We aren’t even a full week into the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs’ season, and there’s already plenty of action to dive into after the played three games last week including their first back-to-back series.
In my second edition of Maple Leafs Weekly, I’ll look at the early results that include points in all three contests, the white-hot start to Auston Matthews’ season, and what happened in the third period on Saturday night, as well as the review the week ahead.
Quality Start to the Leafs Season
Regardless of how you slice it, netting five of a possible six points to start your season is a victory. It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but the Maple Leafs took care of business in their season opener against the rival Ottawa Senators on Wednesday with a 5-3 victory. What’s more, they maintained their composure after a worst-case scenario start when the Senators scored 25 seconds into the game.
There were some sloppy plays in the Leafs’ first game which is to be expected early in the season. There were also plenty of positives, with Matthews getting off to a hot start once again (more on that later), the first NHL points for Rasmus Sandin and Ilya Mikheyev, and contributions from up and down the lineup. The end result was a feel-good win.
Their most complete game of the opening week came on Friday night, however, when the Maple Leafs took care of business against an inferior opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets. After the Matthews line shined on Wednesday, it was Mitch Marner and John Tavares’ turn to do the heavy lifting, with Marner tallying a pair of goals – both thanks to a Tavares primary assist – including a first-period beauty on the power play.
Matthews still made his presence felt with a game-sealing tally that wasn’t visible to the naked eye, and fooled TSN’s play-by-play announcer Gord Miller.
All told, the Maple Leafs should have felt good about themselves heading into the second half of their back-to-back games against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. However, the result was unacceptable.
Saturday Night Collapse
Again on Saturday, the Maple Leafs surrendered an early goal, this time to the Canadiens’ Max Domi who tallied his first of the season just over a minute into the game. Like the opener, the Leafs put it behind them and stormed ahead, scoring the game’s next four goals and a perfect 3-0-0 record was in clear view.
Eleven seconds after William Nylander put the Maple Leafs up by three, Jonathan Drouin closed the gap to two with his first of the season. Just over a minute later, a Brendan Gallagher strike had Montreal trailing by one. The ugliest part of the young season soon followed as winger Kasperi Kapanen threw a broken stick at the stick blade of Jeff Petry, which calls for a penalty shot. Petry converted to tie the game at four and to silence the Scotiabank Arena.
The Maple Leafs were fortunate to salvage a point in this one. Just over two minutes after Petry tied it, Phillip Danault put the Habs ahead with less than five minutes to go. Matthews stayed white-hot with his fifth goal of the season to tie the game with just over a minute left in regulation.
A Paul Byron shootout goal sealed the win for the Canadiens, completing a remarkable comeback win. For Maple Leafs fans, the colossal collapse was too reminiscent of their team from last season and the hope for the forever-maligned blue line to be improved. Miscues and bone-headed decisions caused the loss, and spoiled what could have been a perfect opening week for the blue and white.
Matthews Starts Hot
With a pair of two-goal games across the first three contests of the season, Matthews is on his way to becoming the top-five NHL player most believe he is capable of. His two-goal effort in game one was the driving force behind the win and his short-lived heroics in game three salvaged the club a point. So far, the season couldn’t be going better for No.34.
Early-season stats need to be taken with a grain of salt and the “on pace for” jokes are rampant, but it’s an impressive start nonetheless. Matthews’ five goals are tied for the NHL lead, thanks only to Anthony Mantha of the Detroit Red Wings who scored four goals Sunday night to upset the Dallas Stars. He’s also leading the league in shots on goal with 16. He’s won 55.9% of his faceoffs and is owning the possession game to the tune of a ridiculous 57.7% Corsi For.
However, there was no smile on his mustached face after Saturday night’s loss, despite carrying the offense with another two goals. He’ll tell you the wins mean more than the individual goals, and he’s probably telling the truth. However, it has to feel good for the freshly-turned 22-year-old, especially after his offseason transgressions were made public during the preseason.
Off-ice situations aside, Matthews’ on-ice play and results have been just what the doctor ordered. He continues to add new weapons to his arsenal – including a much-improved one-timer – and his game looks as well-rounded as ever. It should make for great entertainment as the season moves along, at the very least.
The Week Ahead
After what can be considered a soft opening in terms of their opponents, the challenge increases this week as a couple of Stanley Cup contenders make their way to downtown Toronto.
The week opens with a matchup against the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Monday night – one of just two games on the NHL schedule. After a couple of days off, the vaunted Tampa Bay Lightning make their way to Scotiabank Arena for what should be a dandy matchup against an Atlantic Division rival. In other words, the Maple Leafs face the team that won the Cup last season and the team that was supposed to win the Cup last season to open their week.
After those stiff contests, the Maple Leafs will need to ensure they don’t take the Red Wings lightly when they clash with their long-time rival Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit. The Red Wings have already upset the Nashville Predators and Stars, so this game will not be a cakewalk. It also marks their second of just five road games in October.
The season is underway, but things only get tougher from here. Sloppy starts are common in the NHL, and almost every team improves as the season moves along. The Maple Leafs need to ensure they are one of those teams.
They can make a big bounce-back statement with a win over the Blues and the team needs to establish home ice advantage this season, something they have not done in recent years. A couple of wins to start the week would go a long way in ensuring that after a rough Saturday night in Toronto.