ST. PAUL, Minn.—Oh yes. There was a game played as well.
While this trip to Minnesota by the Maple Leafs was closely scrutinized more for being the site of the final act of William Nylander’s contract dispute, the Leafs rejoiced in learning their teammate was on his way back to North America by beating the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night, the club’s first win in this state in seven years.
There were other historic references that came out of the 5-3 triumph. It marked the first time since 1934 – a year the Leafs made it to the Stanley Cup final – that the hockey club has won 19 of its first 27 games in a season. It’s the first time in team history, meanwhile, that the Leafs have won 10 of their first 13 road games.
Mitch Marner set a franchise record with his 32nd assist in a 27-game span. Finally, only a comeback win by Tampa Bay against Florida kept the Leafs from jumping into first place overall, a position they hadn’t earned in an NHL season on the first day of December since 1993.
The key players on this year’s team, of course, either hadn’t been born yet or were toddlers back then when the Leafs, led by Doug Gilmour, Felix Potvin and Wendel Clark, started 10-0 out of the gate back in ’93.
So not surprisingly it was the news that Nylander, their buddy, had signed that had the youthful dressing room jazzed after the game as much as the victory.
“It’s great news. I hope we get him back as soon as possible,” said Auston Matthews, who scored his 13th goal in his 13th game of the season, and third in two games since missing 14 contests with a shoulder injury.
“It gives us a lot of depth. That’s a key to our team.”
Matthews, likely to find Nylander on his right wing as soon as the Swede is ready to go, even teased the assembled media a bit, suggesting the end of the Nylander contract story would require something new to talk about.
“I’m sure there will be a couple of articles tomorrow, maybe one more on Monday, then it’ll be on to the next story,” he laughed.
Marner, who sent up Matthews with a “bomb” of a pass that Matthews first had to knock down before snapping a shot past Devan Dubnyk into the Minny net, said when the Maple Leafs players got the news just before the 5 p.m. ET deadline from head coach Mike Babcock, most responded as young people their age would.
“Nowadays, everybody goes to a phone. So 20 guys went to their phone,” said Marner. “I texted him and said congrats. We’re very happy he’s back.”
Neither Matthews nor Marner, both of whom will soon embark upon their own contract odysseys, expressed much doubt Nylander would quickly get into mid-season form.
“That guy’s a freak,” quipped Marner, still third in NHL scoring with 36 points.
The Wild, who lost their third straight, actually outplayed the Leafs for much of the night, which forced Frederik Andersen to be in top form with 38 saves. At the other end, the Leafs scored twice on bounces off unfortunate Minnesota defender Nick Seeler, and had another glance off Zach Hyman’s glove past Dubnyk.
Hyman later scored a second, muscling star Wild defenceman Ryan Suter off the puck in the neutral zone and then scoring into an empty net for the fifth and final Leafs goal of the night. It was a pure effort play, as was Nazem Kadri’s goal, which came off a great effort by Connor Brown.
Earlier in the day Babcock had said Minnesota, a much bigger and more physical team than the Leafs, would force his team “to do the things we need to get better at doing.”
He didn’t think his team played well as a whole, but he pointed to the final two goals as evidence his charges are learning to handle different styles of hockey that teams like the Wild throw at them.
“We need to play a team like Minnesota 20 times before the playoffs, if we can make the playoffs,” said Babcock. “We need to understand how heavy and hard it is.
“We’re fun to watch. But just because you’re fun to watch doesn’t mean you get to play for a long time in the spring.”
Babcock didn’t offer a timeline for when Maple Leafs fans can expect to see Nylander, whose return will likely knock a player off the roster and another out of the lineup.
“As soon as we can, we’ll get him in,” Babcock said.
That the Leafs have started the season 19-8 despite the absence of Nylander and while missing Matthews for such a long stretch is testament to the club’s depth and talent, and its ability to focus on the task at hand rather than on distractions that have troubled many a Leafs team before in hockey mad Toronto.
Soon, the Leafs will have all their weapons back. Can they do even better? A hard winter of hockey awaits.