The Toronto Maple Leafs had the bounce-back game we were all hoping for Thursday night in their 7-3 win over the Washington Capitals.
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The hype leading into the game was all about the two best goal scorers in the NHL – Alex Ovechkin versus Auston Matthews – facing off against each other. Unfortunately, that face-off was a non-event and ended in a 0-0 draw. Neither player hit the twine.
Matthews did contribute two assists to become only the third player in Maple Leafs’ history to top the 100-point mark in one season. He joins former Maple Leafs’ greats Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler as the only Maple Leafs to achieve that honor.
William Nylander, with his 29th and 30th goals; Michael Bunting, with his 21st and 22nd; and, Ilya Mikheyev, with his 16th and 17th goals made up for Matthews not scoring in the game. Ilya Lyubushkin added the second NHL goal of his career to round out the scoring for the Maple Leafs.
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Eight Maple Leafs had at least two points in this game. On top of the four players already mentioned, Morgan Rielly and Pierre Engvall each had two assists. John Tavares was the team’s top point-getter of the game, coming away with three assists.
Comment One: Morgan Rielly Can Play Well with Any Partner
While all of the attention has been on Matthews and Marner, Rielly has quietly gone on a tear lately. Rielly has 16 points in his last 10 games, including four goals and twelve assists. He’s scored at exactly a point a game pace in his last 22 games.
With his two assists in the Capitals game, Rielly now has 55 assists on the season. That’s the most he’s had in a single season in his career. It also gives him 301 career assists. Rielly is just the fifth Maple Leafs’ defenseman to reach the 300 assist plateau ever. He needs just one more assist to catch Ian Turnbull for fourth.
Rielly is also just seven points shy of the 72 points he scored in the 2018-19 season when he finished fifth in the voting for the Norris Trophy.
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The one sign that Rielly has taken his game to the next level is that he’s been scoring at this pace while playing alongside multiple partners, while Sheldon Keefe experiments trying to find the best combinations for the postseason. In the past, Rielly has always been regarded as a player who needed a specific partner that would allow him to play to his strengths. It appears now that he can maintain his level of play regardless of who he’s partnered with.
Comment Two: Michael Bunting Leads NHL Rookie Point Scoring
Bunting scored his 20th goal over a month ago, on March 7. He then went 17 games without scoring. He broke that scoreless drought 4:37 into the game on a nice feed from Mitch Marner. He followed it up with his 22nd goal of the season on a two on one with Pierre Engvall in the second period.
His two goals extend Bunting’s lead in rookie scoring to four points over Lucas Raymond of the Detroit Red Wings. However, he’s in second place in rookie goal-scoring. He’s two behind top goal scorer, Tanner Jeannot of the Nashville Predators.
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As the regular season gets closer to its end, the feeling we’re getting is that, while we expect him to get some votes for the Calder, Bunting won’t win it. That would be true even if he were to finish first in both points and goals. We hope we’re wrong because we both feel he deserves consideration for the award.
Comment Three: Remember, Ilya Mikheyev Missed the First Half of the Season
Ilya Mikheyev sat out much of the whole first half of this regular season with a hand injury he sustained in the preseason. Despite that injury and his games missed, Mikheyev has now doubled his best single-season goals total. His previous best was the eight goals he scored during his rookie season.
If we were to expand Mikheyev’s 17 goals to a full 82-game season, it would give him 31 goals on the season. That would put him into a tie with Marner for second place in goal scoring on the team. His 26 points this season are also his personal best.
Comment Four: Ilya Lyubushkin’s Goal Doubles His Career Total
The biggest Maple Leafs’ celebration of the night came on Ilya Lyubushkin’s goal. By scoring that single goal, it equaled his best single-season mark. It also matched his career goal total. He doesn’t score much, and that’s not his forte. However, when he does score, it’s time for a party.
Over Lyubushkin’s previous 202 career games, he had scored just one goal. Now he has two. He also added an assist in the game. Last night’s game was only the second time in his career that Lyubushkin has had two points in a single game.
What’s Ahead for the Maple Leafs?
We’ll have to see if the Maple Leafs can shake the whole playing down to their opponent thing; and, they’ll have the chance soon. The team now takes on three non-playoff teams over their next three games.
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First, they visit Ottawa on Saturday night. The Senators did the Maple Leafs a favor by knocking off the Boston Bruins by a score of 3-2 on Thursday night. The team then returns home on Sunday to meet the New York Islanders. Finally, the Philadelphia Flyers come into town on Tuesday.
It will be interesting to see how Keefe handles the goaltending situation over the last eight games.
[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.]
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