It’s possible we saw the best and the worst of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the last week of play. A 3-0 loss to a struggling Calgary Flames team kicked off the week, in stark contrast to how it ended with a 4-0 win over the red-hot Edmonton Oilers. Add in a 2-1 overtime win over Calgary, and you can call it the classic mixed bag. The blue and white continue to lead the league and have now moved to the top of several power rankings, including The Hockey Writers’ Bakers Dozen Power Rankings. Impressive when you consider several starters have been out of the line-up. Toronto already has lost more than 50 man-games due to injury.
Nylander Bounces Back
This week also goes to show how much can change in a couple of games. William Nylander was the goat a week ago. He was benched during the crucial final minutes of the game and publicly called out by his coach. But he persevered and scored both of the goals to beat Calgary 2-1 in overtime. It wasn’t only that he got the goals, but how he did. He was digging for the puck in the blue paint to push it in and then, in overtime, used his incredible speed, confidence and that fantastic shot to score.
He grabbed another goal against Edmonton, threading the needle to open the scoring. Nylander will continue to be a polarizing figure and seemingly a misunderstood player, according to teammates. Sheldon Keefe continues to press for consistency. He may be taking the tough love approach, as discussed in this article by the Old Prof.
Frederik Andersen did not play during the past week. Adding to the goaltending woes, Jack Campbell was still recovering from an injury sustained last month. That meant Michael Hutchinson started the week, yes, the third-string goalie. But no one could blame him for the loss against Calgary. Toronto averages 3.55 goals a game, and the team had not been shut out all season until that point. It raised concern for Keefe, who said the mindset was off, and the players expected nothing good to happen.
Campbell returned to the line-up just in time to face the Oilers, who were on a five-game winning streak and have two of the biggest threats in the game, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The goalie situation that is unfolding in Toronto was part of the discussion during the Maple Leafs Lounge.
Not only did Campbell get the win, but he also handed Edmonton its first shutout loss of the season. Campbell certainly played well, but this was a full team effort, as described by Keefe. “The guys played hard for him right until the end,” said Keefe, “They love him as a teammate, and you could see that just in terms of how the guys were talking on the bench and how they went out onto the ice and made sure they did a good job for him.”
Lessons Without Matthews
It doesn’t make sense to say Toronto’s best game to date was without the league’s leading scorer and the player who was named The Hockey Writers’ first star of the month. Auston Matthews hurt his wrist against Calgary, and we learned that his wrist had been a nagging injury all season. This allowed Keefe to really mix up the lines and experiment with new matches. It seemed to work as the team rolled four lines, and each of the combinations produced chances while limiting the Oilers’ threats.
You can go back to the old cliché that it was a full team effort, but that is the best way to describe how the team played without its elite scorer while shutting out and frustrating two of the best players in hockey. It will be interesting to see how Keefe uses this information in the weeks ahead.
Toronto has two more games against Edmonton, and then it’s further west to face the Vancouver Canucks. The Leafs played dominant hockey against Vancouver earlier this season, winning all three games by a combined score of 15-6. Vancouver is at the point of desperation. A few more series that go against them could end the team’s chances at the playoffs very early. Toronto will have to match a team’s intensity that they just shut out and a team on the brink of losing the season. It will be fun to watch!
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.