooting Toronto 13-8 in the third and 39-25 overall, the Leafs held their ground and McElhinney was excellent, letting in just the one Bruins’ goal.
Marleau (again!) scored the empty-netter to give the Leafs a 4-1 victory and their fourth win in a row for a 12-7-0 record.
The Leafs now have an extended rest (they deserve it) until Thursday, when they play the New Jersey Devils at the ACC.