Maple Leafs Grit to be Tested in February

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on a recording-setting pace after an impressive first half of the season. The team has 59 points after 41 games. That’s on pace for 118 points, eclipsing the previous season-best points total of 105 set in the 2017-18 season. February is going to be a grind, 12 games in 28 days. That’s not too bad until you account for the five days off for the All-Star break.

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The revised schedule to make up for nine postponed games has resulted in a jam-packed month with little downtime, a lot of travel and some challenging opponents. A dozen games, including five against teams in the top ten, all of which are contenders to be lifting the Stanley cup in a few months.

Carolina Hurricanes in Toronto on February 7

The Maple Leafs will welcome back Frederik Andersen on Feb. 7 when one of the league’s best teams rolls into Scotiabank Arena. Since the season started, the Carolina Hurricanes have been at or near the top of the NHL’s standings. They are the leaders of the Metropolitan Division and made it look easy the first time they faced the Maple Leafs.

Frederik Andersen Carolina Hurricanes
Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On Oct. 25, the Hurricanes beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. While Andersen got the first star for stopping 24 of 25 shots, Jack Campbell kept this game respectable. Carolina peppered the net with 36 shots and outplayed Toronto in every aspect of the game. Around this time, the panic buttons were being pushed throughout Leafs’ Nation. Toronto dropped to 2-4-1, including 0-3-1, in the previous four games.

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The power play went 0-3 and was 0-14 in the last five games. It was also the first time Nick Ritchie, who started the season on the top line, got dropped to the fourth line. Toronto has obviously turned the corner since that game. Now they can show the hockey world just how much they have improved.

Pittsburgh Penguins in Toronto on February 17

After a trip west to play in Calgary (Feb. 10), Vancouver (Feb. 12) and Seattle (Feb. 14), Toronto returns home to face a familiar foe. The Pittsburgh Penguins have outscored the Maple Leafs 9-1 in the two games this season. The Penguins, who started the season well below expectations, have not had a problem against Toronto.

In fact, the first meeting of the season back on Oct. 23 may be one of the most humiliating defeats in recent memory. Pittsburgh was missing three centres: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jeff Carter. They were also down Bryan Rust and Kris Letang. With a patchwork lineup, including minor leaguers, the Penguins destroyed Toronto 7-1. The promising season was off to a horrendous start, and the bandwagon was clearing out quickly.

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Toronto was in a much better place the next time these two teams met, but it was the same result – a loss for the Maple Leafs. The blue and white were on a five-game winning streak when the Penguins came for a visit on Nov. 20. Undoubtedly, the Maple Leafs had revenge on their minds, but they could not beat Tristan Jarry, who stopped all 26 shots. Pittsburgh has been rallying lately to make up for the slow start. They are a better team than the one that beat Toronto twice already this season.

St. Louis Blues in Toronto February 19

After facing some of the best teams in the Metro, two elite teams from the Central Division visit Ontario’s capital city. Toronto ended the St. Louis Blues 13 game home-point streak on Jan. 15. The game described best as “a crazy roller coaster ride” by Mitch Marner ended in a 6-5 Toronto win. Toronto blew a 3-1 lead and a 4-3 lead but somehow managed the victory. However, this game started the trend that Toronto has had a hard time breaking. Sheldon Keefe’s team was one of the better defensive units in the league but has had to start overpowering the opposition offensively more often than at the start of the season.

Minnesota Wild in Toronto February 24

After hosting the Blues, the Maple Leafs have one day off before travelling to Montreal for a game on Feb. 21 and then jumping on a plane for Columbus on Feb. 22. The Maple Leafs have one day off before hosting the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 24. The Wild ended Toronto’s five-game winning streak on Dec. 4 with a 4-3 shootout victory. Although they managed a single point, the Leafs gained some valuable experience as they were down 3-0 but battled all the way back to force overtime. That experience has been coming in handy lately, as Toronto has had to fight from behind more than Sheldon Keefe would like or expected.

This was also the first game Toronto played after a fluke incident at practice between Jake Muzzin and Marner. Marner missed the next six games with a shoulder injury. The event raised questions about the locker room as the two players, both in the leadership group, were yelling at each other. However, cooler heads prevailed.

Washington Capitals Host Toronto February 28

The Maple Leafs hit the road again to finish the month, first in Detroit on Feb. 26 and then to see the Washington Capitals for the first time this season on Feb. 28. Alexander Ovechkin and company are once again in the hunt in the Metropolitan Division. The roster may have changed a little bit since the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship team, but this group is still as tough as they get.

Tom Wilson, of course leading the charge and sure to draw the attention of a few Maple Leafs, while Ovechkin, at 36-years-old is chasing the most all-time goal leaders. By this game, he could surpass Jaromir Jagr for third on the list and be chasing Gordie Howe’s 801 and Wayne Gretzky’s 894. Ovechkin is currently in the top three for goal scoring this season.

Alex Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal
Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal, Feb. 22, 2020 (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There at 24 points up for grabs for the Maple Leafs in February, and they will need a lot of them to keep pace in the Atlantic Division. Despite a recording setting clip, the team is on, it’s still behind the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Plus, the Boston Bruins have come to life and are stalking the Leafs for the third spot in the standings. So, after a quiet December and January, get ready for a fast and feverish February.