DETROIT – Saturdays were built for hockey’s marquee stars, but every once in a while the supporting cast steals the spotlight.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, this was certainly one of those nights.
In the giddy aftermath of their 5-2, three-game-skid-snuffing victory over the Detroit Red Wings, there was Frederik Gauthier conducting a national TV interview, his first-ever Hockey Night in Canada towel draped over his broad shoulders and a spotless 7-for-7 faceoff performance stamped on the game sheet.
There was fifth-rounder Dmytro Timashov happily describing his two primary assists and point-per-game NHL career after finally squeaking onto a big-league roster after three years in the farm system.
There was the undrafted Trevor Moore trying to make sense of how he needed 25 games in 2018-19 to score two goals and only six games to find the net thrice.
There was fourth-line journeyman Nick Shore downplaying his first NHL goal in more than 18 months, striving to make the most of his limited ice time after a winter abroad, clinging to his professional hockey career in Magnitogorsk.
And there — trembling and smiling as he struggled to explain his first love in a second language — was the Maple Leafs’ new fan favourite, courted and imported jewel Ilya Mikheyev, telling what it meant to make an impact in a hockey town known for its Russian icons.
"I see portraits in here, Russian Five and Pavel Datsyuk. They’re very great. Big history, I know," Mikheyev said, holding court in the Little Caesars visitors’ room.
"I just work because this my first NHL season. Other country has other mentality and new system for me, and I excited every time. I very happy every day when I came in practice rink or Scotiabank rink. I just very happy."
Ditto, Mike Babcock.
Head coaches dream of bottom-six performances like the one he witnessed Saturday, when he trusted a bunch of names not splashed on the backs of the travelling Leafs Nation to not only stifle one of the sport’s hottest lines (Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha) but ended up leaning on them to produce hearty spoonfuls of offence when his $40 million worth of showtime ran dry.
Yet the Leafs’ bottom-six of Timashov, Shore, Gauthier, Moore, Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot combined for a whopping eight points, despite getting tasked with critical defensive-zone starts.
"You don’t know what’s going to happen, but if the guys can do it, obviously it’s a huge deal for you. It makes you a way better hockey club and way deeper, and then you can play [Tavares] and [Matthews] out in the offensive zone all the time, which is easier on them," said Babcock, crediting Gauthier and Shore’s face-off prowess.
"Shoresy is a right-hand faceoff guy, and we didn’t have that [last season]. They’re just not in the same situation we were in a year ago. I thought Timo had a heck of a game. He was fast, he was strong, he was physical. The goals and that stuff were bonus."
Frederik Gauthier earns his first Hockey Night in Canada towel. “I think I’ll keep it.” pic.twitter.com/QpTleDy3G7
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) October 13, 2019
Toronto’s sluggish starts are officially a habit, as the Maple Leafs surrendered the night’s first goal for the fifth time in six games.
Fourth-liner Jacob De La Rose eluded his rookie check, Rasmus Sandin, in the slot and whacked in a sweeping backhanded rebound past Frederik Andersen, a goaltender out for redemption after surrendering a touchdown to Tampa Bay on Thursday.
Toronto’s own fourth line evened the contest when some nifty forecheck work by Timashov helped the rookie set up Shore in the slot. Shore’s patient move to his backhand foiled Jimmy Howard, giving Shore his first NHL goal since April 2018.
"That’s all you can do," Shore said. "You work hard when you’re not in, and when the opportunity is given, you try to make the most of it."
The Maple Leafs seized a lead with a mere 30 seconds remaining in a back-and-forth second period thanks to the deceptive speed of Mikheyev.
From deep in his own corner, Kasperi Kapanen lobbed an airborne pass inside the Red Wings’ zone for the soup lover to go chase down.
"I saw that Kappy did a flip pass, and I just moving and see puck before me," Mikheyev explained. "I think goal is 50/50. I have shot and I did."
Mikheyev, who broke out for 23 goals with hometown Omsk Avangard last season, blew past defender Madison Bowey and beat a charging Howard for the loose puck, then smoothly deposited it in the vacated net for his second since moving to North America.
"To me," Babcock said, "it’s unbelievable how comfortable he is, how quick he is, how good his brain works, how good his hockey sense is."
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 13, 2019
The Leafs’ third-line centre, Kerfoot, and Detroit winger Darren Helm continued the theme of bottom-six stars by exchanging goals in the third period.
Timashov registered his second primary assist of the game when he fed a beautiful cross-seam pass to a pinching Jake Muzzin, who snapped it clean for the insurance.
Moore potted an empty-netter, giving each member of the Leafs’ third line a goal in the same game.
The patchwork fringes of the lineup shone bright.
"It’s kudos to everyone involved, the players and everyone finding the guys," said Muzzin. "We have lots of lots of depth here. We have smart hockey players, and guys are working hard and hungry, so that’s a great combination to have."
Yes, the expensive all-stars in the penthouse of the Maple Leafs’ lineup are being paid and pressured to deliver.
But it’s the personnel throughout the trenches that need to do their share if this squad can equal its lofty expectations.
"Everyone contributes," Tavares says. "There’s no doubt we need everyone, whether your role is small or big, the impact is huge."
It may never be as huge as it was on Saturday.
The Souperman 65 Ilya Mikheyev is on pace for 82 point season with another stellar performance for the Toronto Maple Leafs with 2 points and +3 BUT still no soup deal for North America? #MakeSoupPopularInCanada! #ShowMeTheMoney! #tmltalk #WeAreGoldStar pic.twitter.com/S0eRKKcSAK
— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) October 13, 2019