The 2021-22 regular season is now over. It was, by the numbers, the best regular season the Toronto Maple Leafs have ever had in their franchise history. During the 2017-18 regular season, the team had set its franchise record for points with 105; however, that record was smashed by a full 10 points.
This season, the team rolled out a 54-21-7 record, which gave them 115 points. In that regard, it was a historic season. However, many Maple Leafs’ fans remain hard nuts to crack. Nothing matters – and that’s nothing – unless this team wins the Stanley Cup. So now the real work begins.
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In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at the victory last night for what I think it was. It was a sorta meaningless game in the standings, but it couldn’t have been a meaningless game for some of the players. In the post, I’ll try to speculate which players the game was most important for – starting with the most important.
The First Most Meaningful Game Goes to Nick Abruzzese, Who Scored His First NHL Goal
Last night, Nick Abruzzese showed a little bit of the hockey instincts that make him such a prized prospect for the Maple Leafs. He scored his first NHL goal – and a game-winning goal at that – with great hand-eye coordination, good on-ice reactions, hockey intelligence, and a willingness to seek the dirty areas of the ice to score.
Abruzzese is young and needs more experience, but he shows the characteristics of a young player who’ll one day be a part of the solution in Toronto. Thankfully there’s instant replay because his first goal happened so quickly I’d missed it without watching it again in slow motion.
Morgan Rielly fired a shot from the point that was going somewhere near the goalie, but Abruzzese tipped it in quickly past Bruins’ goalie Jeremy Swayman, who seemed to move the wrong way all night long. And that’s not a knock on Swayman.
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It was simply great hand-eye coordination from the young Harvard product. He’s been a prolific scorer for the Crimson; can he continue at the NHL level? He seems to have an incredible hockey IQ. Last night, he also looked a bit like Micheal Bunting on that score.
The Second Most Meaningful Game Goes to Erik Kallgren, Who Had His Second Straight Strong Game
Last night’s game had to also be meaningful for young Swedish goalie Erik Kallgren. I would suspect that Kallgren would have suspected he’d spend this season gaining experience and creating his goalie resume in the AHL. It’s been a long journey for the youngster since his first start of the season against the Dallas Stars. He’s been through big ups and downs and seems to have survived intact and with a kind of quiet confidence that befits a good goalie.
Right from the beginning, he was an easy comparison to the injured Petr Mrazek. While Mrazek seemed quite uncomfortable in the net, by contrast Kallgren seemed quiet. There wasn’t a lot of moving parts. He seemed to play the angles and seldom let in a softie.
Last night, Kallgrean stopped 24 of 26 shots. Against the Washington Capitals, he’d stopped 37 of 40 in front of a tired but hard-working team. It was his second solid game in a row. What it means for the immediate future is probably little because, in a perfect world, starting goalie Jack Campbell comes in and carries the load while leading his team on a long Stanley Cup chase. Kallgren watches and learns.
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However, because NHL hockey’s world is seldom perfect, who knows the remainder of Kallgren’s 2021-22 season. As it stands right now, the 25-year-old Swedish rookie put together a season’s record of 8-4-1, a goals-against-average of 3.31, and a save percentage of .888.
The Third Most Meaningful Game Goes to William Nylander, Who Looked Like a Man Against Boys
I’m not sure William Nylander needs to be more confident; yet, I’m also not sure that he doesn’t. He’s a hard young man for me to read. My memory goes back to the horrible season he put together after the polarizing contract holdout that saw him sign at the last minute.
When he returned after the contract signing for the remainder of that season, he was simply awful. Nothing went right and he scored only seven goals and 27 points in 54 games. Then he went to the World Championships that summer and his game turned around. He even changed his number. He won the MVP of the tournament, won the scoring honors, and even won almost three-quarters of his face-offs for Team Sweden.
Last night, he had a similar dominant game. He was simply playing at a different (and more dominating) speed than anyone else on the ice. He was too good for his opposition; and, he was the best player on the entire ice – bar none. He scored two goals in the game, simply because he was thinking more quickly than anyone else around him.
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Nylander knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted the puck to go, and he had the skillset to make it happen. Swayman had no chance on either goal. He went one way; Nylander went the other.
What a game. Now, can it translate to the postseason? Last postseason, Nylander showed up and was one of the team’s best players. Chances are he’ll be reunited with captain John Tavares on the team’s second line. From what I saw last night, I believe that Nylander has the skill to take over the postseason.
Then, again, I don’t know that he will do so either. He had his best season ever and finished with 34 goals and 46 assists (for 80 points) in 81 games. He has another level.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
With the Maple Leafs’ 5-2 win over the Bruins in the last game of the regular season, the Maple Leafs now meet the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. I’m pleased.
Beating the Lightning, even with home-ice advantage, might be the toughest challenge for this team if it’s to go on a long Stanley Cup journey. Might as well start with the best.
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