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Leafs are trying to become Blackhawks East, and they’re well on their way

The Maple Leafs' 4-3 overtime victory over the Blackhawks, punctuated by Auston Matthews' gorgeous winning goal, is a sign Toronto might be ready to mimic Chicago's past success sooner rather than later.

The Chicago Blackhawks looked across the ice during the national anthem Monday night and saw a mirror image of themselves from about a decade ago. And the Toronto Maple Leafs looked across the ice during the national anthem Monday night and saw what they want to be when they grow up.

It made for fascinating theatre. One team that early in the season looks as though it is taking reports of its imminent demise personally. Another team that looks as though it is serving notice very early on that there is no opponent in the NHL that they fear. That no lead on them is safe, that the greatness that awaits them might just come a little earlier than everyone thought. And when the dust settled, the Maple Leafs had come back from a 2-0 deficit to outshoot the Blackhawks by a 2:1 ratio, outchance them by a huge margin and watched their best player and a future superstar in the league once again leave everyone searching for words to describe just how good he is and how dominant he can be.

It’s Game 3 of the season. It’s early. Nobody believed that bunk from Jaromir Jagr about how Connor McDavid could someday score 100 goals in a season just because he had a hatty in his first game. And nobody believes the Maple Leafs will continue to average more than six goals a game. So it’s probably a little early to start talking about statement games. But when you beat a team like Chicago the way the Leafs did, coming back from a 2-0 deficit, dominating the final two periods, and having Auston Matthews dominate against Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, well let’s just say there was a message delivered.

“I think the feeling in our room beforehand is…before the other team was coming in and you were hoping,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “Now you think you’ve got a chance. That’s just a different feel.”

The Leafs may have to start getting used to it, just the way the Blackhawks did when they were on the cusp of doing great things. Like the Blackhawks, the Leafs had to be putrid to be good. Like the Blackhawks, their fortunes turned when they went from being a poorly run dysfunctional organization to one that was operated by top-shelf hockey talent. Like the Blackhawks, they got a ridiculously talented American-born player. And like the Blackhawks, they have built around those players with some outstanding young talent that was taken in later rounds. And like the Blackhawks, the Leafs will have some very difficult decisions to make once that prodigious talent begins lining up at the pay window. When Auston Matthews has a 10 and six zeroes after his name and others players follow, Lou Lamoriello will be challenged to manage the salary cap the way Stan Bowman has, which is better than anyone in the history of the game. There are significant players who are in this lineup now who will almost certainly have to be sacrificed to make room for the big-money, long-term deals that are coming and it will require the Leafs to make some difficult decisions and continue to find players who can fill their spots for a fraction of the cost.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. For now, the Leafs are content to be simply be drawing comparison to the Blackhawks.

“Sustained success, that’s what they’ve had and that’s the goal here,” said Connor Brown. “It’s no secret that we want to be good, not just for one year and not just make one run. We want to be good consistently. They’ve done it right over there for a long time. They can score goals, but it’s the way they play without the puck makes them winners.”

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville who watched his team take a 2-0 lead then get dominated for the rest of the game, has taken notice of what the Leafs are building. “They’ve got some speed off the rush,” Quenneville said. “Their rush game is something you have to give them credit for. It was quick for us. They’ve got a lot of great pieces. They’re going to be all right. They’ve got some great young players and it gives us something to think about.”

Indeed. The Leafs are growing into something the rest of the league will have to ponder and take seriously as a contender, sooner rather than later. “We think we have something special here,” Brown said.

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