GLENDALE, Ariz. – It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but the Maple Leafs battled through the momentum shifts against the Arizona Coyotes to secure a 7-4 win on Thursday night. In their first game back after the Christmas break, Toronto scored at least seven goals in a game for the fourth time this season, the highest total of any NHL club. They move to 23-14-1 on the season.
Near the halfway point of the first period in Thursday’s game, Nazem Kadri took an elbow to the head from Lawson Crouse and was forced to the leave the game after taking just five shifts. That left the Leafs without one of their most important forwards and a shortened bench to contend with. Coach Mike Babcock got to work moving players through the lineup, showcasing the team’s depth up front by allowing the offence to remain effective even with the constant moving of personnel. After the game, Babcock said he was optimistic about Kadri’s injury and was hopeful he’d be able to play on Friday against the Colorado Avalanche. Kadri had been one of the Leafs’ most productive forwards early on this season but lately has been mired in a 10-game point drought that looked like it had started to rattle his confidence. The Leafs are only carrying one extra forward on this road trip, having returned Kasperi Kapanen to the AHL on Tuesday, so if Kadri can’t go Friday, the Leafs’ depth with be tested further with the added pressure of playing on back-to-back nights.
Barn burner, boys
The Leafs emphasized the importance of a good start before Thursday’s game, referencing their earlier 4-1 loss to the Coyotes Nov. 20 as an example of where a sluggish opening ultimately helped doom them. Toronto started hot and then some, outshooting the Coyotes 4-0 early and scoring three goals, from Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, in a 2:30 span of the first period. But just as they looked most dominant and held the lead well in hand, Toronto sat back and watched Arizona pot a pair of goals in just 1:17 to cut the visitors’ lead to 3-2 after 20 minutes and move the shot clock advantage to 13-11. Whatever was said at intermission didn’t have much effect, as the Leafs came out for the second frame and immediately took back-to-back penalties that gave Arizona a 5-on-3 power play for 1:44. Toronto killed it off but any hope of gathering some momentum early in the period was shot. The Coyotes were all over the Leafs in their end, and it took a power play goal from Patrick Marleau midway through the period for the Leafs to break through again and move the momentum needle in their favour. William Nylander and Marleau again tallied goals within 10 seconds of each other to give them a 6-2 lead and encourage an enthusiastic “Go Leafs Go” chant from the many Leafs faithful in attendance. Marleau is now tied with Pat Verbeek for 36th place on the NHL all-time scoring list. The Coyotes kept coming any time the Leafs let their foot off the gas, which they did too frequently, and sloppy defensive play directly led to two of Arizona’s goals in the game’s second half. But with the advantage of fresh legs against a team that had played the night before, Toronto was able to triumph.
Welcome home, son
The first two seasons of Matthews’ NHL career have worked out fairly well from all angles, but he’s been especially fortunate that the schedule-makers have put the Leafs near his home town of Scottsdale, Ariz., leading into and out of the Christmas break the last two years. In December 2016 during his first return to play in the arena where he fell in love with the game, Matthews’ only point was an assist on Connor Brown’s goal. Matthews did himself one better the second time around. With his line buzzing around the Coyotes’ net throughout the game’s opening minutes, the hometown hero finally made good on a chance, showcasing his incredible release with a curl-and-drag top shelf snipe that whizzed past Scott Wedgewood to score his first professional goal in Arizona. Nylander assisted on the goal, marking the 100th point of his NHL career. Matthews had said before the game he didn’t feel any differently than any other night, but he had a noticeable spring in his step on the ice, suggesting he may well have been hungrier than usual to impress the scads of Matthews-clad Arizonians there in support of the state’s most famous hockey product. Matthews had an ear-to-ear smile when he scored his goal on Thursday, and said after it was a marker he would never forget. The centre finished the game plus-2 with two shots on goal.
The Leafs needed to turn the tide early in the second period, and their penalty kill provided the necessary boost. With Roman Polak and Dominic Moore in the box, taking two of the team’s most utilized penalty killers out of rotation, Toronto had to navigate the extended 5-on-3 stretch while clinging to a suddenly precarious one-goal lead. But the Leafs managed to hold the Coyotes at bay, and from there gave themselves an opportunity to add to their advantage with three more goals before the period was out. Had that PK not been successful, the remainder of the game could have played out entirely differently. Toronto’s penalty kill has been their most consistent special team all season; that unit has allowed only two goals in the team’s last eight games. The Leafs then made good on their lone power play chance of the night, when Marleau tipped his first of the game past Wedgewood. Toronto has now scored power play goals in consecutive games for the first time since early November. Hyman’s game-opening goal was also courtesy of special teams – his short-handed strike was Toronto’s second of the season and Hyman’s seventh goal of the campaign. Having already lost one of their more important forwards in Kadri early on, special teams stepping up and having an impact is what the Leafs needed to maintain their edge and those groups delivered.
Toronto’s final road trip of 2017 continues with a stop in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night.