Maple Leafs, Flames give glimpse of prosperity in a Canadian market

Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev scored for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they defeated the Calgary Flames.

CALGARY – Storylines are not built equal.

It says something about the state of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames that the most notable thing to come out of their meeting Tuesday was that it’s the first time Auston Matthews has ever been held without a shot in an NHL game.

The Leafs centre chuckled in the corridor at Scotiabank Saddledome when asked about the end of a streak that spanned a record 103 games to start his career. His team had won 4-1. He’d had one shot blocked and another that went wide and didn’t even realize that Mike Smith went the entire night without needing to stop one off his stick.

“I think I passed up on a couple [chances], but sometimes you find your linemates open and you just make plays and you don’t shoot the puck on net one time,” said Matthews. “So, yeah, this is weird to me that it’s such a big deal. But we won the game, so yeah, it’s great.”

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In Edmonton, they’d beg, borrow and steal for this kind of talking point. Instead general manager Peter Chiarelli held a press conference on Tuesday morning to try and calm the waters amid a disastrous start.

The Montreal Canadiens have won a couple games since Carey Price’s return, but they’ve already had a chance to look over the side of the cliff in the first two months of the season. The losses are mounting in Ottawa. Vancouver’s been a surprise, but reality could be setting in during a tough six-game road trip.

Beyond Winnipeg, where the Jets are soaring, this Leafs-Flames game offered a reminder of what relative prosperity looks like in a Canadian hockey market.

They played in front of an energetic bipartisan crowd, which traded chants and saw several blue sweaters turn the “C” of Red into a mixed palate. Toronto controlled the run of play and got strong goaltending from Frederik Andersen when needed.

“I thought we came out and skated so that set us up for success,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “We had lots of real good players here tonight, which is positive. It gives you a good start to your road trip. I thought it was an efficient game by the whole group and it’s nice to get ahead and protect a lead and get a win.”

We are still learning what exactly these teams are, but there is reason for optimism on both ends.

It helps explain why Flames sophomore Matthew Tkachuk offered up a simple piece of advice when asked for his views on the ongoing conversation about how critical media coverage impacts life for players in a Canadian hockey market: “Don’t let them say negative stuff about you, then.”

Tuesday’s game featured plenty of speed and emotion and saw the Leafs benefit from some favourable bounces. Roman Polak, of all people, opened the scoring with a prayer from the point that bounced off Mark Jankowski’s pants and Travis Hamonic’s leg.

When Nikita Zaitsev made it 2-0, the Leafs defenceman saw his shot hit Mikael Backlund’s stick and go through Mike Smith’s legs.

In hindsight, that was the moment when Matthews was robbed of his biggest opportunity to extend the streak. Linemate Zach Hyman won a puck battle with Mark Giordano in the corner immediately before the goal and heard Matthews calling for the puck.

He’d later apologize for sending it to Zaitsev instead.

“It’s Zach’s fault, for sure,” said Matthews, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

“There was a couple guys on him,” said Hyman.

The Leafs were feeling a sense of satisfaction after starting this trip through Western Canada by pushing their record to 16-9-1. It hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole way, but it could easily be worse.

Glen Gulutzan, the Flames coach, lamented the small puck battles that eluded his players in Tuesday’s loss but will still wake up to see them in a wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Matthews seemed more bemused than upset with questions about his shot streak ending. It’s always easier to smile when the wins are coming.

“I know I can shoot the puck,” he said. “So one game without a shot on net, I think you just go with it and move on. I won’t lose any sleep about it tonight.”

Elsewhere, they’re not quite so lucky.

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