TORONTO – The onslaught arrived, as it so often does, swift and dangerous. A blue streak.
Two minutes and four seconds.
That’s all the clock time the Toronto Maple Leafs needed during a wild second-period attack to put on the red light thrice, burning the back of goalie Carter Hutton’s neck and chasing the Buffalo starter off the ice in a fit of thrown gloves and screamed anger en route to a 5-3 comeback victory on Trade Deadline Night.
Following another yawn-inducing first period, in which the Sabres swarmed and captain Jack Eichel slammed his 20th on the power play and the home team mustered all of six shots, Toronto showed, again, how easy it can be to outscore its snooze-button tendencies.
“I’m not really sure why, but just came out flat. They were working hard on us,” Auston Matthews said. “Momentum-wise, that second period was one of our best periods.”
John Tavares stretched to skillfully tip home a Jake Muzzin point shot.
Matthews lasered high after a lucky bounce and some nice O-zone work by his (ideal?) wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, becoming the first Maple Leaf in history to start his career with three 30-goal seasons — a feat all the more remarkable when you consider the 21-year-old’s four significant injuries and that it’s still only February.
“Pretty humbling,” Matthews said. “I just do what I do. Kind of a shoot-first guy. Try to score. It’s how I’ve always been.”
Then Frederik Gauthier roofed a backhand in tight.
Bang, bang, bang.
Three goals from three centremen in well under three minutes, all within spitting distance of the Sabres’ crease.
Brandon Montour, the newest Sabres D-man, looked on from the press box but couldn’t do a thing to help from six floors up.
Sting was in attendance, too. Hope he likes Hall & Oates.
The Maple Leafs’ fourth line appeared to handle the day’s Par Lindholm trade news just fine, thank you, with both Gauthier (first multi-point night) and Tyler Ennis (breakaway snipe on backup Linus Ullmark) hopping in on the second-period goal party. Call-up Trevor Moore, expected to get a long look this time, added an assist for his fourth point in just eight NHL games.
Possession-wise, that trio dominated, allowing just a single shot against and posting a team-high 66.7 per cent Corsi rating.
“Probably our best line,” Matthews beamed. “Moorsey’s a nice addition with that speed. He just makes stuff happen every time he’s out there.”
Sabres defenceman Zach Bogosian even smiled and offered Gauthier a fight so The Goat could complete a Gordie Howe hat trick.
“I was on a high,” Gauthier said. “I was like, ‘Ah, not really.’”
“He’s mild-mannered,” Ennis said of the big man.
With his ninth as a Leaf, Ennis — a prime example of what fresh scenery and some new development advise can do for a player’s career — needed just 37 games in Toronto to exceed last season’s goal total (eight) over 73 games with the Wild.
The $650,000 Ennis experiment is precisely the type of turnaround GM Kyle Dubas is hoping for by bringing in smallish forward Nic Petan from Winnipeg earlier in the day. Petan, an RFA on July 1, is a useful, versatile player who may be retained relatively cheaply and, at 23, given an opportunity to seize a roster spot in the bottom six down the road.
Babcock had made no bones about his desire for Dubas to add heaviness to his forward group, and, yes, the team expressed interest in the top two rentals who potentially could’ve fit that bill. Wayne Simmonds went to Nashville for a price the Leafs were unwilling to pay and Michael Ferlund was kept by the Hurricanes, now within striking distance of the post-season.
“No one on the outside ever knows what really goes on,” Babcock said. “In the end, you make the best decisions you possibly can to help your club, and you’ve always got to weight the cost with the benefit. We’re ecstatic to have the opportunity that we have.
“We like our team, we still think there’s a ton of growth from within, we think we can play a lot better, and we look forward to that.”
No one else will be parachuting in to throw elbows or take a bloody nose while driving to the crease. The Leafs must now discover their inner grit.
“Zach Hyman, we’d like to have one on each line, but they just don’t make them like that. So, I think [Johnsson] has come a long way in that area, we need [Kapanen] to do more of that, but we have a lot of guys – Willy [Nylander] can really cycle the puck, he needs to commit to doing it, Matthews is way more physical on offence than he used to be, and that’s important,” Babcock said.
“Moore, for the size of him, has a real heavy keister and hangs on to the puck pretty good there. We need more of that.”
Sam Reinhart struck on another power play, and an Eichel solo effort nine seconds from the third-period puck drop made for a fun ride to the finish.
But steady Frederik Andersen made critical saves early and late to secure his 100th win as a Leaf, and Kapanen zipped in a late, short-handed breakaway goal thanks to a Dahlin stumble at Toronto’s blue line.
“Thank God,” said Matthews, serving a tripping minor at the time. “I mean, he was in a bad mood since he’s gotten all these opportunities and hasn’t been able to cash in on them.”
The real damage, however, had already been wrought in a one concentrated burst. A flurry of offence, all 5-on-5, few teams can mimic. Saturday it was six straight goals. Monday four. And in both instances, the fourth line chipped in.
“They’re very powerful up front,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “They’ve got a lot of skill and speed, and they play a fast game.”
That, right there, is Toronto’s identity. That’s the sword Dubas has drawn.