The Toronto Maple Leafs faced a statement game Monday night at home against the perennial Stanley Cup contenders from Chicago, but after falling behind 2-0 and then 3-1, the Leafs were still the young team playing catch up to the grizzled vets.
But in the third period, Connor Brown and James van Riemsdyk scored to tie things up with minutes to go, followed by Auston Matthews rifling a wrister to the top corner to win the game in overtime. The Leafs battled through a comeback to earn the two points, a sign of progress and maturation from last season.
“It was a big game for us. I think we knew that,” Brown said on Sportsnet 590’s Good Show Tuesday afternoon. “I think where we differ from last year is we expect to win those games every night. … That’s the mindset we have in our room.
“We believe in each other in that room. It’s just on to the next one.”
While Matthews was the night’s hero, everyone is already very aware of his role and impact on the Leafs. Brown was the one turning heads with his play at both ends of the rink, and posting a goal and an assist. The 23-year-old continued to prove himself as one of the more versatile forwards among a group full of skill, logging more than five minutes on the penalty kill, 17:49 in all, and even earning a promotion back to a line with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, with whom he logged his goal.
“I had a conversation with the coaching staff and they said I was going to play more than I think,” Brown said of his “fourth-line” role.
So far through three games, the Maple Leafs have drawn accolades and 1980s throwback comparisons by scoring a torrid 19 goals and blowing away teams with their speed and depth up front. But while winning these games are fun, coach Mike Babcock noted after Saturday’s 8-5 win over the Rangers that it was “dumb” to be that porous on defence.
This is where Brown’s value stands out among all the depth. He’s emerging as an all-situation player and the reason he can be moved on and off the fourth line, placed in penalty-kill situations, and in late-game scenarios, is because his strength is currently an overall team weakness.
“I’ve always tried to pride myself on both sides of the puck,” Brown said. “You want to give yourself as many assets as possible getting into the NHL. I try to be sharp away from the puck as much as possible.”
Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner are the marquee youngsters in this Maple Leafs coming of age and they will eventually be the ones who will get the big-money contracts. But expect Babcock to keep turning back to Brown in key situations, and for Brown to be prepared for the task.