Whenever the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the New York Islanders, you can expect to hear a loud barn. Well, at least since 2018-19. Ever since the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares back in July 2018, his returns to face his former team have always been full of boos from the Islanders faithful. It got to a point where Tavares was hearing cheers for getting thrown out of the faceoff circle.
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But in the end, and for the second time this season, the Maple Leafs got the last laugh, defeating the Islanders 3-1 on the road. The Maple Leafs have been in a little bit of a slump lately, with their ability to hold leads and keep their foot on the gas pedal coming into question on this road trip. But backed by a solid performance from Petr Mrazek and some scoring help from all around the lineup, the Maple Leafs were able to pull out the victory.
Without further ado, here are three key takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ victory against the Islanders.
Maple Leafs’ Mrazek Has His Best Game of the Season
When the Maple Leafs signed Mrazek to a three-year contract back in July, the expectation was that he would be able to serve in somewhat of a 1B role. Well, with an AAV of $3.8 million, at least that was the hope. However, injuries derailed the first half of his season, and that combined with Jack Campbell’s Vezina-like start to the season led to him spending a good amount of time on the bench.
But with Campbell starting to slow down along with the rest of the team over the past few games, the need for Mrazek to start getting more looks between the pipes presented itself. And last night, he made the best of his shot. Despite not seeing too much action early on, the Islanders actually wound up outshooting the Maple Leafs, and Mrazek was there to get the job done and keep his team in the game. He stopped 27 of 28 shots, good for a .964 save percentage (SV%) on the night.
This was by far Mrazek’s best game of the season, although there’s not much of a sample size to choose from. He had only started four games this season prior to last night, and couldn’t manage a save percentage over .900 in any of them. But realistically, how can you blame him? With the lingering groin injury to start the season, he had a minimum of three weeks between each start. It’s hard for a goalie to get into a rhythm when the starts are so spaced apart.
It’s also worth noting that Campbell has started 29 out of the Maple Leafs’ 38 games so far this season, and the most starts he’s had in a single season to date is 31. As incredible as he’s been between the pipes, this isn’t a workload he’s ever had to shoulder in the past, and he’s probably due for a little bit of a rest. Campbell’s allowed 18 goals in his last four starts, so the Leafs should begin to utilize Mrazek a little bit more and try to get him into a rhythm.
Maple Leafs’ Engvall Making Himself at Home on the Third Line
I’ll be completely honest. I’ve been on the trade Engvall train for most of the season. But as players have missed time with injury and trips to COVID protocol, Pierre Engvall has continually gotten opportunities to prove his worth to the Maple Leafs. And lately, he’s done a great job of proving he still deserves a spot in the lineup. Especially considering the tear Ilya Mikheyev has been on since returning to action, Engvall was one of the players who was expected to find his job in jeopardy. But he’s kicked it up a notch in recent games.
Engvall scored with 0.4 seconds left in the first period to give the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead, only 59 seconds after Zach Parise scored to tie the game in the final minute. The goal was a great display of Mikheyev’s forechecking ability as well as a sweet set of mitts on Engvall to set up the goal. He now has four goals and ten points in his last 14 games.
With the Maple Leafs missing the presence of Mikheyev and more recently Ondrej Kase, Engvall has done an admirable job fitting in on the Maple Leafs’ third line. His speed and defensive ability add to a tough line to play against for opposing players, and at this point, it’s looking like the Maple Leafs would be hurting themselves by moving him. Even when Kase is healthy again, I think Engvall has done enough to warrant a spot in the bottom six for the foreseeable future.
Maple Leafs’ Rielly Continues His Career Year
Morgan Rielly‘s looming contract extension was one of the biggest topics of conversation coming into the 2021-22 season. But ever since he signed it on Oct 29, he’s played some of the best hockey of his career. And yes, that’s including his 2018-19 season where he finished with 72 points in 82 games. After he signed this contract, I wrote an article about how the extension had on-ice and off-ice benefits. And his reaction to head coach Sheldon Keefe’s comments calling the team’s effort against the New York Rangers on Wednesday night “soft” was a perfect example of that.
At this point, Rielly’s seen it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly. For him to come out and back up his coach, even when some may have taken the words as harsh, speaks volumes about his leadership and his mindset when it comes to winning. And he seemed to take these comments personally because he tallied a goal and an assist to help propel the Maple Leafs over the Islanders.
Rielly now has 33 points in 38 games on the season, and he’s on pace to have a season similar to the one he had in 2018-19. Not only was he a huge part of their offense tonight, he also made some key defensive plays including a slide to break up a chance in tight by Anthony Beauvillier. Last night was the third game in a row where he had over 25 minutes of ice time, and he’s done an excellent job of anchoring the defensive corps in the absence of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl.
Maple Leafs Set to Return “Home” on Wednesday
After a long road trip, the Maple Leafs will next be in action when they take on the Anaheim Ducks back home in Toronto. I put quotes around “home” because they won’t be playing in front of any fans. The Maple Leafs have seen games previously postponed due to the Ontario government’s COVID restrictions, but as of now, no such announcement has been made about Wednesday’s tilt against the Anaheim Ducks.
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With the Boston Bruins defeating the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, the Maple Leafs remain only three points ahead of the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. Now, it remains crucial as ever that the Leafs try to build something of this win and stay ahead of the Bruins. And if Mrazek can string together a couple of good starts, it will do wonders for both the goaltending situation and the team’s situation.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.