While the reigning rookie of the year sits with an injury, the Maple Leafs are grinding to glory – a good sign for the club’s future
Throw the script out, folks. The Toronto Maple Leafs have now won five straight games, four with star center Auston Matthews out of the lineup. Not only that, but the run-and-gun Leafs – owners of one of the top offenses in the NHL – are getting wins in low-scoring affairs lately, including Thursday’s 1-0 overtime victory over the similarly goal-happy New Jersey Devils.
“We’ve had a few of those lately,” said center Tyler Bozak. “We’re feeling really good. As the season goes on, there’s going to be a lot more low-scoring games and the checking will get tighter.”
Bozak also gave credit to goaltender Frederik Andersen, who has given up just four goals in his past three starts while facing an average of 38 shots against in that span. Andersen was very good against the Devils, facing a barrage of action while winning a grueling duel with Cory Schneider. It took until two seconds left in overtime for William Nylander to crack Schneider’s armor and the Devils netminder had some face-melting saves on the evening.
“We’re trying to find ways to win every night,” said left winger James van Riemsdyk. “We wanted to make sure we stayed within our structure, not make any crazy plays or shoot ourselves in the foot. I thought we did a pretty good job of managing pucks and not giving them anything easy.”
For the most part that was true. Nico Hischier had one pretty good chance, while Taylor Hall was dangerous, but generally shadowed by Nazem Kadri all night. Of course, had Matthews been in the lineup, perhaps the geometry of the game would have shifted: he’s one of the team’s best puckhandlers and a possession monster. New Jersey had an advantage in that category on the night.
So the wins that have come while No. 34 recovers from an upper-body injury must be seen as a positive for the team, which was relying heavily on the Matthews line before he was felled.
“It’s great to see guys step up,” Andersen said. “Obviously we’d like to see him back but we all have our own jobs to do. He’s itching to come back and we’re battling for him right now.”
It’s funny to think how gloomy things looked for Toronto just two weeks ago. After a red-hot start, the Maple Leafs swooned as late October hit, dropping five of six games. Four of those contests were tightly-packed road games against the three California squads and a very good St. Louis Blues team, so having trouble can be forgiven. But the two home games before that were against basement-dwelling East squads Carolina and Philadelphia. Perhaps a shake-up was just what the club needed.
Now, losing the reigning Calder Trophy winner and one of the NHL’s elite centers is probably a little more urgent than say, changing the pre-game music in the dressing room, but sometimes you just have to deal.
As this evolving Maple Leafs group takes on challenges, the idea of playoff success becomes more optimistic. Though they fell to Washington in the first round last year, it was quite notable how the team forced the Caps into overtime nearly every game and played the Presidents’ Trophy winners tight. Offense was definitely at a premium then, as it was against New Jersey on Thursday.
“A lot of people think it’s a boring game,” Andersen said. “But we have to learn to enjoy playing like this.”
Especially when you’re getting the win in the end.