Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat a strong Carolina Hurricanes team. It was a tough game and, perhaps as it should have, the game went into the extra overtime period. There, a team without Auston Matthews, who was back in the dressing room dealing with an injury, pushed hard until Mitch Marner put a puck past his former teammate and friend Frederik Andersen to win by a score of 4-3.
Last night’s had a playoff feel to it, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that – should the Maple Leafs get through the Atlantic Division during the postseason – there’s a good chance they could face this same Hurricanes’ team again.
What made last night’s game particularly important was that on October 25, when the Maple Leafs fell to these same Hurricanes in North Carolina by a score of 4-1, head coach Sheldon Keefe had called Carolina the class of the NHL. Not so far off, actually. Until the Hurricanes lost to the Maple Leafs last night, they had held the highest winning percentage in the NHL, slightly ahead of the Colorado Avalanche.
Last Night’s Maple Leafs Have Improved Since October
When the Maple Leafs lost to the Hurricanes in October, Carolina had not yet been beaten during the 2021-22 regular season. That night in October, they had won their fifth game of the season. They went on to win four more games to start the season with nine straight wins.
By contrast, at that same point in the season, the Maple Leafs were in a funk. They had lost four games in a row, had a record of 2-4-1 on the season, and had just come off their most embarrassing 7-1 loss of the season to a Pittsburgh Penguins’ team with only half an NHL lineup. Where the Maple Leafs sat wasn’t pretty.
In the loss to the Hurricanes, Matthews scored the 200th goal of his career; however, he hadn’t scored in four games previously and even the most diehard Maple Leafs’ fans believed that this season another sniper would win the Richard Trophy. Marner was also in a scoring funk.
Keefe Outlined His Team’s Needs
After that first Hurricanes’ game, Keefe seemed to find some positives in the 4-1 loss. Specifically, he noted that “I thought our guys competed at a much higher level (that against the Penguins the previous game). Unfortunately, it’s still not high enough. (The Hurricanes) set the standard, really in the league, in that regard. We got a real sense of what a Stanley-Cup contending team looks and feels like. Our guys had to deal with that all the way through.”
After that game, Keefe went further to explicate the successes Carolina had against his team. He noted that his team had “made mistakes that resulted in us getting scored on. They (Carolina) didn’t make those mistakes. At times, we gave too easy access to our net with guys getting behind our defense. We didn’t get the same level of access to their net.”
In those comments, Keefe listed the things his team couldn’t (or didn’t) do that the Hurricanes did. These included that the Hurricanes: (a) didn’t make mistakes, (b) got to the Maple Leafs’ net often, and (c) got behind his team’s defense. In short, Keefe listed what made the Hurricanes superior to the team he coached.
The Hurricanes Are What Stanley Cup Teams Look Like
Finally, Keefe noted that the Hurricanes were what a Stanley Cup contending team should look like. That’s why his team couldn’t keep up with them. What he was really saying was that his team wasn’t up to that standard – then.
Since that game in October, the Maple Leafs have put together a record of 28-6-2. For as much angst as Maple Leafs’ fans (including me) have about this particular team, that’s an amazingly good record. Elite actually.
It isn’t there are not areas to improve on this team. Most ardent and supportive fans point to the need for a physical, minutes-eating defenseman as a missing piece that might help the team get over the top.
This Maple Leafs Team Has the Horses
But, this Maple Leafs’ team is loaded and they’re playing great hockey. Keefe can ice forwards like Matthews, Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Alex Kerfoot. His depth forward depth is strong. His newcomers add value to the team. Michael Bunting fits on that first line. David Kampf is so good defensively and wins tons of faceoffs. Ondrej Kase never quits.
Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin (when he’s healthy), T.J. Brodie, and the two young Swedish defensemen – Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren – are growing into the lineup. Justin Holl has played good hockey since he’s been back from COVID-19 protocol. We know what goalie Jack Campbell is capable of. And, Petr Mrazek is healthy and played really well last night.
As coach Keefe noted after the game, “I thought he (Mrazek) was really great. We didn’t give up a great deal, but when we did — especially in that second period — there were some really good chances there. He stood tall on them. Even in the first, there was a lot of activity. They were shooting the puck from everywhere early in the game and directing things to the net for tips, rebounds, and shots through traffic. He looked really strong.”
Keefe’s Team Didn’t Give Up a Great Deal
But look at Keefe’s other words embedded in that testimonial for Mrazek “We didn’t give up a great deal, but when we did …” Then compare this short phrase with what Keefe said after the first Maple Leafs’ meeting with these same Hurricanes. In that game, his team gave up a lot.
If the Hurricanes have been Keefe’s measuring stick; and, that’s exactly what he said just over three months ago, his Maple Leafs have grown significantly.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean this team is a shoo-in for anything. The team has to get over the hump. However, you have to know that Keefe is happy with how his team performed last night.
Maple Leafs’ fans, I invite you to enjoy how good this current iteration of your team is – right now. I’m starting to believe.