TORONTO – You want run-and-gun? Let’s go.
You’d rather clog it up? That’s fine, too.
Need our much-maligned backup to stand on his head and post a shutout during a surprise start? Well, that can be arranged.
During this wall-to-wall burner, Sheldon Keefe’s Toronto Maple Leafs have ripped through the heart of the holidays — a searing 9-0-1 in their past 10 games — adapting to consecutive opponents as diverse as the weapon-packing Jets and the wet-blanket Islanders looks as easy as setting new coaching standards for a 102-year-old franchise.
In blanking Lou Lamoriello’s New York Islanders 3-0 Saturday night, Kyle Dubas’s Maple Leafs improved to 15-4-1 under Keefe, whose 20-game record bested the club’s previous benchmark set by coach Hap Day (14-5-1) way back in 1940-41.
The Isles are staunch in their fewest-goals-allowed identity.
They kept highlights to a minimum and pucks to the outside, gumming up the neutral zone, outshooting the Leafs 33-23, and doing their damnedest to sponge as much of Toronto’s fun as possible.
Suffocating drives in systematized fashion, the Islanders are the NHL equivalent of a RIDE program.
“It’s pretty clear what the Islanders are good at. They’re very good at it,” Keefe said. “It’s a different type of game. Offence is harder to come by, as we expected it would be coming into the game. I just liked that our guys didn’t get frustrated with that first period. Not a lot going on. We just stayed with it.
“We have to find a way to win the boring games too sometimes.”
So, credit Toronto’s patience. And its knack for carving out slivers of finish and flash during a 60-minute slog without earning a single power play.
The Leafs resisted their itch to gamble and instead pounced on the tiny windows New York cracked.
John Tavares, who’s captained both squads, considers just how stingy his former club has become since his departure and Barry Trotz’s arrival.
“When I was there, we weren’t very good defensively to now probably being the best defensive team—extremely organized,” Tavares said. “They have a lot of trust in their back end.”
After 33 minutes and 25 seconds of goal-free, lullaby hockey, speedster Kasperi Kapanen dangled 13-game rookie Noah Dobson on the rush and set up linemate Pierre Engvall for a beautiful goal in stride.
“He’s been an offensive producer most of his life. Coming into pro hockey caught him off-guard a little bit when we tried to put him in defensive situations and penalty kill and checking against other teams’ best players. He’s always felt he had more to give offensively, and we agreed with that,” Keefe explained.
“Because of the way he skates and his strength, he puts himself in good spots to get shots off — and he has the ability to beat goalies.”
Even with injured forwards Trevor Moore (concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg) both back skating, we can’t foresee the gangly/smooth Engvall returning to the Marlies anytime soon.
“He can fly, that’s for sure,” Mason Marchment added. “He’s a gazelle.”
Isles defenceman Johnny Boychuk came within a rung post of immediately tying the game, but when the puck scooted the other way, Auston Matthews tipped a blind Mitchell Marner pass high in tight to give the home side a 2-0 lead that felt more like 4-0 the way scoring chances were getting doled out.
A Zach Hyman special — the empty-netter — sealed the Leafs’ defensive stand.
“They get in on the forecheck hard, and that’s how they create all their offence,” said Marner, who has 22 points over his past 13 games. “We made it important to come back, talk to each other, try and find the exit quickly.
“If we’re going to do that, I think we’re a hard team to beat.”
Matthews’ 28th goal gives him nine in nine and surely brought a smile to his new BFF, Justin Bieber, who was in the house hanging with the whole Matthews clan.
As pretty as the Leafs’ goals were, however, more impressive was their defensive game, as they, too, limited the Isles’ Grade-A opportunities and let Michael Hutchinson’s right-handed catching glove gobble up the rest.
Surely, Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey will both be cursing that odd-handed trapper as they try to fall asleep.
“Hutch was all-time for us tonight. All the credit goes to him,” Matthews said.
“Not many people would give him much of a chance,” Keefe added. “Saturday night, high pressure, against a very good team, and he responded very well.”
The win marked Hutchinson’s third in row and was sound-tracked by jubilant “Let’s! Go! Hutch!” chants so voluminous, Hutchinson was temporarily bucked out of his calm, puck-tracking mind state.
“When it gets really loud like that, it’s hard to block it out,” smiled Hutchinson, notified by text Friday that the net would be his. “It’s always a nice little gesture from the crowd.”
More important, the win arrived on the No. 2’s first start all season that wasn’t half of a back-to-back, supplying all-star Frederik Andersen with some extra rest ahead of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s annual trip into town Monday.
“We created a little extra adversity for our team today going into it, giving Freddie the day off and putting Hutch in. That raises the awareness of the team a little bit and creates some extra challenge,” Keefe said. “We’re well aware of the fact that we need to get some more games out of our backup.
“If we didn’t get Freddie a rest this week, there probably wouldn’t be one until after the break.”
At the pace the Leafs are soaring up the standings, who needs a break?