TORONTO – The Maple Leafs have opened the season on a torrid scoring pace, already leading the Eastern Conference in goals-for (15) and goal-differential (plus-eight) over their first two wins of the year.
The positives are easy to find and easier still to feel confident about. But a second period meltdown against the New York Rangers on Saturday that saw their three-goal lead evaporate was a reminder to the Leafs that 120 minutes of hockey isn’t nearly enough time to measure themselves on.
“It’s still two games in, so I think we have a lot to learn about ourselves,” Auston Matthews said Sunday after practice. “Two games, two wins, obviously we wanted to get that done. But we know each other pretty well in here, it’s a similar group to the one we had last year, and we know there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Going into the season, it was assumed that emerging stars like Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander would be leading the offensive charge for the Leafs, but instead it’s been the team’s depth of scoring that’s made them most dangerous. Seven different skaters scored eight goals on Saturday and six players scored seven goals Wednesday against Winnipeg. All but three Leafs’ skaters have at least a point on the season so far, and no one has more than four of the 39 points amassed.
“You like to see that scoring spread out through the lineup because depending on matchups or maybe when one line isn’t going, it can be hard,” Matthews said. “But when you have four lines that can play and go out every shift and make a difference it puts a lot of pressure on the other team.”
Ideally, the Leafs want to avoid establishing a pattern where their offence must produce at the rate it has been in order to cover up defensive shortcomings. It’s been 100 years (since the franchise’s inaugural 1917-18 season) since the Leafs opened the season with 15 or more goals, and two decades since they produced back-to-back games with more than seven goals.
Sustaining this offence won’t be possible forever, and the Leafs will need a solid defensive foundation to fall back on when it naturally diminishes.
“Come on, it’s like a fantasy tour [right now]. It’s going to get real here,” said Mike Babcock. “Teams aren’t in tune quite yet defensively so you make mistakes, and teams score. Things are going to tighten up. It’s nice that you can score goals but you have to be able to play [without the puck] and you have to take care of it when you have it so you don’t put yourself in so many bad situations.”
On Saturday, those came about when the Leafs got a little too self-assured and ended up playing directly into the Rangers’ hand.
“When you’re up 5-1 it’s hard to play the right way,” said Tyler Bozak. “We got away from our game and obviously they took advantage of it. It was nice to be able to fight back, but you never want to give up a lead like that.”
“We got caught playing into their game,” added Matthews. “We were trying to play this back and forth rush game and that’s not the game we want to play. We had to tighten up and get back to playing to our strengths.”
The Leafs will face their biggest test of the early season Monday when the undefeated Chicago Blackhawks, who have also scored 15 goals to open the season, come to town. Unlike Toronto, Chicago has been stingy on the backend, giving up just two scores thus far.
How the Leafs respond should the goals not come in earnest will start to reveal more of who they are as a team.
- Connor Carrick was the lone absentee from practice on Sunday. Babcock said after he’s “not doing as good today, but we think he is fine.” Carrick played 14:37 in Saturday’s win over the Rangers.
- Babcock has played all four of Eric Fehr, Dominic Moore, Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen now over two games, but did not reveal if he’s any closer to deciding who will take on the fourth-line centre job and sixth defenceman role permanently. He did say after Saturday’s game he thought Carrick’s game was better with Borgman on his pairing than Rosen, but he won’t rush to a conclusion.
- Landon Marleau, the 11-year-old son on Patrick, joined the Leafs on the ice before practice on Sunday, and showed off burgeoning skills of his own. His dad said he invited his other three sons to join them as well, but Landon was the only taker. “Basically all my best friendships are through hockey and just being on a team, being part of that atmosphere,” Marleau said. “I think it’s something special to enjoy and have fun with.”