Maple Leafs’ Michael Hutchinson stands tall to snap personal losing streak

Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews had a pair of goals apiece to get their back-up goalie Michael Hutchinson his first win of the season as the Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings 4-1.

TORONTO – 346 days removed from a National Hockey League victory, who could’ve pictured a scene like this?

Michael Hutchinson standing tall, and Toronto standing right there with him.

Chants of “Let’s! Go! Hutch!” rained as the much-maligned goaltender twirled to first-star-of-the-night honours, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally left the second half of a back-to-back with two points and backup-for-the-night Frederik Andersen scooped up the game puck for a friend.

“It’s been a long time coming. It means a lot that he thought of me enough to grab it for me,” said Hutchinson, a Hockey Night in Canada towel draped over a neck had previously been supported the proverbial monkey.

“It’s definitely a weight off your shoulders. Winning – there’s no better feeling than it.”

The goalie had just been tossed the team’s game ball, a Raptors championship keepsake. He’d tried to dribble it around the back but the thick pads that had stopped 29 pucks got in the way of that too.

Each start is a fresh slate.

Enjoy the moment.

Five minutes at a time.

It’s just hockey.

These are the mantras of a struggling goaltender, a man who stood under the bright lights for six starts and failed to finish any of them with a save percentage over .897. He went 0-for-autumn.

After a 346-day drought bristling with speculation and consternation — and lowlighted by a confidence-testing demotion to the AHL — Hutchinson cleared his mind, dug in his edges, and gave himself permission to relax.

He secured a victory in the big leagues, again.

Finally.

Brilliantly.

One might say Hutchinson got the monkey off his back-to-back.

Winter’s first night was bright for the beleaguered Maple Leafs backup, as the affable Hutchinson made a series of stellar stops en route to a 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings Saturday, backstopping the home side to its very first victory on the tired half of a back-to-back all season.

“It’s huge,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “All the attention will be on Hutch, and I recognize, of course, why that has been a story. But, it’s also for our group. It’s not just Hutch that hasn’t done well in these games. Our team hasn’t done well in these games. It’s important for us to get a good result.”

The Leafs began a little too loose against the rested, last-place Red Wings after thumping the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Friday.

Hutchinson’s first test arrived a mere 30 seconds following puck drop, and it was a doozy: a Dylan Larkin breakaway straight down the gut from 125 feet out, plenty of time to let the mind wander to the worst.

But Hutchinson stood poised, turning away a second untouched Larkin burst to the crease and stymied speedster Andreas Athanasiou on a second-period freebie.

“We kind of hung him out there, and he was able to bail us out there the first and beginning the second,” Zach Hyman said.

“Without him, it could have been a 2-0 or 3-0 game in that first,” Mitch Marner added.

Throughout the losing, Hutchinson held encouraging conversations with multiple people in the Maple Leafs organization. Publicly, his coach, his GM and his teammates all offered belief.

“You can’t do it on your own,” Hutchinson said.

But his daily springboard has been goalie coach Steve Briere, who devoted as much effort into building Hutchinson’s mental strength as his puck tracking.

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Briere stressed the value of keeping the game in perspective, reminding Hutchinson, a father of an eight-month-old girl, that there were more important things in life than sport. That if you can uncover joys away from the rink, you can drive to work in the proper headspace.

“Then I can go in freely. Your mind’s not wandering. You’re not thinking of the worst possible outcome. You’re not putting extra pressure on yourself,” Hutchinson explained.

“When you’re not winning games, it can be frustrating — but it’s finding joys in other people’s success when you’re not having success at that moment.”

So Hutchinson would get pumped for the red-hot Andersen and be happy even when the Leafs’ No. 1 requested he take a scheduled start for Hutchinson.

Even starting cold on 22 days out of action, Hutchinson would come to the rink with a smile on his face. His teammates took note. They wanted this one for him.

“Positive energy comes around,” Hutchinson said.

At the other end of the rink, starter Jonathan Bernier departed just minutes into the game with a lower-body injury, bringing in ex-Leaf Calvin Pickard, also winless.

Pickard, too, looked sharp early… until a streaking Hyman — sprung by a slick Morgan Rielly stretch feed — got tripped by a chasing Mike Green and plowed into the net, bringing the puck with him to open the scoring.

Hyman’s goal was the product of his first shift alongside stars Auston Matthews and Marner, an impromptu trio that combined for all three even-strength Leafs goals.

Keefe, as he has promised, chucked his best forwards into the blender halfway through the contest to find some wingers with jump for Matthews, trusting a Pierre Engvall–John Tavares–Ilya Mikheyev trio to shut down the Larkin line while cutting shifts from William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen.

Matthews notched his 22nd on a third-period power play and his 23rd on a feed from Hyman so nice that Matthews joked that he thought he was playing with Patrick Kane.

Hyman struck once more — his eighth despite not starting his campaign until mid-November — with a nifty, top-shelf backhander off the rush.

Yes, this improvised Hyman-Matthews-Marner unit might be something.

“The Matthews line was getting stalled [in the neutral zone]. I thought the Tavares line was doing fine. The Matthews line didn’t have much going on, and I wanted to give Matthews a chance to get going and try to change that chemistry a little bit,” Keefe said. “It worked out for today.”

The greatest benefactor was Hutchinson, who would have had a blank sheet were it not for a Tyler Bertuzzi power-play marker with a measly 1:44 on the clock.

The goaltender was asked if it was frustrating to have his shutout spoiled in garbage time.

“No,” said Hutchinson, definitively. He shook his head and flashed another smile. “It’s so hard to win games in this league.

“I’ll take a win any day.”

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