TORONTO – When the Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks last met, it was just the third game of Toronto’s season and the team’s respective stars – namely Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane – stole the show with a stunning offensive performance.
It was back in October that Toronto topped Chicago 7-6 in an overtime thriller punctuated by theatrics from the two snipers as they traded goals and celebrations late in regulation. The rematch on Wednesday may not have quite the same drama, but memories of that finish five months ago are still fresh.
“[That game] is something you can always remember,” Matthews said after the Leafs’ morning skate. “It was pretty cool to go head-to-head and have that kind of exchange with a guy like him that I’ve looked up to since I was a younger kid. I don’t know what to really expect from tonight. They’ve changed a lot, we’ve changed a lot. But they’ve been a dynamic force in the league for a long time.”
The two teams have taken divergent paths in the time since Toronto snuck out of Chicago with a victory. The Leafs have climbed to fifth-place overall in the NHL standings, firmly in the postseason picture, while the Blackhawks sit 22nd overall and six points out of a playoff spot with 13 games to play.
The lacklustre season already cost Chicago its head coach when three-time Stanley Cup winner Joe Quenneville was replaced by Jeremy Colliton in November. But despite the team’s struggles, Kane has emerged more sensational than ever in amassing the second-most points in the NHL (98) and showing a consistency that’s thoroughly impressed Matthews.
“Seems like there was a point in time where he was going to score every game,” Matthews said of Kane. “He’s an incredible player; he just makes stuff happen every time he’s on the ice. He puts you on the edge of your seat every time he’s out there – doesn’t matter who he’s playing with or what the situation is. He competes every night and he’s always hungry for more.”
The Leafs will look to steal a page from Kane’s playbook in that respect on Wednesday, given how anemic their effort was in a 6-2 drubbing by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.
Matthews was his team’s harshest critic afterwards, claiming Toronto “pretty much quit” in the third period while trailing Tampa by four goals.
The Leafs were without top-six winger Kasperi Kapanen for that outing, held back for “precautionary reasons related to illness.” On Wednesday it was revealed that Kapanen has a concussion.
He joins Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) on the Leafs’ list of walking wounded, with no timetable set for a return.
In the meantime, William Nylander will once again join Matthews’ line with Andreas Johnsson as Toronto weathers its spate of injuries against a Blackhawks team that beat the Arizona Coyotes 7-1 on Monday.
“Kappy has great speed, tremendous work ethic. He’s a real good penalty killer. It affects you,” said head coach Mike Babcock of Kapanen’s absence. “But it’s opportunity for someone else, too. He was playing with Matty. Now Willy is playing with Matty. Grab a hold of it. When you get the opportunity, you do something with it.”
The chance now for Nylander is to re-establish himself as a top-line winger for the Leafs. Since returning from his contract holdout in December, Nylander has tried unsuccessfully to stick again on Matthews’ line, eventually finding more of a groove playing with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau.
The 22-year-old has only one assist in his last six games and intends to heed Babcock’s advice in trying to re-ignite his spark with Matthews.
“I think I’ve been better playing with the puck and holding onto the puck and getting back to my game,” Nylander said. “Maybe not so much the last couple of games but I’m looking to get back to how I was playing last week. [Our line is] hungry and we want to show that we’re better than what we showed last game.”
That shouldn’t be hard; the Leafs were out of Monday’s game well before the end of the first period. Babcock reiterated on Wednesday he thought Toronto had “no energy” for that matchup and gave the team an unscheduled day off Tuesday because of it.
On the out-of-town scoreboard, the Boston Bruins also did the Leafs a favour on Tuesday with their 7-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Leafs now sit four points back of Boston for second in the Atlantic Division, where they’d hold home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
To achieve that goal, there’s not much room for error on the Leafs’ part. While Kane may be undeniably explosive on the ice, Toronto has its own stable of talented forwards and they have a lot to make up for after Monday’s debacle.
“We have to take steps forward,” Matthews said. “Make sure we’re dialling things in in [all phases]. Make sure we’re eliminating our mistakes every night – especially against the other team’s top players. You never want to lose, you never want to lose like [we did Monday]. I think everyone was frustrated. I think we learned from it. Tonight will be a good test.”
Maple Leafs projected lineup vs. Chicago