Leafs, Canucks leave tight game with different payoffs to take home

Tyler Bozak scored the game-tying goal in the third and the shootout winner as the Maple Leafs managed a 3-2 win over the visiting Canucks.

TORONTO – One look at the post-game faces of two opposing defencemen could tell you all you need to know about the state of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks at the halfway point of the 2017-18 NHL season.

Outside the Air Canada Centre visitors’ room, Vancouver’s Chris Tanev spoke to a small group of well-wishers in mangled English through a face frozen by a team doctor and a mouth bloodied by a tipped puck about his next dentist appointment.

“He’s a warrior for us. He wanted to come back and play,” said Canucks coach Travis Green, following his group’s 11th defeat in its past 13 outings.

“When your team goes through hard times, you’re better for it at the end of the day. And I believe we will be.”

A few giant steps down the hall, Toronto’s Travis Dermott was all dimples and grins as he held a white-taped puck beside his (unscathed) face and camera flashes burst to document his first NHL point, in his first NHL game.

“Awesome,” Dermott said. “Time of a lifetime.”

The actual margin of victory — 3-2 via shootout, after precisely 36 shots per side — was as slim as it gets, but the mood and trajectory of the hockey clubs representing Canada’s two largest cities was drilled home by how they felt when their gear was shed.

It was the type of contest where neither club leaves entirely satisfied, and not just because they had to step out into the wintry bite of a feels-like minus-28°C city.

The sense around the Leafs was two points stolen after 45 minutes of getting outplayed: an overturned goal, a two-goal deficit, and four squandered power plays. But with rival Boston steamrolling everything in its path (Patrice Bergeron hit Carolina with the four Saturday), they’ll take it.

As the Canucks free-fall down the Pacific standings, racked with injuries up front and instability in net, they find themselves in the same moral-victory territory Toronto occupied in Year 1 of Mike Babcock.

“I’m really happy with our effort tonight,” Green said. “Don’t get me wrong: I hate losing, but you have to be realistic with your group all the time, or you run into problems.”

If you were confined to a quiet room and watched only their two head-to-head match-ups, you’d have no clue that the gap between these Maple Leafs and Canucks — in the standings, in offence, in goaltending, in health, in special teams, and, most important, in expectations — was three time zones wide.

Two tight, one-goal affairs, neither side overly dominant.

“Look at the game. It’s a 2-2 hockey game in Toronto on a Saturday night when we haven’t been playing our best hockey, and we come out and play just a great hockey game,” Green said. “It’s a shame someone had to lose.

“I thought that was our best game in a while. We took a step forward.”

Vancouver can only sap so much joy from a standings point that may have come at the expense of another critical man down.

Tanev — a top-four, right-shot D-man whom Leafs Nation will recall from such ideas as “Hey, let’s trade for him!” — absorbed a deflected puck with his face just minutes into the contest, leaving a trail of blood and four teeth for teammate Michael Del Zotto to gather off the ice. He’ll travel with the club to Montreal Sunday but must be inspected for facial fractures.

This was just Tanev’s second game back since missing three weeks with a groin strain. Top-line winger Sven Baertschi could return as early as Sunday, but centres Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter are stuck on the injured reserve list.

Vancouver, which has already lost 110 man-games due to injury (and counting!), appears destined for a third consecutive draft lottery and — fingers crossed — some better luck when Gary Bettman spins his springtime roulette wheel that so often expedites the kind of rebuild the Leafs are enjoying.

Babcock played a hard match with his top scorer, Auston Matthews, versus Green’s, Brock Boeser.

The cameras would catch the two franchise attractions chirping after Boeser rang a double post in overtime.

“He told me he thought he scored. I just told him, ‘I don’t know. Didn’t look like it,’ ” Matthews said. “He’s obviously a great player, had a really nice goal tonight. He’s always dangerous out there.”

Yes, both the reigning Calder Trophy champ and current Calder front-runner would deliver nice goals for a national audience. Vancouver’s marquee 20-year-old American sniper struck first.

Buzzing all night — heck, all year — Boeser deftly batted down a Connor Carrick clearing attempt out of midair in the second period, played give-and-go with trade bait Thomas Vanek, and one-timed a quick-release snapper low past Frederik Andersen’s blocker.

“He shoots it quick,” Andersen, Boeser’s 22nd victim of the season, confirmed.

Sam Gagner doubled Vancouver’s lead on a third-period power play, but then Toronto summoned its forward depth and rush chances.

Matthews hammered home a Zach Hyman feed on an odd-man streak, then Tyler Bozak knocked in his own rebound after skilfully accepting a beautiful parabolic two-line pass from Morgan Rielly in midair.

“I was trying to land it for him, but it’s tough,” Rielly explained. “I wasn’t the best math student, so I didn’t think the angles added up, but it was a great play by Tyler to pick it up.”

Dermott’s secondary assist on the tying goal marked the first point of an NHL career that should continue Monday versus Columbus.

“I told him right before he got out there: ‘Just go for a skate. You’re one of the best skaters on the team.’ I didn’t expect him to do that,” said Rielly of the kid’s nifty zone entries. “It shows confidence. I think he played outstanding.”

The building quaked through OT, and the shootout played out eerily similar to Thursday’s skills contest versus San Jose. Matthews struck first, Bozak sniped the deal-sealer, and Andersen held down the fort.

Years from now, when he holds tonight’s game puck, the ending is what Dermott will remember most about his debut.

“That was thrilling,” Dermott said. “I was jumping up and down when we scored, when we saved. That whole shootout was the experience of a lifetime.”

The Canucks? They’ll remember a hard-fought loss, some Boeser magic, and an injured player.

On second thought, maybe this one will simply blend in with the rest of their campaign.

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