Probably no one in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization would have named it a “must-win” game. However, it was a game that was going to be a litmus test that showed what the team was made of, the team’s will to compete, and how much desire this young group of players’ could muster towards a victory.
And, for this one night – actually two games in a row – the team engaged will, desire, and skill to win a game that pushed them squarely into the playoff race. Who knows what the next game will look like, but this team showed up.
The result was a 5-3 Maple Leafs victory over their rival for third place in the Atlantic Division, and an assured playoff spot, the Florida Panthers. With the victory, the team has won three of its last four games. In contrast, the Panthers have lost three of their last four. More importantly, the Maple Leafs are four points ahead of the Panthers for third place.
As the Maple Leafs return home to play the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, in this post I want to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date on news from the team.
Item One: William Nylander’s Contract Looks Team-Friendly
In Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, William Nylander scored a power-play, game-winning goal and assisted on John Tavares’ goal in the second period. The 23-year-old winger has been hot recently.
That hot streak didn’t end before facing the Panthers. After the Maple Leafs came from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game at 3-3, Nylander put the Maple Leafs ahead when he jumped on a loose puck in front and shot it past Panthers’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky just before the third period was half over.
As Nylander reported, ”(Kyle) Clifford was battling there in front and it just ended up on my stick. I turned and just threw it at the net. Luckily it went in, but we’ll take it.”
The 23-year-old Nylander has now scored a point in 16 of his last 18 games, with 10 goals and nine assists during that stretch. With his next goal, he’ll hit the 30-goal mark. Suddenly his $6.96 million contract looks like a team-friendly deal, especially as it plays out over the next five seasons.
Item Two: Auston Matthews Is Chasing David Pastrnak in NHL Goal-Scoring
Auston Matthews scored a goal and an assist in the 5-3 win over the Panthers. It was his 44th goal (the Boston Bruins’ Pastrnak scored his 46th goal against the Dallas Stars), and Matthews now has 76 points in 65 games.
In watching the game, Matthews seems to have figured out a new way to enter the offensive zone. As he approaches the blue line, he dumps the puck in and chases it himself. Then he lays his 6-foot-3, 220-pound body on the defensemen, jars the puck loose, and picks the loose puck up. The result is a more physical game for Matthews, who’s starting to use his strength to engage his skillset. It’s interesting to watch and often unstoppable.
Item Three: Kasperi Kapanen Reminds Me of Leo Komarov
Leo Komarov is a former-Maple Leafs player who played five seasons with the Maple Leafs (now with the New York Islanders). He had a way of getting under opponents’ skin. Recently, Kasperi Kapanen’s been channeling Leo Komarov, but with more speed and better hands.
When Kapanen plays like this, he’s amazing. Like other Maple Leafs players, if the team’s going to win, he needs to be at his best every night. For the past few games, he has been. Against the Panthers, he scored his 13th goal and now has 36 points for the season. He’s on pace to beat last season’s career-best of 44 points, although he might not score 20 goals again.
Item Four: Zach Hyman Scores 20 Goals Again
Given the length of his injury and when he began the season, who would have bet Zach Hyman would hit the 20-goal mark again this season? However, he’s done it in only his 46th game. It’s his second consecutive 20-goal season and, since Jan. 12, he’s on a point-a-game pace with 20 points in 20 games.
Item Five: Ilya Mikheyev Signs Contract with Campbell’s Soup Company
In an article in Forbes Magazine (online) on Feb. 27, Jordan Horrobin reported that Maple Leafs Russian rookie Ilya Mikheyev turned an innocent comment into a lucrative advertising contract.
If there’s a Maple Leafs fan who’s unaware, on Oct. 2, after making his NHL debut, Mikheyev was asked how he liked his new life in North America. Not surprisingly, he first talked about the language barrier and obviously had a translator share his answers with the media.
Then, Mikheyev took the interview down a surprising path. He noted, “I like soup.” And, he repeated, “Yes. I like soup. I don’t know why you don’t eat soup.”
Instead of Mikheyev’s agent Dan Milstein seeing this as a conversation about the differences between Canadian and Russian comfort food and culture, like a smart agent he acted. As Milstein noted, “As soon as he said what he said, the light bulb went off. And I basically said, ‘I’ve got to find him a soup company.’”
Then Milstein went to work. Finally, after months of negotiation and creative strategizing, Campbell Canada announced a partnership with Mikheyev on Feb. 26, naming him their “Chief Soup Officer.”
Mikheyev started a Twitter account, something he admitted he never used in Russia. His handle is @Souperman65 (the 65 is his Maple Leafs jersey number) and he already has 14.3K followers since joining in late October. (from “Leafs’ Mikheyev Turns ‘Normal Comment’ About Soup Into Deal With Campbell’s’ by Jordan Horrobin, Forbes, 02/27/20)
As of yesterday, Campbell’s is now the official soup brand of the Maple Leafs and Mikheyev is its spokesperson.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
Against both the Lightning and the Panthers, the Maple Leafs showed up. The team even came back in the Panthers’ game after falling behind 3-1. It made an amazing difference when each player committed to competing for every loose puck. Even when the Maple Leafs lost specific battles, the player’s compete level changed their opponents’ ability to make a good next play.
I was surprised to read that the Maple Leafs faceoff circle success showed the Panthers winning 23 face-offs and losing only 19. Three of the four Maple Leafs goals seemed to be linked to faceoff wins.
We’ll see if the team can keep up its winning ways against the Canucks on Saturday.
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