TORONTO — It’s starting to get late here early.
That’s why there was some relief to be found in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs — a game they were in danger of handing to the cellar-dwelling Los Angeles Kings until Auston Matthews broke the dam with less than eight minutes to play.
Let’s call this what it was: a night where the folks who paid $600 a ticket were probably second-guessing their life decisions. The shots were 7-7 after the first period and the high-danger scoring chances were few and far between.
“There wasn’t much going on,” said Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin. “I mean the shot totals were way down. It was kind of tight all over — not really exciting for anyone to watch or play.”
These aren’t the circumstances where you’d expect Toronto’s skilled roster to thrive. In theory, a high-powered offence should overwhelm the rebuilding Kings when facing them on home ice with ample rest.
Slogging through a crowded neutral zone and hammering shots into shin pads tends to grow tiresome for those who fancy hockey as a beautiful game. But in staying within themselves until Matthews and linemate William Nylander finally struck 30 seconds apart, a coach with an eye on the grind ahead found much to praise.
“Some people would think it was ugly,” said Mike Babcock. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Remember that the entire conversation around this 8-5-3 outfit is being conducted at a time when patience is wearing thin. The Leafs have now shed two excuses for a slow start — injuries and a punitive schedule — with John Tavares and Muzzin rejoining the lineup, not to mention the expectation that Zach Hyman will return by the weekend.
Tuesday saw the Leafs play for just the third time in 10 days, which is part of the counter-balance to an October slate that include four sets of back-to-backs.
And yet… they didn’t exactly bury the Kings.
The visitors even took a 1-0 lead on another power-play goal against while Tavares fired high on a wide-open net and Matthews failed to generate a shot attempt through 40 minutes. For a good long while, the Scotiabank Arena crowd had any hope or enthusiasm choked right out of it.
“We need to go through that,” said Babcock. “We need to figure out who we are and the harder the game is, the better it is. Now, would you like to win by a touchdown and everyone relax and all that? Yeah, but we’re not getting anywhere like that.
“This is important to do. You give up one goal, you play well without the puck, the goalie makes some saves. We didn’t win it on special teams, we had to grind.
“It’s good for us.”
With the 20-game mark fast approaching, the Leafs are trying to find a level of consistency that’s escaped them so far. They could hang their hat Tuesday on allowing just 35 even-strength shot attempts against — their second-fewest total of the season — while owning a 22-12 edge in scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.
“That’s the kind of game it was,” said Nylander. “I don’t think that there were that many ‘Grade A’ looks out there tonight, but I mean you’ve got to stay patient. Hopefully those will come.”
Consider this a template to be copied by teams at the opposite end of the NHL’s ecosystem from Toronto. Check closely, limit risk and try to lull the stars to sleep. It’s the most effective way to bridge a deficit in talent and depth.
“We knew what we were in for. We knew it was going to be a grind,” said Babcock. “After the first period, the teams were on pace for 21-21 in shots. They did a real good job in the neutral zone, they did a real good job in their own zone blocking shots and staying on the inside.
“They just stayed with it. That’s what they’ve been doing.”
Toronto’s window of opportunity opened during a power play to start the third period, when Matthews rediscovered his shooting mentality from the right circle and got robbed on a cross-crease splay job by Jonathan Quick.
His 12th goal of the season arrived at 12:36 when a pinballing puck landed on his stick at the top of the crease. It was immediately followed by a give-and-go between Nylander and Matthews at 13:06.
If you merely looked at the game sheet afterwards, you’d never know it was a night where they were largely quiet.
That’s something the entire group can build on.
“Sometimes we try to force plays and force skill plays,” said Muzzin. “If we work hard and play solid, our talent will show when the opportunity comes.”
It arrived just in time on Tuesday.