The Toronto Maple Leafs iced seven defensemen against the Vancouver Canucks, yet they still surrendered 27 shots on goal after two periods.
“I certainly was regretting my decision once the game got going,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “But you don’t have those answers before the game begins.”
A wrist injury kept forward Wayne Simmonds out of the lineup. Without a suitable replacement on his line with William Nylander and John Tavares, Keefe elected to fill the position by committee and open up a seventh defenseman spot for Rasmus Sandin.
The Maple Leafs managed to pull out a 3-1 victory over the Canucks at Scotiabank Arena on Monday to sweep the three-game series. But the opening 40 minutes was perhaps the worst Toronto had played this season.
The good news for the Leafs is they won. The better news is the performance was just bad enough where the team learned to stop going with 11 forwards and seven defensemen in a game, and the lesson didn’t cost them any points.
Toronto had just seven shots on goal through two periods. But solid goaltending from Frederik Andersen kept the Leafs in the game and Auston Matthews scored in his eighth consecutive game to help the team improve to a league-best 10-2-1 record.
“Going 1-1 into the third after generating seven shots, we really didn’t have any business being in the game,” Matthews said. “I just stayed with it and we got the two points and that’s all that matters.”
Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly opened the scoring in the first period when he took advantage of an errant clearing attempt from Nate Schmidt. The Vancouver defenseman kicked the puck out of the slot, but didn’t see Rielly pinching. Rielly scored his second goal of the season unassisted at 6:38.
Vancouver pushed and carried the pace of play for the opening frame. Andersen kept the lead for Toronto after one period when he stopped a 2-on-1 chance for the Canucks. He swept across the net to deny Justin Bailey a goal at 17:41.
“I think Freddie really stole the game,” Matthews said “He was our best player, by far, and just kept us in it.”
The Canucks tied it in the second period while on the power play. Alex Kerfoot had the puck on his stick and appeared set to ice the puck but he whiffed on the attempt and Brock Boeser kept the puck in Toronto’s zone. Boeser found Quinn Hughes, who passed the puck to Elias Pettersson at the point and his shot beat Andersen at 9:59.
In the third period, Toronto pushed back against Vancouver. Matthews fired a one-timer in the slot from Mitch Marner past Braden Holtby to put the Leafs back in front at 9:22.
Rasmus Sandin, the seventh defenceman for Toronto playing in his first game this season, picked up the secondary assist.
“Mitch came up to me and just said, ‘Look for me,’ so that’s what I did,” Sandin said the scoring play. “Then he did the rest with Auston.”
Sandin finished the night with 5:00 ice time on seven shifts.
Kerfoot scored 11 seconds later after Ilya Mikheyev stripped Quinn Hughes of the puck deep in Vancouver’s zone. Mikheyev found Kerfoot in front of Vancouver’s net for a 3-1 lead.
“Our line had a bit of a tough game in the first couple of periods so it was nice for us to contribute,” Kerfoot said. “It was nice to contribute and help out the cause.”
Toronto outshot Vancouver 12-5 in the final frame.
Andersen made 31 saves to post back-to-back games of allowing just one goal.
“I’m really proud of the way they stuck with it in those two periods and didn’t start cheating for offence or anything like that,” Andersen said.
Matthews on fire
Auston Matthews scored in his eight consecutive game. Because of how the NHL interprets stats, they don’t consider it a goal-scoring streak because Matthews missed a game in that span with a hand injury.
Matthews became the first player in over 10 seasons to score a goal in eight or more consecutive games. The last player to do it was Jason Spezza, who scored in eight straight games with the Ottawa Senators during the 2009-10 season.
Matthews may win the Maurice Richard Trophy, awarded to the player with the most goals in a season, but Matthews has taken his game to a new level this season and it’s time to start talking Hart Trophy.
Power play extinguished
The Leafs went 0-for-2 on the power play, ending a streak of seven straight games with at least one goal with the man advantage.
With Simmonds out, Toronto had difficulty creating traffic in front of the net. On their first attempt, Toronto loaded the power-play with all skilled forwards and had no net presence whatsoever. On the second opportunity, Hyman did a better job of providing some traffic in front, but Vancouver held them off.
Who plays on the second line with Tavares and Nylander?
Based on Monday’s morning skate, Toronto seems intent on having Joe Thornton play the exact role that Simmonds has vacated with his injury. It makes sense as Thornton was playing on the power play before his injury and he was skating with Toronto’s other dynamic forward duo of Matthews and Marner.
If healthy, Thornton would be eligible to return for Toronto’s game on Saturday against the Canadiens. For at least one game, Keefe has to find a forward who can adequately fill the spot.