TORONTO — They’ve already matched their point total from three years ago, these Toronto Maple Leafs, a reminder both of how far they’ve come and how long yet to go.
That was the season this franchise bottomed out and drafted Auston Matthews, the newly-minted $58-million man.
It feels like a long time ago.
Today they sit at 33-17-3 — good for 69 points — and still have two months left to play before the real season begins. The combination of a comfortable spot in the standings and a roster overflowing with high-end talent will occasionally lead to some uneven performances like we saw here Wednesday, a 5-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators in which Toronto was only at its best for isolated stretches.
“When you’re a good team, you win games sometimes that aren’t very pretty, but you still won,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “At the end, when we get up tomorrow and look at the standings, it’s going to be pretty.”
The outlook is fairly rosy after a 4-0-1 stretch.
The Leafs own the fourth-best points percentage in the NHL and are poised to battle for home-ice advantage in Round 1 down the stretch, with second place in the Atlantic Division the high-water mark of possibility given Tampa’s outrageously strong year.
In recent days, Babcock has spoken of trying to coax the “A-game” out of his players on a more consistent basis. And then he saw the entire alphabet against the 31st-place Senators, who pushed back after a slow start and erased a 4-2 deficit in the third period.
“I don’t want to say they’re loose, but they certainly, I think, start to play with a little bit of, ‘We might as well go for it all,'” John Tavares said of the visitors. “There’s really no reason to hold back considering the way probably their season’s gone. They’re playing aggressive and they’ve got a lot of guys that are obviously very motivated.”
Matthews scored the day after signing his big extension, dragging the puck through a diving Mark Borowiecki and a back-checking Jean-Gabriel Pageau before beating Craig Anderson, but his overall performance was representative of the evening.
Some good, some sleepy.
“I think we can be a lot better,” Matthews said of his line with Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen.
“It’s the NHL, so it doesn’t matter who you’re playing on any given night, it doesn’t matter what the standings are. They’re going to work hard and they’re going to give you a game.”
The Leafs have more than enough talent in their lineup to cruise through a complacent performance. Mitch Marner delivered some big plays, putting a goal on a tee for both Tavares and Zach Hyman, while Andreas Johnsson scored again despite seeing limited usage on the fourth line.
The winning goal came off Morgan Rielly’s stick just before the midway point of the third period, courtesy of a nice backhand feed from Hyman. That was against the run of play after Thomas Chabot and Magnus Paajarvi had brought Ottawa back to even.
“Just a good pass by Zach,” said Rielly. “It turned out to be a big goal, but he did most of the work.”
Incredibly, that established a new career-best of 53 points for the 24-year-old defenceman. He’s been a tone-setter for this group.
“Just how much confidence he has,” said Hyman. “He’s up in the rush, he’s making plays and then as good as he’s been offensively, I think he’s been great defensively, too. He’s going up against their top line every night and doing what he’s doing offensively. It’s hard and he’s really excelled this year.”
Those were some of the positive takeaways from a game where the Leafs dominated for the opening 10 minutes and then spent the next 20 playing on their heels. They did enough to win, sure, but they let Ottawa hang around more than they would have liked.
“They forechecked hard and they send everybody,” said Tavares. “They’re not shy to take some chances and I think at times that’s going to give you some opportunities, especially when we execute the way we can coming out of our own end and through the neutral zone. But you’ve also got to be careful you don’t fall into that trap.
“It can lead to some mistakes.”
“That was entertaining, eh?” said Babcock, smiling as he approached the podium to speak with reporters afterwards. “I bet the fans liked that.”
A little too much for the coach’s liking?
“Way too entertaining.”