It was no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs were off to a slow start in the 2021-22 season. Bad habits were creeping in and the star players were struggling to produce.
After their 4-1 loss against the Carolina Hurricanes and a dreadful first period against the Chicago Blackhawks, it seemed to have ignited the fire in the Maple Leafs as they knew things had to change. They’re now in the midst of a five-game winning streak including winning three straight against heavyweight teams in the Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins.
There were many positives to take from the Maple Leafs sweep last week against three league powerhouses, but a few things stood out above the rest. Here are the main reasons why they came out on top proving that they can keep up with the best in the league.
Took Advantage of Opponents’ Troubles
Some may look at the game against the Golden Knights and Lightning and view it as one where maybe they got lucky. The Golden Knights were down Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Alex Tuch before he was traded for Jack Eichel. The Lightning were missing Nikita Kucherov, but the Lightning still had their roster in-tact as they’ve had some ups and downs this season.
Yes, the Golden Knights were down a number of players but the Maple Leafs played a dominating game from start to finish. Given what happened weeks earlier when they lost 7-1 to a depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team, the Maple Leafs made sure that another bad outcome didn’t happen. They seemed to have learned their lesson as they were constantly engaged in the offensive zone and were confident with the movements, shot selection and overall decision making.
Those are the games the Maple Leafs can’t take for granted. No matter who is playing or who is out, they always need to be at their best. The energy and compete level has to be present and it was.
Against the Lightning, the Maple Leafs were resilient after a rough start to the game. Being down 1-0 since the first period, the Maple Leafs continued to battle their way back against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs. They took advantage of a bad clearing attempt made by Victor Hedman as John Tavares scored the tying goal in the final minute of the third period. They later capitalized on another opportunity on the power play with Hedman in the box, as William Nylander scored the game-winning goal.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper mentioned that the Maple Leafs didn’t beat them, but that the they “beat ourselves“. Yes, two crucial mistakes ended up costing them the game. However, the resolve and determination in a game where the Maple Leafs had to grind it out until the end played a major factor in their comeback win. They weren’t giving up until the very end and that’s the mentality that they’ve been lacking for some time.
The Bruins were 5-3 heading into the game against the Maple Leafs. We all know the history the Maple Leafs and Bruins have, both regular season and playoffs. They boast one of the top lines in the game in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak which everyone seems to struggle to contain. However, the Maple Leafs didn’t seem to be bothered at all as they played a strong game all around.
While the Bruins were physical and got out to a 1-0 lead, the Maple Leafs once again took their game to the next level. They dug deep and battled back as their best players stepped up with four straight goals from Tavares and Auston Matthews. The Maple Leafs matched the intensity and their offensive game proved to be too much for the Bruins.
The Stars Are Now Starting To Roll
About a week ago, I wrote about reasons to remain optimistic about the Maple Leafs despite the early season troubles. One of the points I mentioned was that the offense was bound to click at some point. The Maple Leafs had their chances, but the finish and execution just wasn’t there.
This week was a different story and a major turnaround from what we witnessed in the first seven games. The Maple Leafs attacked with purpose and did a great job of getting to the middle of the ice for quality chances and high danger opportunities. At the time, the Maple Leafs were 23rd in goals for and 27th in goals for per game (2.33). Fast forward to the present, they now currently sit 15th with 32 goals for and the GF/GP rate went up to 2.67 as a result of the team scoring 11 times this past week. It may not seem like much, but the offensive is starting to click.
While it was the Maple Leafs depth that was noticeable to start the season, it was the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Tavares who came to play against the best. The Maple Leafs star players combined for 32 points over the last five games, but their production against tough opponents is what’s even more impressive. Here’s a breakdown of their point totals.
|Opponent||John Tavares||Mitch Marner||Auston Matthews||William Nylander|
|Vegas Golden Knights||1 assist||1 goal, 2 assists||2 goals||1 goal, 1 assist|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||1 goal||2 assists||2 assists||1 goal|
|Boston Bruins||2 goals, 1 assist||1 goal, 3 assists||2 goals||1 assist|
Leading the way this week was Marner, who bounced back in a positive way for the Maple Leafs. With one assist in his previous seven games, Marner was getting a lot of backlash as the production from one of the team’s highest paid players was clearly lacking.
Since the game against the Blackhawks, he went on tear with 11 points in his last five games and nine in his last three. Last week, he reflected on his struggles and made it a point to go back to the basics.
“I just realized I got to stop worrying about everything,” Marner said according to TSN’s Mark Masters, “just go out there and play hockey, do the thing I love, and have fun with the puck.”
Head coach Sheldon Keefe noticed a difference in his play and mentality as well, saying that, “He has an extra bounce in his step on the ice. He is extra poised and patient with the puck, waiting for plays to develop, and then executing.”
Everyone is starting to heat up offensively for the Maple Leafs. Tavares is tied for the team lead in points with Marner (12) and Nylander has joined the conversation with 10 points in 12 games. While he had a slow start with only one goal in his first six games, Matthews now has four in his last three. With five goals in nine games, he’s still on a strong scoring pace with 38 goals for the season. Now that he’s got the scoring touch, expect his numbers to rise and the goal scoring production could match that over the last two seasons.
Campbell A Big Reason For Team’s Success
Can we finally start giving Jack Campbell the recognition he finally deserves and that his performance last season was no fluke?
Among goalies with at least five starts, he ranks seventh in save percentage at .936 and fifth in goals against average with 1.88. He also ranks fifth in goals saved above average (goals saved compared to league average) with 6.41.
He shutout the Golden Knights and despite a depleted roster, made some really key saves in the game to preserve it. He then had a goaltending duel with one of the best in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy and was a big reason for helping his team to stay in the game to get the two points. He faced a lot of dangerous opportunities including this breakaway from Brayden Point.
Campbell then faced a barrage of shots against the Bruins, especially in the third period where he faced 23 as they tried to mount a comeback. Once again, he stood tall and was the difference maker for the Maple Leafs, especially in the final 20 minutes.
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He’s easily been the team’s MVP in the early stages of this season and it’s easy to see why. He’s kept this team in every game and has made a number of highlight reel saves. He’s on top of his game and he’s outperforming some of the best in the league in the process. In the midst of a contract season, it’s looking like that whatever he’ll earn, he definitely will have earned it with his play in the crease.
This past week was a big test for the Maple Leafs. It looks as if they met and even surpassed expectations with their play against three teams that are considered to be contenders. If they want to take a major step forward, they’re going to have strong performances against the best. This should serve as some reassurance that they’re capable of doing just that.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.