Matthews-less Leafs scrape out win thanks to Andersen’s strong play

The Maple Leafs were without Auston Matthews but Frederik Andersen made 35 stops to get Toronto over the Minnesota Wild 4-2.

TORONTO – It went about how you’d expect it to go.

The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t magically get any better without their best player, Auston Matthews, available to tilt the ice against Minnesota. They obviously weren’t going to.

They did, however, manage to scratch out a 4-2 win over the Wild in no small part to a Frederik Andersen performance that masked other faults. The underlying defensive issues were still on display Wednesday – at least to those of us seated high above the ice.

“Who got 37?” Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev responded innocently, when asked if the 37-19 shot disparity provided an accurate reflection of the game.

He grew indignant when told it was Minnesota.

“I didn’t know that,” said Zaitsev. “It absolutely didn’t feel that way. This is that kind of game when it’s maybe some weird stats. Maybe the guy is thinking that the pass off the pads is a shot or something. I guarantee we don’t feel it at all.”

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It wasn’t all bad.

They locked things down pretty well over the opening 20 minutes, with Jake Gardiner expertly breaking up a 2-on-1 rush from Jason Zucker and Chris Stewart and not even allowing the Wild forwards to get a shot. But Minnesota had the Leafs swimming in failed zone exits for noticeable stretches of the middle period – drawing three consecutive minor penalties while also holding a 17-9 advantage in shot attempts at even strength.

The only real difference at that stage of the game were bounces and goaltending: Nazem Kadri opened the scoring on a tipped point shot that hit the end boards and bounced in off Devan Dubnyk’s left skate; and Andersen stoned Matt Cullen from the edge of the crease shortly before Patrick Marleau slipped free on the rush to put Toronto ahead 2-1.

“I kind of got a read on what he was going to do,” Andersen said of the Cullen chance, his best of 35 saves. “I was able to throw the leg out and Patty went down and scored and made a good play there. It was nice.”

Early in the third period, Connor Carrick’s point shot bounced off a Minnesota player and in. That’s hockey, sometimes. The Leafs nursed that 3-1 lead home.

“In the first there was hardly any chances for either [team], to be honest with you,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “In the second period, their power play had a chance – I think they had four power plays tonight, if I’m not mistaken – so I think they had some of their shot advantage in that area for sure.

“And then we were ahead so you don’t need to score any more and you just need to make sure you keep it out.”

Without Matthews, they survived.

It was the first time Toronto has played without him since the 2015-16 season that management punted for the chance to land him. It seems like an eternity ago. They may have to get used to it since there’s no guarantee Matthews returns from his upper-body injury for a home-and-home set with Boston this weekend.

“I don’t have a clue,” said Babcock. “Honest to God, I don’t know.”

This has been a truly bizarre start to a 10-7-0 season.

The Leafs crushed opponents early and looked poised to channel their inner Harlem Globetrotters. However, they’ve been ceding offensive zone time in the two-plus weeks since, sliding down to 11th overall in even-strength shot attempts at 50.88 per cent.

It’s a concerning trend in the big picture, but there’s still something to be said for grinding out victories in the moment. Especially when they’re not too far removed from a losing streak and playing without a centre who produces all-world results while soaking up tough matchups.

“He’s a guy we can play against anybody,” Babcock said of Matthews. “He’s playing against the best ‘D’ and the best forwards on the road and he’s playing against the best ‘D’ and the second-best forwards at home. I think that speaks to it right there. When you play well defensively, you have the puck all the time.

“He’s real good at it and understands it and has a good read on the game that way and learned it quick. Elite hockey sense.”

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On Wednesday night, the Wild came out ahead in high-danger scoring chances (10-3) and even-strength shot attempts (52-37). They created more. They had the puck more.

Where Zaitsev saw improvement is in the number of glaring turnovers and times the Leafs got caught with too many men on the wrong side of the puck – recent areas of emphasis in Babcock’s video sessions with his players.

“I think we did better,” he said. “We had no odd-man rushes at all today. I think we played well today. We were organized really good, I didn’t like how we played against Vegas [in a 4-3 shootout win on Monday], obviously.”

It was an interpretation that sounded like it came straight out of the Randy Carlyle era, when the Leafs were routinely caved in by opponents.

Take away Matthews and turn back the clock.