Leafs come out on top in battle of young guns over Canucks

John Tavares scored a pair for the Maple Leafs in a 4-1 road win against the Canucks.

VANCOUVER – Fans can quibble about whose rebuild has hopped aboard the more expedient track. They can debate whose young star centre is more dynamic. And they can even exchange voluminous “Go! Leafs! Go!” and “Leafs suck!” chants, as they did at full throat during Tuesday’s 10 p.m. ET (wink) puck drop and at various intervals during the game’s breakneck pace.

But there is one thing on which hockey nuts who either bleed blue or seethe blue should agree in the wake of the Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena: Two Toronto Maple Leafs versus Vancouver Canucks showdowns a year is not nearly enough.

Indeed, this one had all the ingredients for a turning up on a Tuesday.

Both clubs were coming off goal-happy victories and two full days rest. Both find themselves in the playoff hunt, but are far from secure in their positioning. And both are fuelled by youthful offences and hide-your-children power plays.

“They’re pretty similar to us,” Auston Matthews, the Leafs’ leading scorer, said Tuesday morning. “They’ve got a lot of skill up front, some skill in the back end as well, guys that can make plays and put the puck in the net. So, that makes for a pretty fun game.”

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The Canucks’ top producer, Elias Pettersson, echoed the sentiment, just as his point total (33) echoed Matthews’ at puck drop.

“I for sure enjoy it,” said Pettersson, whose locker was positioned right next to William Nylander’s at the world championships last summer. “I like to play against the best.”

Few things ring as true up north than a one-anthem game with some juice, and the hustle and flow of the play at both ends reflected that.

“A lot of stuff happened pretty quickly out there,” said Sheldon Keefe, now 6-3 as an NHL coach with the Leafs.

“That’s the fastest game I’ve been a part of in the league in terms of the speed and the competitiveness overall in the game, start to finish. So, it’s going to take us a little time to really process everything that happened.”

After a frenetic but goal-free first frame, Matthews got the visitors on the board when he drove to the slot and converted a blind, backhanded John Tavares feed from the behind the net — a by-product of Keefe combining his top centres on a bonus shift immediately following a killed penalty.

“When you’re out there with a guy like Matts, you know how dynamic and how dangerous he is. We want to go out there and be productive for the team,” Tavares said. “When you get it, you know he’s good at finding open ice and so good at getting his shot off, so (I’m) just trying to be aware of where he is.”

A bipartisan Rogers Arena erupted.

“They’re cheering loud,” Matthews said. “You don’t know who scores the goal unless you hear the buzzer sound, so it’s always fun.”

The roar was equally thunderous when Tavares converted on a high-slot tip of a Cody Ceci blast to double Toronto’s lead. Ironically, deflecting pucks in the hash mark area was a strategy Vancouver tried itself multiple times — only to watch its redirects get swallowed by December’s most dialed-in goaltender.

“Especially on a couple tips in the second,” said Frederik Andersen. “I’ve seen them do that a lot when the Sedins were here, so I don’t know if they’re trying to do that because of them still but definitely had seen that before up here. I was just trying to follow the puck and react, make sure I was in the best position as possible when they did shoot it from up top and remain square on those shots.”

Gleeful “Fred-dy! Fred-dy!” chants rose when Andersen gloved a Brock Boeser breakaway attempt, then turned away a second Boeser freebie with the blocker.

Andersen later conceded it was probably the loudest he’s heard his name chanted in an away barn.

The Canucks, pouring it on late with more Grade As than an egg carton, finally solved Andersen when ex-Leaf Josh Leivo jammed a rebound through a mess of legs and sticks.

Too little, too late. Andersen’s 38 saves and Pettersson’s two pinged crossbars proved the difference. Ho-hum. Wash, rinse, repeat.

“It’s not old. We love to see it,” defenceman Justin Holl said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to give up five breakaways in the third period or whatever we did. That’s kind of embarrassing for us. It’s something we need to clean up.”

Tavares iced it with five minutes remaining by snapping the puck clean past Jacob Markstrom’s blocker to cap his first three-point game since March 25 and help give his four B.C.-born teammates a victory in their only trip home.

Zach Hyman added an empty-netter, extending his low-key goal streak to four in three games.

“I was never one of those guys who hated the Leafs,” said Vancouver native Alexander Kerfoot, dressed in enemy’s clothes.

“I was obviously a Canucks fan, but at the end of the day, I think a lot of the Canuck [fan] hate over the Leafs is jealousy. They get more attention, so people are upset about that.”

Tuesday’s result won’t quell the envy, but the gasping, high-event action should increase the appetite for the next time the sides meet.

Feb. 29 won’t come soon enough.

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