The Toronto Maple Leafs have seemed to have hit their stride at the right moment of the NHL season, building a modest three-game winning streak in the last five days. They have defeated two of the league’s best teams in the Florida Panthers and the Boston Bruins.
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Then, despite missing five regulars to injury, they spotted the hot Winnipeg Jets 2-0 and 3-2 leads before finding their legs and rolling to a 7-3 victory. Going into the game, the Jets had won three in a row and five of their last six games.
The Maple Leafs find themselves, at least temporarily, in second place in the Atlantic Division. They sit one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning with one more game played and two points ahead of the Boston Bruins with the same number of games played.
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In this edition of Maple Leafs’ Commentary, we’ll take a look at some of the events of the game as they impact the team and the players involved.
Comment One: Auston Matthews Is Becoming, Well, Auston Matthews
We have to start our comments by saying that Auston Matthews is simply an amazing player. In last night’s game, he scored his 50th goal of the season. It was scored on a typical Matthews end-to-end rush skating through all five of the opposition’s best players before blasting the puck into the top corner of the net. Well, that’s the way we envisioned it happening. Instead, it was a 60-foot shot into an empty net with the goalie pulled.
In the end, it matters not. It was Matthews’ 50th goal in his 62nd game this season. By scoring that goal, he became only the fourth Maple Leafs’ player in NHL history to score 50 or more goals in a single season. The accomplishment is likely one he would have achieved two seasons ago if not for a worldwide pandemic.
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If our calculations are correct, Matthews becomes the first NHL player to score 50 goals in as few as 62 games in 26 years. In the 1995-96 season, both Alex Mogilny and Peter Bondra scored 50 goals in 62 games. Of course, the fastest player to get to the 50-goal mark was Wayne Gretzky when he took only 39 games to accomplish the feat in the 1981-82 season.
Comment Two: William Nylander Jumps to 26 Goals on the Season
William Nylander scored two goals in the game, his 25th, and 26th of the season. When he knocked in the rebound of a Mitch Marner shot on the power play midway through the second period, it held up as the game-winner. Those two goals ended an eight-game span where he had only scored one goal. During that span, he had earned the ire of head coach Sheldon Keefe, lost his spot on the second line to Ilya Mikheyev, and was demoted to the third line.
Nylander added a primary assist with a nice pass to Timothy Liljegren who one-timed his second goal of the season, and career, to cap off the scoring. The three points in the game gave Nylander 63 points in 67 games, surpassing his previous season-high total of 61 points which he had accomplished in each of his first two full seasons in the NHL.
Comment Three: Ilya Mikheyev Sometimes Gets Lost in the Mix
Lost in all the celebrations over Matthews getting his 50th goal, Ilya Mikheyev played what might have been the best game of his NHL career. He scored a shorthanded goal and added two assists to achieve the first three-point game in his 131-game career.
Mikheyev’s 15 goals in 38 games would have him on pace for a 30-goal season. However, the fact is that he missed close to 30 games due to the second serious hand/wrist injury of his career. He had suffered that injury back during training camp. Mikheyev has made the most of his recent promotion to the Maple Leafs’ second line alongside John Tavares and Alex Kerfoot.
What’s Ahead for the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs now head out on the road for a four-game trip that sees them visit Philadelphia to take on the Flyers before heading to the Sunshine state for a back-to-back against Tampa and the Florida Panthers and then heading West to visit Dallas.
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There appears to be a good chance Jake Muzzin and Jack Campbell will return to action on the trip. It will be good to have both players back on the team’s active roster. Perhaps the time off will give Campbell a renewed spurt of whatever was lacking after his strong start and quick fade this season. Last season he was out for a number of weeks and came back strong.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]