If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs’ fan, you have to feel good about Tuesday’s 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens. Given how the series began – with the horrible on-ice accident that put Maple Leafs’ captain John Tavares out for the series and the bad dream that was also called Game 1, that the team is heading home to Toronto with a 3-1 game lead in the best of seven series is a good feeling.
Around the Maple Leafs’ Lounge and among the great group of writers who cover the Maple Leafs, I’m known as a kum ba yah sort of guy. I choose to focus on the good things about what’s happening with the team and to the young men who play on it.
But I’m not alone today. Within the internal communication channel we use on The Hockey Writers’ site to “talk” to each other, the mood is almost giddy with possibility that the team might actually move on to a second playoff round series. That hasn’t happened in almost 20 seasons, but this team is on the cusp. And, and the mood is optimistic.
Nothing is a given, but still it feels as if the entire Blue and White nation is smiling today. In this post, I want to add to that good feeling by outlining three reasons Maple Leafs’ fans should be smiling today.
Reason to Smile One: And We Were Worried About Jack Campbell’s Lack of Playoff Experience?
Jack Campbell’s been nothing but outstanding in goal. He’s been clutch throughout the series and hasn’t blinked when the onslaughts have come. He says he finds it “fun.” Even Carey Price is talking about Campbell’s strong play.
Perhaps Campbell’s best period was the last period of Game 3 when he turned back shot after shot when the Canadiens were desperately pushing toward overtime. Still, who can fault the 32-save shutout he threw in Game 4? It was hopefully his first of many career playoff shutouts, and the 29-year-old former backup goalie has given up only four goals in four games on 114 shots on goal. He’s put up a great .965 save percentage.
Finally, in a combination of good goalie play and good defense, the team has only given up two goals during the last three games. That’s solid play.
Reason to Smile Two: William Nylander Scores in Four Straight Games
William Nylander only shot once during Tuesday’s game, but that’s all he needed. He’s now scored in four straight games. Even the goals seem to be getting prettier. Last night it was a swipe-in on a no-look, cross-crease assist from newcomer Alex Galchenyuk to give the team a 1-0 lead just as the second period started.
Nylander now has five points in four playoff games. He’s equalled his longest goal-scoring streak of the season. Last night’s second line also looked great together and have taken over the scoring slack from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Not that Matthews and Marner are playing poorly; they seem to be controlling the play but not hitting the score sheet. Together the line of Nylander, Galchenyuk (who scored a goal and two assists), and Alex Kerfoot (who registered three assists) combined for seven points during the game.
Other than Campbell, Nylander’s been the Maple Leafs’ best player during the four-game series. One can hope the days of calling for the 25-year-old youngster to be traded are over. Nylander’s contract, that a number of fans seemed to believe was a problem, in truth has turned into a bargain for the Maple Leafs’ organization.
Reason to Smile Three: The Vintage Players Are Great Assets
For me, it’s hard not to root for the vintage players. In fact, these vintage Maple Leafs’ players add a great deal to the roster. First, they are flexible. Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds can be placed into almost any forward position in the lineup and add value. That head coach Sheldon Keefe can roll the lines, which includes a fourth line that provides offensive and demands the opposition’s attention, is a huge advantage.
Second, the phrase diminishing skills is subjective; it depends upon the talent level you began with. Thornton, Spezza, and Simmonds have diminishing skills; however, because each started with high skill levels that still leaves them with plenty of ability. Diminished as they are, they still add a great deal of skill and experience to the lineup.
Those skills were obvious during this game four victory. For example, watching Spezza on the ice, I keep asking myself “How does Spezza get so open so often?” Together, the vintage players not only add some decent minutes on the ice, but they add a great deal of calm and composed leadership in the dressing room. A lot has been made about their “no-stress” attitude, which seems to have caught on with the younger members of the team.
Last night, Thornton scored a power-play goal on his only shot of the game by redirecting a great Spezza pass at the side of the net late in the second period. That goal basically put the game away, and it took the wind out of the Canadiens’ sails. Although the goal was the first point of the series for 41-year-old Thornton, I’ve gone on record as saying that even if Thornton never scores another goal he’s been a great addition to the team. He brings so much more than scoring.
For his part, Spezza added a goal and an assist during Game 4. His goal, where he finished off a great tape-to-tape pass from Galchenyuk, was the insurance. About two minutes later Spezza assisted on Thornton’s power-play goal, which is the point. The vintage players are putting up power-play points as well as fourth-line minutes.
As for Simmonds, you have to believe coach Keefe’s plan has been to dissuade the Canadiens from engaging the kind of physicality they brought to Game 1. Keefe has started Simmonds each of the last three games. Some call it a good-luck charm: I’m leaning toward message. Simmonds is a challenge the Canadians get to see at the start of every playoff game. Game 4 had some scrums, but it seemed pretty calm to me.
The Leading Maple Leafs’ Scorers
If you’re a Maple Leafs’ fan and look at who the leading scorers have been throughout the four-game series, you might be surprised who heads the list. Specifically, who would have thought Kerfoot would be tied for top spot with five points? One might have gone with Nylander, perhaps, but the rest of the leading-scorers’ list tells the tale.
Nylander and Kerfoot are tied with five points; then, Spezza, Morgan Rielly, Matthews, Marner, and Galchenyuk all have three points.
That list offers some insight into why the team is doing well and has to make a long-time Maple Leafs’ fan smile.