TORONTO –- It was a night for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs to bow at the altar of the “Shanaplan.”
A night to be reminded why the last couple miserable seasons here may already be a worthwhile sacrifice.
Playing a Vancouver Canucks team that has steadfastly avoided entertaining the “R” word – (cough) rebuild (cough) – the young Leafs basically had their way whenever they found themselves in the offensive zone.
After a tepid start, that was often.
“I thought our ‘D’ had trouble handling them tonight,” Canucks coach Willie Desjardins said after a 6-3 loss, his team’s eighth in a row.
The Leafs were fortunate to find Vancouver down its top defensive pairing because of injuries to Chris Tanev and Alexander Edler, and they took advantage of the situation. They frequently established a cycle and generated dangerous scoring chances. At one point during the first period, they kept the Canucks from recording a shot on goal for a stretch of almost 14 minutes.
And unlike the wins over Edmonton and Buffalo earlier in the week, they kept pushing the pace even after building a lead.
“That’s our motto here: No matter what the score is, just keep going hard,” said Mitch Marner. “We want to play a hard 60 [minutes] every game. I felt like tonight we really [delivered] on that and everyone bought into the system.”
“I think we’re starting something good here,” added veteran centre Tyler Bozak. “So we’ve just got to keep getting better and keep learning and stick to it.”
The growing enthusiasm at Air Canada Centre can be chalked up to the fact that Toronto’s last three first-round picks are driving so much of the offence. In fact, William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Marner are the top three scorers on the team.
It’s been a long, long, long time since there was this much individual skill playing for the Leafs.
This was what Brendan Shanahan envisioned after being hired as team president in April 2014. He tore the organization down to its foundation and openly discussed how necessary and painful the process would be.
With some of the early building blocks now in place, the conversation has shifted to possibility.
The Leafs improved to 5-4-3 on Saturday and are on an 89-point pace – an encouraging sign given that they’re still in the NHL’s bottom-third in team save percentage. Based on what we’ve seen so far, they have a team capable of hanging around the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference.
Big picture, they are undoubtedly on the right track.
A visit by the Canucks provided a good reminder, given the kind of soul-searching that is bound to go on in that organization in the weeks and months ahead. Vancouver added a high-end prospect in defenceman Olli Juolevi at the draft in June but haven’t yet committed to tearing down the walls.
They are still being carried by the Sedin twins – Henrik and Daniel each scored against Frederik Andersen on Saturday – but the clock is ticking on the 36-year-old forwards.
Frustration is obviously mounting around a group that hasn’t won in nearly three weeks, and emotions boiled over after Morgan Rielly levelled Jannik Hansen followed by Nazem Kadri catching Daniel Sedin with a blindside hit just seconds apart in the third period.
The Kadri hit will get a close look from the NHL’s department of player safety. Early indications suggested that the Leafs centre might escape supplemental discipline because Sedin’s head didn’t appear to be the principal point of contact – although an official decision wasn’t expected until Sunday.
With the score 5-3 at that point, the game devolved into a series of fights and ejections.
Vancouver winger Derek Dorsett jumped Leo Komarov off a faceoff and Alex Burrows speared Morgan Rielly. Then veteran Leafs forward Matt Martin went after five-foot-10 Canucks rookie Troy Stecher, prompting goalie Ryan Miller to come to his aid.
“I said to Marty before he got on the ice, ‘Marty, make sure there’s no trouble. Just finish the game off,”’ said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “It just goes to show you boys will be boys.
“I haven’t seen any of that rodeo stuff since junior,” he added.
When the final buzzer sounded and the players walked to their dressing rooms, Vancouver’s Erik Gudbranson loudly shouted in the hallway: “Matt Martin’s dead.”
The next meeting between the teams goes Dec. 3 in Vancouver and will be watched closely. However, Martin didn’t seem too concerned about potential retribution, saying “it will run its course I’m sure.”
With the sideshow stuff dominating the third period, it was easy to overlook why the game was already out of hand at that point. It was because of Marner’s well-placed shot off the rush, Bozak’s pair of goals, a nice deke from rookie Nikita Soshnikov, and Nikita Zaitsev’s feed to Kadri.
It was a sequence of passes from Nylander to Marner to Jake Gardiner.
This is what an infusion of talent looks like.
It’s been a long time coming.