Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Campbell, Tavares & Marner

If you were a Toronto Maple Leafs’ fan, it was the kind of game you could hope for but not one you might have expected. 

The stars seemed to align for a difficult night on the ice. Your leading scorer was out with a wrist injury. Your starting goalie was injured and replaced with a backup goalie who hadn’t played in more than a month. 

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But sometimes the stars are hard to read correctly. The best happened, and not the worst. The Maple Leafs responded with one of their best games of the season – perhaps one of their best defensive games in a long time. 

It was, from the Maple Leafs’ perspective, joyful. From the Oilers’ perspective, it had to be frustrating.

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at the events of the game and comment about who played well and what that might mean as the team moves forward. 

Item One: Jack Campbell Tosses Shutout at the Oilers

The Oilers came at Jack Campbell early, but unsuccessfully. He stopped everything, turning away all 30 shots he faced during Saturday’s 4-0 road victory. Campbell simply stoned Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Tyson Barrie and company in his return from an injury.

It was Campbell’s first game since Jan. 24 because of his leg injury and he seemed to do every part of his job well – he saw the puck well; he stopped it when it came his way; he didn’t allow rebounds; and he simply played with the kind of confidence that had to reassure his Maple Leafs’ teammates. 

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The whole team seemed to respond to Campbell’s play. As a result, it’s probably correct to say that this was Campbell’s first shutout as a Maple Leafs’ goalie and the third shutout of his NHL career. However, it might be more correct to say that it was the team’s first shutout in front of Campbell.

Interestingly, when you think of it, Campbell hasn’t yet played 10 games with the team – he has nine. But he’s certainly impressed this season. He’s perfect, with a 3-0 record, a goals-against-average of 1.33 and a save percentage of .951. That’s good in anyone’s book.

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Campbell was on top of his game last night, and that’s impressive considering that he was coming back from a leg injury and being on the long-term injured reserve list. Although I have a sense that Frederik Andersen, who’s traveling with the team, might be close to a return, the backup tandem of Campbell and Michael Hutchinson has done its job in relief. 

There haven’t been many games this season when I thought the goalie play was what lost the game for the Maple Leafs.

Item Two: John Tavares Plays Strong Game with Mitch Marner

With Auston Matthews out day-to-day with his wrist injury, John Tavares moved to the top line and was reunited with his former line-mate Mitch Marner. That line worked. Tavares and Marner have always played well together and that play picked up right where it left off.

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However, this season the Maple Leafs split the two and made Marner and Matthews the featured offensive pairing. That match has also worked amazingly well, which one can see by looking at the NHL scoring leader board where Marner is third with 32 points and Matthews is tied for fourth with Patrick Kane with 31. 

Might we have a dilemma brewing with the Maple Leafs’ lineup? Is Marner, as the New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson was quoted as saying back in the day (1977 to be exact), the “straw that stirs the drink?” (from “Reggie Jackson tries to set record straight on Thurman Munson quote,” Dan Loumena, The Los Angeles Times, 05/10/13).

Auston Matthews John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates with teammate John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Teammate Matthews is having a stellar season with Marner on his wing, and last night’s reunion between Tavares and Marner paid instant dividends.

Tavares ended the game after playing well and registering two assists in the 4-0 win over the Oilers. He also had a team-high five shots, won 13 of 18 faceoffs, and ended the game with more than a single point for only the second game in his last 12. He now has a four-game point-scoring streak against the Oilers and he scored a goal and five assists (for six points) in five games against Edmonton during the 2020-21 season.

Although Tavares has scored 19 points in 22 games this season, one wonders if that total might rise if he were permanently reunited with Marner. Could happen.

Item Three: Mitch Marner Leads His Team Offensively

Marner scored a goal and an assist against the Oilers. That scoring ended the first two-game scoring mini-drought of his season. However, interestingly it was his third multiple-point game in this last five and the 10th multiple-point game of his season. 

Right now, Marner’s scoring stands at 10 goals and 22 assists (for 32 points) in the 22 games he’s played. As I noted when speaking of his reunion with Tavares, the twosome created some magic on the ice. Both Marner and Tavares played as if the puck was a yo-yo – it just kept coming back to them. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

It short, Marner seems to play well with either Tavares or Matthews. It’s just a question of what head coach Sheldon Keefe decides in the end.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The Oilers had won five straight games until the Maple Leafs came to town. As Oilers’ forward Leon Draisaitl noted after the game, “We just didn’t deserve to win. They just out battled us.”

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Now the question is, how will the Oilers respond? We’ll soon see because the two teams also will play Monday and Wednesday nights. It will be interesting to see how each team responds – the Maple Leafs to what might have been one of the team’s best games of the season – and the Oilers’ to what must have been totally frustrating.

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