In the Toronto Maple Leafs back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres, it came down to the play of two goalies. On Friday night in Buffalo, Michael Hutchinson simply gave up too many goals and the team lost 6-4. On Saturday night in Toronto, Frederik Andersen was given just as difficult a test and passed. As a result, the team won in overtime 2-1.
With those two games, Toronto improved to 4-1-0 in its last five games under new head coach Sheldon Keefe. It was Keefe’s first coaching game in Toronto and he came away a winner.
The win over the Sabres was the first time the team has won the second game of a back-to-back all season. It was also the first time Andersen started in goal in the second game of back-to-back games, which was exactly different from the deployment former head coach Mike Babcock utilized in similar situations.
In this post, I want to keep Maple Leafs fans more up-to-date with some of the news and rumors emerging from the team.
Item One: Hutchinson Struggles Yet Again
I fear Michael Hutchinson might become this season’s Jake Gardiner – a player the fans choose to chorus boos upon. Hutchinson had another off game on Friday evening. In his last game before being sent to the Toronto Marlies, Hutchinson struggled against the Chicago Blackhawks, giving up five goals on 34 shots and losing 5-4. Against the Sabres, he gave up five goals in 35 shots and the team lost 6-4.
The Maple Leafs had given Hutchinson a 2-0 lead, but he couldn’t hold it and gave up four straight goals. That was basically the game. The 29-year-old is winless for the season, with a 0-5-1 record, a 4.55 GAA and a .876 save percentage. I’m a Hutchinson fan, but I’m not sure how much longer the team can keep using him if he fails to have at least one good game every once in a while.
In case any Maple Leafs fans wonder where Garret Sparks is, the Vegas Golden Knights are paying him $750,000 to play with the Chicago Wolves. So, at least Hutchinson is $50,000 cheaper a season.
Item Two: Tavares Is Waking Up from His Scoring Slumber
During his last three games, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has scored four goals and two assists (a great two-points-a-game average). Against the Detroit Red Wings, he had a goal and an assist; in Friday night’s loss to the Sabers, he scored the first two goals of the game; and, in Saturday’s victory over the Sabres, he scored the overtime goal that iced the game for his team.
The 29-year-old Tavares now has 10 goals, 10 assists, and 20 points in 21 games. Tavares’ helper was a milestone: it was his 400th NHL assist and came on William Nylander’s goal that gave the Maple Leafs the lead.
Item Three: Kapanen’s Third Line Presence
Kasperi Kapanen scored a goal and an assist in Friday’s 6-4 loss to the Sabres, then he had an assist in the team’s victory on the second night. Kapanen has two goals and five points over a four-game point streak, all while playing mostly on the third-line.
I’m using no advanced statistics – only what I’m seeing – when I say this; but, to me, he’s been more present on the ice recently. He’s been speedy; he’s flashing in on goal; I just seem to be aware of him more.
Item Four: Spezza Is Still On and Off the Roster
I have to believe getting Nic Petan into the lineup more is a goal general manager Kyle Dubas and new head coach Sheldon Keefe share. Because, although veteran Jason Spezza has been playing better with Mike Babcock’s departure, he’s still taking a seat in the press box while Petan gets more ice time.
There’s no doubt that Spezza’s been playing with more confidence. He’s also obviously excited, as he noted late last week when he reported, “I was excited to come to practice, I had a few things I wanted to work on and it just keeps you engaged and motivated. I’m excited to play the game right now because I feel like I can even get better than how I’m going.”
Spezza scored three goals and registered seven points in eight games in November, mostly due to being in the lineup more often. I’ll be interested to see how he’ll be used in December. I personally think he adds to the team. (from “Scratch that earlier usage, Spezza knows he can be an asset for Maple Leafs”, Terry Koshan, The Vancouver Sun, 11/29/19)
Item Five: Andersen Plays Lights Out Against the Sabres on Saturday
For the first time all season, Hutchinson drew the start on the first game of the back-to-back, which gave Andersen the start in the second game. I applaud Keefe making that small, but subtle change. It seemed like a no-brainer, really.
Andersen had tended his team to a 25-save shutout against the Red Wings in the middle of the week. Then, he made 29 saves to lead Toronto to the 2-1 overtime victory against the Sabres on Saturday.
Obviously, his play was stellar on both evenings. He made several point-blank saves and seemed especially calm all game. He was also fortunate that what might have been called a goal was not because the camera-angle was inconclusive. As it stands now, Andersen’s record is 13-5-3 with a 2.47 GAA and a .921 save percentage. His numbers are getting better each game.
As Tavares said, “He gave us a chance to win, especially in the third period, where we had to defend. He made some big saves, even at the end of the second (period), too. That’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the league.”
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs have two days off, then play the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Dec. 3. They immediately come home to play the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday, Dec. 4. The Maple Leafs have more than their fair share of back-to-back games so far, and this week has yet another.