I’m almost certain that most of the Toronto Maple Leafs players were cheering for the Edmonton Oilers as they beat the dreaded Boston Bruins 4-1 on the Bruins home ice. However, I’m also pretty certain that those good feelings about the Oilers were temporary and won’t extend to Monday night’s game between the Oilers and the Maple Leafs.
Good for the Oilers. Few teams go into TD Garden and beat the Bruins; they’ve only lost twice in regulation there all season.
To say the Maple Leafs are on a roll is a vast understatement. The team is 9-0-1 in its last 10 games and 15-4-1 since Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach. The team also has been scoring plenty of goals. However, and not that anyone on the team’s roster minds much, but the Maple Leafs missed by one goal setting a club record. When they only scored three goals against the New York Islanders, the team’s four-goals-per-game streak ended at nine.
In this post, as the Maple Leafs wait to play the Oilers on Jan. 6, I’d like to keep fans up-to-date about news and rumors surrounding the team.
Item One: Keefe Makes History in His First 20 Games
Although the team failed to set a team record with four goals against the Islanders, head coach Keefe set a franchise record when he became the first Maple Leafs coach ever to win 15 of his first 20 games. To do that, he beat Hap Day who, in the 1940-41 season, went 14-5-1 in his first 20 games.
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Is Keefe happy with that? Maybe inside, but his external voice is announcing, “We’re still not close to where I think we can get to. I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow as a team.”
Item Two: Marner’s Playing an Excellent Two-Way Game
I don’t think many Maple Leafs fans right now hold the tenacity of Mitch Marner’s offseason holdout against him as the team enters the 2020 calendar year. Marner’s back on his game, and he’s a defensive-minded assist machine. Against the Islanders, he scored two assists in the 3-0 victory.
There are some fine players in the NHL, but few can play both at the offensive and the defensive end without missing a beat on either. Marner can. I like the Marner who plays good defense and looks to set up his teammates to score rather than seeking goals himself.
Item Three: Matthews Is on a Two-Point-Per-Game Scoring Streak
Usually, when NHL players achieve a point-a-game pace, that’s celebrated. But, two points a game is almost Gretzky-like. Still, that’s the pace Auston Matthews has been on the past four games. As good as he’s been in past seasons, he’s clearly on track for a career season.
Seldom these days is Matthews’ name not on the score sheet. He scored a goal and an assist in the 3-0 win over the Islanders, which pushed his point streak to eight points in four games – split evenly between goals and assists with four each. The goal was his 28th of the season, and he trails only the Bruins David Pastrnak whose 31st was the only goal scored against the Oilers.
Matthews now has 51 points (28 goals and 23 assists) in 43 games. It doesn’t take long to watch him on the ice to see he’s a sniper. In fact, although there might be better players in the NHL, I don’t know anyone in the league who can get rid of a puck any quicker and with more accuracy than Matthews. When Matthews is on the ice, the game’s going along without, seemingly, much happening. Then, suddenly, Matthews has slapped the puck in the back of the net. Perhaps it’s my old eyes, but I’m happy there’s instant replay – sometimes it’s the only way I can keep up with what’s happened.
Matthews is on a pace bringing him into the 50-goal range, and I’m betting he gets 100 points for the first time in his career.
Item Four: Sandin Named Top Defender at WJC
At first, it seemed as if Rasmus Sandin wouldn’t even play. When he was slashed on the hand on Tuesday, his status was questionable. Fortunately, he was deemed fit to play and his solid play led him to be chosen as the best defenseman of the 2020 World Junior Championship. He finished tied for fourth place in scoring with three goals and seven assists for 10 points and helped his Swedish team win the bronze medal by defeating Finland.
I’m not sure what Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas have in mind for the teenage star, but I hope he gets a chance with the big club this season. The World Juniors would be a great jumping-off point. The team certainly needs him next season because it seems doubtful Dubas will be able to sign both (or maybe either) Tyson Barrie or Jake Muzzin when their contracts expire after the 2019-20 season.
It was only two NHL Entry Drafts ago (2018) when the Maple Leafs chose Sandin 29th overall. He’s matured quickly and seems almost certain to become a star. Craig Button was effusive about Sandin’s play.
Item Five: Maple Leafs Injury Report
Both Trevor Moore and Andreas Johnsson skated in the Maple Leafs practice before the Islanders game on Saturday. Moore’s been under concussion protocol and Johnsson’s been out with a leg injury.
The Saturday practice was Moore’s first time on the ice since Dec. 27. He’s missed 20 of the last 21 games with the shoulder injury and concussion. It’s good to see him making progress, and I for one hope to see him on the ice soon. He’s a miniature bulldog, which probably gets him in trouble. In his mind, he’s 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds; but his physical body is only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds.
Johnsson wore a no-contact sweater in Saturday’s practice. It was his first time skating since early December. Because the 25-year-old winger is on long-term injured reserve, he can return after 12 games. However, it still might take a while for him to get back to full recovery and playing shape.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
Can the Maple Leafs remain successful? Under Keefe, they already beat the Oilers 4-1 on the Oilers’ home rink on Dec. 14. I’m expecting a barnburner. Both teams have incredible offensive potential, and it might be a nightmare for the goalies but a treat for the fans.