It was a really solid weekend for the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the first time this season, the team’s backup goalie won a game and actually looked good doing it. Finally, to my count, the Maple Leafs have now played seven back-to-back games and this was the first time the team has won both games. They beat the Rangers in New York on Friday night, 6-3, and the Detroit Red Wings at home, 4-1, on Saturday night.
Don’t look now, but the team has leapfrogged its way into the second spot in the Atlantic Division with a 19-14-4 record for 42 points in 37 games. Their win-loss record under new head coach Sheldon Keefe stands at 10-4-0. Things are looking much more optimistic for the team.
In this post, I want to bring Maple Leafs fans more up-to-date on news and rumors about the players on the team.
Item One: What Have We Learned About Keefe?
With each game, Maple Leafs fans are also learning more about Keefe as a coach, and during the Red Wings’ game, Keefe showed his willingness to discipline his players when he saw they weren’t working hard enough.
Specifically, he sat both Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander for what seemed like uninspired play – limiting them to only three shifts in the second period and sitting them for over 13 minutes at the game’s end. I’ll say more about that in item two.
Item Two: Keefe Limits Nylander’s Ice Time
What’s so interesting about Nylander’s benching is that it came one night after he absolutely exploded offensively against the Rangers by scoring two goals (including the game-winner) and adding an assist. You’d think that game would motivate a player with Nylander’s skill level to keep playing that way. But, it didn’t.
What does this mean Maple Leafs fans are learning both about Nylander and Keefe?
First, we’re learning that former head coach Mike Babcock’s seeming dislike for Nylander might not have been as simple as “I don’t like him and the way he plays.” We’re learning that Nylander needs to be externally motivated to stay on top of his game.
Second, we’re learning that Keefe is willing to discipline players, even those he really likes, as a way to keep his team moving in the right direction. The message from Keefe to Nylander (and Kapanen) seems simple: “If you aren’t going to work hard every shift, there are players on this team who will. And, they’ll play.”
That isn’t a bad lesson for a team that, although it currently is in the playoff picture, needs a steady work ethic to make an extended Stanley Cup playoff run. From my perspective, good on Keefe.
Item Three: Marner’s on a Seven-Game Scoring Streak
Mitch Marner had a strong weekend. In Friday’s 6-3 victory over the Rangers, he scored two goals, including one on the power play. In Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Red Wings, he had two assists. Marner’s scoring streak is now seven games; and, during those seven games, five were multiple-point games. He’s had 12 points in those games, with eight assists and four goals.
Marner’s game has improved since Zach Hyman returned from his injury. Hyman has three great skills that benefit Marner: first, he has a motor that won’t stop – he digs for the puck until he gets it; second, Hyman opens the ice so Marner (and others) can thrive – he’s the go-getter of the group; and, third, he energizes the team. In the Red Wings game, when others relaxed, he didn’t. He’s inspirational that way.
Hyman is value-added to any line, but his play seems especially to fit with Marner. The team missed him, and much of Keefe’s success as a coach has benefited for the fortuitous timing of Hyman’s return.
Item Four: Matthews’ Goal-Scoring Can’t Be Stopped
Oddly, Auston Matthews scored two assists (one on Marner’s first goal then one on Nylander’s game-winner) in Friday’s win over the Rangers. Then, in Saturday’s Red Wings game he scored two goals and an assist. He’s simply a great scorer, with an amazingly accurate shot.
Currently, he has a three-game point streak (four goals, three assists). His December has been productive in terms of goal scoring, with seven goals in nine games. However, he’s only had three assists during the entire month. Friday’s assists were actually his first this month. In total, the 22-year-old has 23 goals and 18 assists for 41 points in 37 games this season.
Item Five: Hyman Leads the Team to Victory
Zach Hyman had a great night against Detroit and his energy and scoring led the team to the win. He scored two goals and an assist, and his work ethic empowered his teammates. His first goal had to be video-reviewed, but the review clearly showed the puck had crossed the line prior to the net being knocked off its moorings. As noted above when I wrote about Marner, Hyman is an on-ice leader and the team is fortunate to have him.
Item Six: Finally, Hutchinson Wins Game One of His Season
Not quite a year ago, on Jan. 5, 2019, Michael Hutchinson won his first game as a Maple Leaf. On Dec. 21, 2019, he won his first game this season.
Certainly, Hutchinson must be both happy and relieved with the victory, and he played well. Many of his 29 saves were quality chances. For example, the team gave up a breakaway in the game’s first minute, which he stopped.
Related: Maple Leafs’ Holl Finding His Niche
In fact, it was nice to see Maple Leafs fans chant “Let’s go Hutch.” It was good to see Hutchinson finally win a game. That certainly doesn’t fix the team’s backup-goalie situation, but one step at a time.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
Similar to other NHL teams, the Maple Leafs have a bit of a break this week because of Christmas. The team entertains a hot Carolina Hurricanes team on Dec. 23 in the afternoon then has an after-Christmas back-to-back with the Devils in New Jersey on Dec. 27 and at home against the New York Rangers on Dec. 28.
It’s likely Hutchinson has another chance to show that his victory was no fluke. The team is on a four-game winning streak. Could it win seven in a row? The next three games will tell, and certainly, the Hurricanes game will be a test.