TORONTO – For about 20 minutes during Saturday’s game, the Maple Leafs fell back into one very bad habit. But unlike in the past, it didn’t cost them two points.
Toronto entered the second period of their home opener leading the New York Rangers 5-2, and promptly saw that advantage evaporate until the teams were tied 5-5 by the end of the frame. Last season, the Leafs blew 11 multi-goal leads and paid the price on the scoresheet. This time, they rallied in the third to down the Rangers 8-5 and open this new campaign 2-0.
“We started like a house on fire; we were really going and playing real well,” assessed Mike Babcock. “And then you saw this kind of thing last year where we’d just lose our way and we did that, but we had enough stability and enough talent to just stick with it and ended up getting a win. Big win for our team.”
The Leafs have scored a combined 15 goals over their first two games of the season, proving their much-hyped offence is just as potent as predicted. It’s the first time since Dec. 1998 the Leafs have scored at least seven goals in consecutive games, and the total is the most over the opening two games of a season since the franchise’s first, 1917-18.
It was the depth of scoring that’s also been noteworthy for the Leafs. Only five players went without a point against New York, and seven different players accounted for the eight scores.
Toronto also chased Henrik Lundqvist from the net after he allowed five goals on 17 shots in the first period. It was just the second time in Lundqvist’s 13-season career he’s given up five scores in the opening frame.
While their ability to practically score at will is a major positive, a wayward second period showed the Leafs there is room to grow towards being the type of team they aspire to be.
“I don’t think we can say we can keep this pace going,” said Jake Gardiner, who finished with two points. “That’s unheard of. I think we’re going to have to crack down defensively and keep the puck out of our own net.
“Pucks seem to be going in for us right now and that’s a good thing,” added James van Riemsdyk. “But we need to know how to win games when we’re not burying our chances for whatever reason because those stretches happen in a year. If you’re tight defensively you give yourself a chance to win no matter what.”
Van Riemsdyk was one of the five Leafs who did not tally a point Saturday, and his minus-two rating was reflective of a difficult night for his line with Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak. They were on the ice for all three of the Rangers even-strength goals that brought the game to a tie, but redeemed themselves a bit with Bozak’s go-ahead goal in the third period.
Still, there was plenty of blame to go around in regards to how the Leafs managed to find themselves in a tie game with 20 minutes left to play. Last season at times it would have broke them, and on multiple occasions it did. However, with a season of lessons learned under their belts, history didn’t repeat itself.
“We had a little bit of that experience last year…but this time we regrouped and came back in the third,” said Zach Hyman, who scored twice. “You want to shore up the defensive side of the game now. When you’re up 5-1, you should have that game locked up, you should be able to play hard defensively and we should be able to help Freddie [Andersen] out there because he made some big plays too, but we battled back.”
It was their resolve that seemed to most impress Babcock. The goal scoring aside, even when things weren’t going well for his team, he could still identify positives. A season ago those may not have been so apparent on a similar night.
“We had a lot of guys take their turn in turning it over and being silly and doing crazy things,” he said. “We also had guys work real hard and do things right at times. So it’s not like we don’t know how. Just because it doesn’t go the way you want it to sometimes doesn’t mean they’re not trying to do good things.
“I think we have a good process, I like our group, I like the people, I like their commitment to doing good things.”
As he was in Winnipeg, Frederik Andersen was the Leafs’ saving grace when they needed it most. Right after Mats Zuccarello’s game-tying goal in the second period, Andersen halted a two-on-one break that would have given the Rangers their first lead and possibly gutted the Leafs of whatever confidence they had remaining. Early in the third frame he made two superb saves in a row – one with the toe of his skate, one with his stick – to keep New York at bay. The Leafs were running around in their end for too much of the game’s second half and offered little to Andersen in the way of support. That he was able to remain calm and close the door when needed is the surest sign he remains Toronto’s most valuable player. Andersen turned aside 30 of 35 shots against New York, marking the second straight game Toronto has given up 30 or more shots on goal.
Hyman was playing in his 100th career game Saturday, and scored two goals against the Rangers for the first time in his career. He was robbed on his first attempt against Lundqvist, but he got the puck back on the half boards and carried it in for another shot, this time waiting out Lundqvist and popping the puck in to give the Leafs back their lead. The second goal was the result of good work down low and behind the net, which have been hallmarks of Hyman’s NHL career. While Hyman is often criticized for not being offensive enough, Babcock sees potential for growth there. “I think he has a lot more skill than [the media] give him credit for,” Babcock said. “I still think as he becomes a confident NHL player, he’s going to score more.”
After Bozak scored Toronto’s go-ahead goal in the third period, Alain Vigneault became the first NHL coach to challenge for offside since the rule was instated this summer that an incorrect challenge would result in a delay of game penalty. Vigneault went ahead anyway, and challenged that with the puck lodged in his sweater as he crossed the blue line, Marner was offside ahead of Bozak’s goal.
Upon review, it was ruled a good goal, and the Leafs went on to score again on the ensuing penalty, putting the game out of reach for New York. “I had it in my body the whole time so I didn’t really stress on it too much,” Marner said. “I thought if worse comes to worse it was inconclusive because you couldn’t really see where the puck was. It went our way and I was pretty confident it wasn’t offside.”