EDMONTON — Perhaps we should have seen this coming.
When news broke last fall that the Toronto Maple Leafs would play in a Canadian division that exclusively played each other for 56 games, one simple goaltending stat stood out.
Frederik Andersen was 53-11-14 in his career against the other six teams.
Rarely does a broad stat like simplify the situation, but it provided the perfect foreshadow to what has transpired thus far.
For the second consecutive game, the Maple Leafs pitched a shutout against the Edmonton Oilers’ high-octane offense, the latter a 3-0 victory at Rogers Place on Monday night. They did it without their best offensive weapon, Auston Matthews, who remains day-to-day with a wrist injury. and without Andersen, who has missed the last four games with a lower-body injury.
Solid goaltending performances from Jack Campbell (day-to-day with a leg injury) and the much-maligned Michael Hutchinson helped pave the way for Toronto’s first back-to-back shutout performances against the same team since Harry Lumley did it in 1954.
“I think the past two nights they have been outstanding and I don’t think they get enough credit,” Morgan Rielly said. “Soup and Hutchky have been outstanding for us all year and two games in-a-row against a good team has been a huge boost to our team.”
Toronto’s defense also played a role. A point of emphasis from head coach Sheldon Keefe this season, Toronto kept the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl off the scoresheet for two straight nights.
The Oilers were among the hottest teams in the league with a 10-2-1 record in their last 13 games, before opening the three-game set that concludes on Wednesday.
“We’re getting to the point here now where we’re proving that we’re a team that can defend well,” Keefe said. “I think that’s a big part of out success as a team at this point.”
Hutchinson, who got thrust into duty after Campbell had a flare up of his leg injury following his 30-save shutout on Saturday, was dialed in from the start. Much like his previous start that resulted in a win against the Calgary Flames on Feb. 24, he made a difficult save in the opening save when he stopped Dominik Kahun’s shot in close from the left wing.
“It’s nice to feel the puck early on,” Hutchinson said.
He made another save later in the period off McDavid who came in with full speed.
“It was a good kind of wake-up call for me just to get to see how fast he is off the hop and to best be prepared for that the rest of the game, “Hutchinson added.”
Although the Oilers came out strong, Toronto benefited from scoring on their first two shots on goal. Zach Hyman opened it up with s pretty feed from Rielly at 7:19 of the first period. William Nylander followed that up with a backhanded shot that fooled Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen at 10:20.
Rielly capped the scoring in the game with a power-play goal that deflected off Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse and into the goal at 18:07.
From there, a combination of Hutchinson’s play in goal and a tight defense that didn’t give up too many second chances carried the night for Toronto. And improvements defensively have paid off.
TJ Brodie, signed to a four-year, $20 million contract in October, has fit in perfectly on the top pair and has stabilized Rielly’s play after a career spent with a mishmash of partners.
Justin Holl has taken a giant leap forward on the second pair with Jake Muzzin.
Skilled forwards Matthews and Mitch Marner have become better players in their end.
Since returning from a foot injury, Hyman’s role on the third line with Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall has blossomed into a reliable shutdown trio the team has lacked in previous seasons.
“They’ve been really fun to play with,” Hyman said. “We have the puck a lot because we can all skate, we can move up and down the ice really well and, yeah, I think it’s been really effective.”
With a 17-4-2 record, and a league-leading 36 points the Leafs are off to one of the best starts in franchise history. But how good are the Maple Leafs? It’s impossible to know with 24 other teams playing in what seems like a whole other world right now.
The truth is we won’t know until the playoffs and that’s if Toronto gets into the final four.
Unprecendented circumstances brought the Maple Leafs an advantageous strength of schedule and they’ve taken full advantage of it.