Resolute despite injuries, distractions Leafs winning with consistency

The commute across the pedway connecting the JW Marriott to Rogers Place is familiar for anyone who spent time in Edmonton during the NHL’s western bubble last summer.

Heck, it’s already a well-worn path for a group of Toronto Maple Leafs players that have kept things pretty locked down despite the unseasonably warm weather they’ve found on their second business trip through this season.

“For the most part you’re just at the rink and your hotel room,” said Leafs defenceman T.J. Brodie, with a sense of deja vu after spending a chunk of August doing that very same thing in the very same place with the Calgary Flames.

“It’s pretty much the same (as the summer), I guess. Obviously, you can go outside if you want to, but other than that it’s the same.”

Add it to the list of things that made Monday’s 3-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers so impressive.

In substance and in style, it looked like a reasonable copy of the game they played in the same building 48 hours earlier, right down to the fact they emphatically grabbed another two points with Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen watching injured from the stands.

In this second of a three-game set, the Maple Leafs were also down goaltender Jack Campbell after he tweaked a previous leg injury while delivering a shutout on Saturday night. No bother. Michael Hutchinson, No. 4 on the team’s depth chart in January, stepped up with another strong performance and stopped 31 shots to make it two Leafs doughnuts in a row.

“I just want to open it up with comments about our goalies. I think the past two nights they’ve been outstanding and I don’t think they get enough credit,” Morgan Rielly said before taking any questions on his post-game Zoom call.

That the backups blanked Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is a testament to their performance, but also a level of connected play the Leafs struggled to reach last season. They are really settling into a groove and sit at an absurd 17-4-2 — good for an eight-point advantage over Edmonton, head-and-shoulders above the rest in the North Division.

Just as importantly, they are slowly putting to rest some former demons. They have been prone to distractions in years gone by. And this season played amid a pandemic is full of plenty of those for everyone involved.

Yet the Leafs didn’t get satisfied after Saturday’s big win, or get rattled by another night without key contributors, or get knocked off course while spending 72 hours walking back and forth indoors between the hotel and rink.

“That’s been a big area of growth for us,” said Rielly.

“We had a lot of games last year that we were completely dominant, but I think we also had games where we were completely falling apart,” noted Travis Dermott. “I think this year we’re really focused on being consistent and showing up every day — whether we’re playing, whether we’re practising, or whether it’s an off-day and we have to be taking care of ourselves at home — I think everyone is just buying into a team plan that we’re going to be ready to go every day.”

After arguably their most complete win of the season on Saturday, head coach Sheldon Keefe ran an animated practice Sunday afternoon. He believes his team has reached the point where it’s proven that it can defend well, and the decline in high-danger rushes and chances against is a testament to that.

On Monday, they gave up a few more of those than they’d like, but some early saves on McDavid and Dominik Kahun set the table for a 3-0 lead by the first intermission. Zach Hyman and William Nylander continued hot streaks — Hyman with a goal in his second straight game, and Nylander with his fourth in the last three — before Rielly trickled one through Mikko Koskinen on the power play.

That gave Toronto its third win of the season with Matthews out of the lineup, and all three have come against Edmonton. The first, at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 22, instilled some confidence.

They’ve been winning consistently no matter who goes down.

“We’ve been without Wayne Simmonds for a good period of time here now. We’ve played without Joe (Thornton), now we’re playing without Auston,” said Keefe. “We’ve been playing without (Frederik Andersen), we played without (Jake Muzzin).

“It really forces you to fall back on your structure, play as a team, get guys to step up at key moments.”

There’s no guarantee any of the injured players will be back to close this series out against Edmonton on Wednesday night.

So the challenge may remain constant: Prepare for the NHL’s top two scorers, find a way to compensate for your own lineup losses and keep the mind fresh while walking back and forth on the most boring pedway in hockey.

Oh, and maybe find some time for a socially distant conversation with Zach Bogosian, who lifted the Stanley Cup in Edmonton just over five months ago. He’s got a great bubble story to tell.

“I mean obviously we were here for quite a while. Our meal room at the hotel, that was a little bit of a different scene the night that we won,” said Bogosian. “It’s just cool to be back. Obviously, it’s something I’ll remember forever so, yeah, it’s nice.”

Sometimes there’s a little excitement to be found on the other side of the monotony.

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