Following a 7-3 rout over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe expected his opponents to put up a better fight in the rematch.
“Vancouver is going to push back,” Keefe said. “It’s going to be a much different game and we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
The game was different, but the Canucks somehow looked worse than the night before.
Vancouver didn’t show much of an effort on Saturday. At least, not until the third period when Toronto was up 5-0 and Brock Boeser ruined Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen’s shutout bid with 2:04 remaining in the game.
The Maple Leafs improved to 9-2-1 this season with a 5-1 victory on Saturday night and they continued to play to their strengths.
Toronto’s league-leading power play kicked things off when Wayne Simmonds scored the first of his two goals by beating Canucks goaltender Braden Holtby on the short side for a 1-0 lead at 4:42 of the first period.
Toronto has scored a power-play goal in all but one of their games this season.
Auston Matthews made it 2-0 by working over Canucks defenseman Jalen Chatfield then firing a shot that went top shelf at 14:04.
“It happened so fast that I don’t think anybody on the ice was really ready for it,” Keefe said of Matthews’ goal. “Just how quickly he went from around the defender was impressive.”
The Canucks didn’t register a single attempt at the net until Justin Bailey’s shot on goal at 8:57.
The Maple Leafs continued to dominate in the second period. Zach Hyman took a pass from teammate Mikko Lehtonen and put both the puck and defenseman Alexander Edler into the back of Vancouver’s net at 7:36.
If the visual of a helpless Edler barreling into the goal wasn’t enough of an indication of how poor things are with the Canucks, Matthews provided the coup de grace when he intercepted Holtby’s clearing attempt intended for teammate J.T. Miller and scored to make it 4-0 at 1:28 of the third period.
The goal led to a heated on-ice conversation between Holtby and Miller.
“What was said on the ice will stay on the ice,” Holtby said.
Simmonds scored his second goal of the night when he deflected Lehtonen’s shot at 3:16. But he left the game moments later when he took a puck to the hand off a clearing attempt from Edler.
“He’s brought everything, really,” Mitch Marner said of Simmonds’s contributions. “He’s a guy that is not afraid to speak up in our locker room. He’s been with a lot of great teams and he knows what it takes.”
There was no update on Simmonds’ status following the game but an extended absence could hurt the Leafs. He has been a key contributor on the power play, scoring three of his five goals this season with the man advantage.
After beginning the season as a fourth-liner, Simmonds quickly moved up to the third line after veteran Joe Thornton suffered a rib fracture last month. He has played the last two games on the second line to help generate more offense at even strength.
Lehtonen recorded his first multi-point game in the NHL with two assists. In the lineup after Travis Dermott suffered a leg injury on Thursday. The 26-year-old Finn logged a season-high 14:10 and looked comfortable in his assignments.
Adjusting to a smaller ice surface after spending the last two years in the Kontinental Hockey league, Lehtonen said he’s been working on breakouts and when to possess and release the puck.
“I’m just adjusting those little things to my game and I think it’s going to be good,” Lehtonen said.
Matthews continues to get better with every game and now leads the NHL with 10 goals this season. He extended his scoring streak to a career-high seven games and he’s become the reason most pundits had Toronto pulling away from the rest of the North Division.
“I think if anything I’ve probably gotten in his way a little bit with us getting into leads,” Keefe said of Matthews. “In both of these games here he could have had four or five (goals).”
On Thursday, Matthews recorded a season-low 17:46 of ice time. On Saturday, Matthews logged 20:33. Keefe’s comments speak to how poorly the Canucks played.
“Everything looks difficult for our team,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “Simple plays look hard. Simple passes look hard. Even simple shots. It’s not coming easy. Maybe that is a bit of a mental thing. When you’re winning, everything seems to flow easy. Right now, things look difficult.”
Both of these teams play again on Monday and although conventional wisdom says Vancouver is expected to push back, we’re really in unchartered waters here.
A worldwide pandemic has forced the unusual situation of hosting a team in the regular season for three straight nights. The Canucks looked listless and defeated for the first two games.
When the NHL created the North Division, the fear was how quickly the haves would separate themselves from the have nots.
It’s early February and we’re already starting to see it.