Two teams that don’t meet that often aren’t normally expected to deliver fireworks. While the game wasn’t physically charged (for the most part), the Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild opened the game with some end to end chances.
Both teams find themselves at different levels on the competitive scale, but it was clear in tonight’s game that both squads know just how important every point is regardless of how experienced or inexperienced the players.
After scoring first, the Wild maintained control of the game with the Leafs capitalizing on a few opportunities on the league’s best goalie. That being said, the Leafs never really caught up to the speed of the Wild which ended up being their downfall in this contest.
After the Leafs had a quick start to the period, giving themselves a couple of odd man rushes, the Wild made their experience and presence known early by opening up the game with their long stretch passes.
However, it was a defensive breakdown and strong forechecking by the Wild that gave them an early lead in this one.
Stuck along the boards behind his own net, Nazem Kadri lost control of the puck when Mikko Koivu knocked it off his stick. The puck popped out in front of the Leafs net where Jason Zucker came flying into the slot to open the scoring.
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) December 8, 2016
Six minutes later Jared Spurgeon found Chris Stewart, who got behind the Leafs defence, and was able to break in before going five hole on Frederik Andersen to give the Wild a 2-0 lead. Kurtis Gabriel also picked up his first NHL point on the play – a moment he was able to share with his family.
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) December 8, 2016
The Leafs, while falling a little flat in the first, continued to press the Wild. Outshooting Minnesota 10-8, the Maple Leafs were able to cut the lead in half when Kadri fired a puck at the pads of Dubnyk and Ben Smith was able to put home the rebound.
Andersen took the lone penalty of the first period following the Wild’s first tally, but Minnesota wasn’t able to capitalize. However, Minnesota was still able to carry the lead into the second period.
The second period was more of the same, only the Leafs seemed to have more jump in their step. But Eric Staal and the Wild quickly shut that down when the big centre scored his sixth of the season just over a minute into the second frame.
The goal came after Tyler Bozak was unable to clear the puck out of his own zone. Charlie Coyle stole the puck behind the Leafs net and dished it out front for Staal to put it away. While the Leafs continued to develop their own opportunities, their flat footedness in their own end led to two big goals for the Wild through two periods.
After a big tilt between Gabriel and Roman Polak following the Staal goal, the Leafs continued to push and their hard work in the offensive zone didn’t go without reward.
Outshooting the Wild again in the second period (10-9), the Leafs were able to add a goal just over the midpoint of the period to cut the lead to one goal again. While he didn’t get an assist on the play, the strong forechecking by Leafs’ rookie Mitch Marner loosened up the puck for Bozak who made up for his earlier gaffe with a backhanded tally that got through the armour of Dubnyk.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 8, 2016
The Leafs came out flying in the second period, but even though they were able to get some dangerous scoring chances, Dubnyk stood his ground. Midway through the period, the Leafs had outshot the Wild 9-2, but the big net minder wasn’t letting anything get past him.
Holding leads is something the Leafs have struggled with all year, and while their offence has certainly impressed this year for a team full of rookies, they just weren’t able to produce anything early in the third.
However, their pressure did provide them with opportunities. With seven minutes left in the game, Wild defenceman Ryan Suter took a penalty as he took Marner down beside the Minnesota net and the Leafs went to the power play. Still, while the Leafs put up four power play shots, Dubnyk stood tall and took away the holes.
Even with Andersen on the bench and some significant pressure from the Leafs, Dubnyk was the difference maker finishing the game with 35 saves and helping the Wild to a big 3-2 victory.
MIN – Jason Zucker (4) assisted by Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu
MIN – Chris Stewart (4) assisted by Jared Spurgeon and Kurtis Gabriel
TOR – Ben Smith (2) assisted by Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly
MIN – Eric Staal (6) assisted by Charlie Coyle
TOR – Tyler Bozak (6) unassisted
THW Three Stars
First: Eric Staal (GWG)
Second: Devan Dubnyk (35 saves)
Third: Kurtis Gabriel (1 assist, first career NHL point)
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.