When the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from the 2021 playoffs at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, there were many talking points for their defeat after having a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. One of them was the ability to play with any sort of toughness to their game, be it physical or mental.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe mentioned that a lack of “killer instinct” as a reason for their downfall, which changed their approach to their offseason plans. At times during this season, we’ve seen that aspect and desire to win. Then, there are times where there wasn’t any consistency in that regard; be it breakdowns, poor defense or even playing down to their opponent. Those factors have crept in multiple times.
However, recent events may have prompted something with this Maple Leafs squad as that toughness and killer instinct maybe starting to break through and starting to have the impact they had hoped to have during the playoffs.
Matthews Suspension Created a Spark
During the Heritage Classic, Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews got into a shoving match with Buffalo Sabres defender Rasmus Dahlin. That reached a boiling point for Matthews as his stick came high and cross-checked Dahlin in the head, ultimately ending with a two-games suspension for the Maple Leafs sniper.
While Matthews deserved some sort of discipline, the officiating– at multiple times this season– came into question as there should’ve been an initial call on Dahlin before the skirmish. Matthews was left to defend and stand up for himself while getting no help from the ones who are supposed to call the game as is. This was probably the angriest we’ve seen Matthews all season.
For a Hart trophy candidate, Matthews has only drawn nine penalties this season, putting him 323rd in the league. Yes, you read that correctly. By comparison, Connor McDavid leads the league with 43, while Matthews’ line mate Michael Bunting is third with 35. For someone, who is always moving and making moves around players, you would expect that number to be much higher with the amount of stick infractions that could’ve been called.
Matthews finally snapped and said, “enough is enough”. If the officials aren’t going to do anything then he will stand up for himself, whether the officials make a call or not. That battle with Dahlin was a tipping point as many of his teammates came to his defense.
“He’s obviously big, and he can use that as a way to get pissed off or whatnot,” captain John Tavares said about Matthews according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “But I think just to stand his ground and show that he’s not going to get pushed around or let anyone try to get him off his game.”
Call it killer instinct, passion, toughness or fire, something ignited with this Maple Leafs team. They can thank Matthews for it because after that incident, it seemed there was a shift in attitude and play.
The Response That Followed
Coming off the loss to the Sabres and the standings in the Atlantic becoming tighter than before, the Maple Leafs were facing two crucial games in which they had to be their best. Despite not having their best player and leading goal scorer, the Maple Leafs didn’t let that bother them as they were able to rise to the challenge and play some of their best hockey in back-to-back outings.
First and foremost, the play of Erik Källgren stood out in both games as he recorded his first career NHL shutout in his first NHL start against the Dallas Stars. With Petr Mrazek struggling in the crease, Källgren continued to provide the poise and confidence that you need in goal. Källgren did what he needed to do and made his case to earn more starts.
The team as a whole looked confident. They had a balanced attack throughout the lineup against the Stars and they even put together one of their better defensive efforts against the Carolina Hurricanes. They matched the physical play with 36 hits all while getting into the lanes and blocking shots (20) and prioritizing that play in their own end. Keefe was extremely pleased with the result and ability to put forth that strong effort. In both those games, Ilya Lyubushkin had a total of 13 hits.
“We have to be proud of the efforts that we’ve put forth in the last couple games,” Keefe said according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “Both in getting leads against good teams and then securing those leads and playing defensive hockey through the third periods of those games and also converting those defensive efforts into offensive opportunities. We have to enjoy that process and we have to enjoy the fact that we committed defensively, we committed physically and that’s just got to be who we are down the stretch.”
That willingness to play strong, shut down defense has shown at times, and others not so much. However, their most consistent effort in regards to that commitment within their own end was against the Hurricanes.
Although they didn’t get the result they wanted in a 6-3 loss to the Nashville Predators, there were moments in the game where the fight and resolve did show. When they scored to cut the lead, they showed the ability to bounce back and continue to push for another goal. However, they were outmatched physically.
The Maple Leafs were outhit 37-27, but they didn’t let it get the best of them as they mixed it up after the whistle and made a timely hit when needed. But the biggest thing was them stepping up for their teammate. When Mitch Marner looked slow to get up after Matt Duchene committed a penalty, both Matthews and Bunting voiced their displeasure. After what transpired after the Heritage Classic, these are the messages that need to be sent that this team won’t be taken lightly and be pushed around, despite one team dominating the game physically.
Can This Aspect Be Consistent?
The one thing the Maple Leafs have lacked this season, is consistency. Be it with their overall play and ability to fight back. Even in their game against the New Jersey Devils, the Maple Leafs looked out of sorts at times. When they needed to get things going, they answered the call and their physical play and played strong defense when they needed it.
Over the last five games, the ability to remain in tough games and fight back and stand up for each other has been evident. With the addition of Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell at the trade deadline, that should also provide some much-needed energy and for a team looking to change their playoff misfortunes. Keefe feels comfortable with Giordano out on the ice as he’s able to block opponents out and Blackwell isn’t afraid to make a hit despite being 5-foot-9.
If they can come together and have this new found mentality consistently each game, then this team should be able to have that long term success.
Statistics from NHL.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.