Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Keefe’s Challenge, Marner & Matthews

Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs turned their game completely around from the night before and dominated the New Jersey Devils to take home a 7-1 win. From the Devils’ perspective, interim coach Alain Nasreddine, who was taking Lindy Ruff’s place after his father’s recent death, simply put it: ”Today wasn’t pretty.”

Nasreddine added, that the night before had been “a heartbreaking loss.” last night. I do think that it carried over into today. Still, no excuses.” 

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His Devils’ team looked completely overwhelmed when the Maple Leafs scored four goals in the first period and then Jack Campbell didn’t give up a single Devils’ goal until the score was out of reach at 6-0. Two completely different games on two nights in a row. 

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News’ & Rumors, I’ll focus on the events of the game and on the players’ contributions to the team’s success. I’ll also focus on the challenge that I expect Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe laid at the skates of his team and how they responded. Finally, I’ll look at Campbell’s first trip to the All-Star Game.

Item One: The Team Steps Up to Protect Their Goalie

The Maple Leafs’ coaching staff made a calculated decision when it started Campbell in last night’s game. How would he play after he was so unceremoniously pulled with only half the first period in the books? Would he come back strong? Could he turn his game around and head into the All-Star break with a good feeling, which should be exactly the case given the accolades being chosen an All-Star should bring? 

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In retrospect, it seems like the perfect – and perhaps the only – choice for the coaching staff to make. However, there’s little doubt that the coaches did their work to help create a clear path that led to Campbell’s success. Given coach Keefe’s comments after the previous night’s 7-4 game, you have to know that he shared those same comments directly with his team prior to the game. 

The message had to be for them to come together to take care of their goalie. The same goalie they’d abandoned had, game in and game out, stood on his head for the team earlier in the season to allow them to win games they shouldn’t have. Now they fail to play shutdown team defense in front of him? He (Campbell) deserves a more solid effort than that (or more pointed words to that effect).

Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The result was clear. The team gave Campbell a lead, and Campbell reciprocated by playing great. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship between goalie and team when things are going well. And, they certainly went well last night. 

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I wasn’t in the dressing room to hear Keefe’s directive, but I know it happened. I also know that Campbell is headed to the All-Star Game on a high because of it. Coaches make mistakes all the time, but this was one time I’m certain the coach played it well.

Item Two: Is this Mitch Marner the Best Mitch Marner We’ve Ever Seen?

During the time I’ve covered the Maple Leafs, has Mitch Marner ever played better than over his past seven games? The answer is no. I can’t imagine it. He’s still distributing the puck to his line-mates – ask Michael Bunting how nice it is to play with Marner. But, Marner’s also scoring goals like (say) Auston Matthews. 

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A look at the statistics of his last seven games is revealing. Since January 15, his first game off the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, he’s scored 16 points. In those seven games, he’s scored a goal in each game. He’s even scored a couple of power-play goals, which is something he hadn’t done for 101 games. He scored two more goals last night. By the way, he also registered eight assists. That’s production.

Item Three: What’s the Chance Auston Matthews Will Win the Richard Trophy?

Auston Matthews scored his 29th of the season. But he actually lost ground to the current NHL goal-scoring leader – none other than the New York Rangers’ Chris Kreider – who scored two goals last night to push his season’s total to 33. However, Kreider has played 47 games and Matthews has played 42 games. He’s four goals behind with five games in hand. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Here’s betting Matthews catches up to Kreider before the season’s out. His two other biggest competitors seem to be the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin (who also has 29 goals) and the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl (who has 31 goals). 

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs? 

As coach Keefe noted after last night’s game, even when the team is home they might as well be on the road because they don’t really see their families much. The All-Star break allows some family time, which I hope the players, coaching staff, and training staff take.

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I’m hoping both Matthews and Campbell enjoy the All-Star festivities. For Matthews, this is old hat and will continue to be. For Campbell, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although I hope not. What I do know is that he’s smiling a lot, tapping a lot of new guy’s pads, thanking his teammates, and taking the blame for things that probably haven’t happened yet. 

How do you not love this guy?