ST. LOUIS – The heightened emphasis the Toronto Maple Leafs placed on this four-game road trip out west was matched by the execution they delivered early and often in the excursion’s opening game.
All the pre-game chatter ramping up to Saturday night’s test against the defending Stanley Cup champions circled around how difficult the St. Louis Blues’ forecheck is to foil, how challenging their stout defence core is to penetrate, and how much effort the West’s best pours into every shift.
So, it came as a sweet surprise and much-needed relief that everything the Maple Leafs’ threw at Jordan Binnington’s net went in. Over a shoulder. Through the wickets. Off a leg.
Binnington surrendered four goals on Toronto’s first 11 shots and was yanked from the ice in under 13 minutes as the Leafs cruised to a 5-2 victory in Missouri.
Not only did Toronto become the very first NHL club to end a Binnington start before the final buzzer, but the Leafs capitalized in all situations — even strength, power-play (twice) and penalty kill — in their most convincing victory against a legitimate opponent since, like, April.
“We were looking for a spark, and sometimes it doesn’t come as fast as you want, and you got to kind of work at it,” said defenceman Travis Dermott, who drew a key penalty and registered the Leafs’ first fighting major. “It’s nice to get some good feelings going, some momentum, and hopefully we can carry that forward.”
The major takeaway for the Maple Leafs in this one is two-pronged: seizing a lead, then don’t let it slip. Even if you’re up by three, act like the game is tied.
“You’re not chasing anything,” said goalie Frederik Andersen, the biggest beneficiary when the Leafs strike first. “Obviously keep pushing, but you don’t have to force anything down the middle and play more risky hockey. I think it’s good for us.
“It’s more confidence, more controllable hockey when you have the lead.”
#Leafs have outscored teams 13-2 in the 1st period under Sheldon Keefe
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) December 8, 2019
After seeing his club muster just one goal in each of its past two outings, both losses, and sniper Auston Matthews extend his season-long goal drought to five games, coach Sheldon Keefe challenged his group to drive away from the perimeter and create more looks in middle ice.
That, they did, with Zach Hyman and each Matthews striking twice on bang-bang passing plays shortly after entering the Blues’ zone.
“It’s a huge relief,” said Matthews, after slithering a wrister five-hole and tapping in a ping-ponging puck for his 17th and 18th on the year. “It gives you a little confidence, a little get-up for that next shift.”
Matthews’ mantra during these uncharacteristic blips is “Just keep shooting,” and he well understands the need to produce offence and contribute to a winning roadie.
“It’s really crucial,” he said. “We want to separate ourselves from the middle of the pack and pick up some valuable points.”
Captain John Tavares hesitates to draw inspiration from last year’s Blues, who spun a dismal start of their own into long-deferred glory after a midseason coaching change.
“I don’t think we look at it that way,” Tavares said. “Every year is just a challenge. It’s a journey, and you’re trying to continue to find ways to improve.
“There’s been plenty of teams over the course of the last number of years that don’t always start the best but seem to find their game at some point throughout the year and have success in the playoffs.”
Toronto has to make the dance first, of course, and Saturday was a nice baby step toward that goal.
The night also gave fans the long-awaited first look at the reunited Hyman-Tavares–Mitch Marner line. It only took until Game 31. And the way that unit controlled 62 per cent of shot attempts and manufactured prolonged O-zone shifts, it felt like 2018-19 all over again.
“They’re difference makers, and when we have them all in the lineup, it gives us an advantage, for sure,” Keefe said. “In that first period, the puck fell in the net for us.”
They started on time, the special teams were nearly perfect, and their skill took over.
“They’re kinda the polar opposite of us — how they want to play, how we want to play,” mused Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
“We’re kinda strength in numbers; our team play is how we’re successful. With them, they have a lot of guys who don’t need much one-on-one and can hurt you with their opportunities.
“Since their coaching change, they’ve had a little bit different attitude and feeling good, and it translates in their play.”