TORONTO – A little tweak can go a long way.
Until Tuesday night’s decisive 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line, run by John Tavares and/or Mitch Marner (depending on the night or your perspective), had been taking some mild criticism in these parts.
The reasoning behind the sluggish start was varied: (a) their even-strength production was not at the level of a spectacular 2018-19 that saw a pair of career years and a combined 182 points, (b) the unsung blue-collar element of the line, Zach Hyman, is still rehabbing from ACL surgery and the mistakes of his replacement, Kasperi Kapanen, were more amplified than his contributions, (c) with great paycheques come great responsibility, but mostly (d) the scrutiny of the Maple Leafs observer is so intense these days that we need something to pick on.
Well, Tuesday’s offensive outburst over a tired, slow and weak Wild club — caught vulnerable on a back-to-back — should keep the wolves at bay.
And while we’d be out of line to state there was a direct cause-and-effect relationship to the four unanswered goals the Leafs hung on an under-siege Devan Dubnyk in a 19-shot second period and the flip of Trevor Moore to the left wing of the Tavares-Marner line, there was most certainly a correlation.
“Just been watching. No one seemed to be going. We just tried it, and it seemed to be OK, so we just stayed with it,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock explained of the decision. A refreshing one.
“It’s great when everything goes good and you don’t have to think about nothing. Sometimes when it doesn’t go as good, you’ve got to dig in a little bit more.”
Moore was bumped up the lineup, with Kapanen assuming his spot on Alexander Kerfoot’s third unit, for the final shift of the first period with the Leafs trailing 0-1 at home — as they have every game so far at Scotiabank Arena. He stayed there for the duration, and was instrumental in setting up Tavares’s tying goal, a beautiful and unexpected post-in clapper from a tough angle.
It marked Tavares’s first even-strength goal as captain of the club, aided by a Marner screen and punctuated with a hearty first pump.
“That was a great play by T-Dog leaving it for him and just trying to get in front of the net. I didn’t think he was going to take a slapshot right away,” Marner said. “That started us off.”
“I couldn’t believe he scored from there,” added Moore (a.k.a. T-Dog). “I don’t know if I had anything to do with that. I think John’s a ticking timebomb. He was going to start getting some bounces here.”
The Leafs piled on, fast and furious, scoring four times in a span of 11:07.
“Seemed like when we got that first one, drew some penalties, we kind of opened the game up and were able to really put some pressure on,” Tavares said.
It’s what they’re capable of any night, and what they’re expected to do against a softer foe in their own barn.
“We played our style of hockey,” Morgan Rielly confirmed.
Tavares’s dogged work in a puck battle drew Jared Spurgeon into a tripping penalty, and Marner slipped the puck five-hole through Dubnyk on the ensuing power play. A net-front Andreas Johnsson whacked in a Marner rebound off the end glass midair. And Marner feathered a pass to Auston Matthews for a tap-in in transition.
When the dust settled, Rielly — who’d been absorbing a little heat himself the past week for some spotty defensive-zone shifts — had himself a share of a franchise record for most assists in a period (four, with Rick Vaive) and a share of the NHL lead in assists (nine, tied with the Washington Capital’s John Carlson).
“Any time you’re out there with a guy like that, you just try to get open and get in a lane and let him dictate the play because he’s really good at it,” Matthews said.
Tavares went a spectacular 12-3 in the faceoff dot, assuring the deadly top unit control of puck on the power play, and quietly extended his point streak to three games.
Matthews’ strike puts him back on track for 82 goals, and Marner’s three-primary-point showcase gives him nine in seven games, on pace for 105 points.
“I think the world of Mitch, and I think he’s been playing great,” Rielly said. “I don’t think he hears a lot of that (pessimism), and I don’t know if anyone in this room really does, but there’s no doubt in Mitch’s ability, Mitch’s work ethic, his commitment to the team.”
Yeah, if these are areas of concern, you could probably do worse.
Heck, you could be Bruce Boudreau, wondering if witchcraft might help his cause less than two weeks in.
“I wish I had a magic potion to make everybody faster,” the Wild bench boss said post-game.
Meanwhile, down the hall, Marner was shrugging off the juggle of speed demon Kapanen for Moore because “anyone on our team can play fast.”
For at least one night, Moore completed his ascent from farm hand to fourth-liner to third-liner to first-liner. His father, the one who gave him the Xbox screen name T-Dog at age 10, would be proud.
“Very smart player, plays with good energy, he’s tenacious and he’s got good touch, so he reads the play well,” Tavares gushed of his new left winger. “If that’s the way it is going forward or tomorrow, we’ll just continue to build on it.”
How did Moore feel when Babcock called his number 42 alongside the big guns in the seven-figure club?
“I’m a little surprised,” Moore said. “They hope that I can bring something similar to what Hyms does — go through the puck and get to the net, that kind of thing. Leave most of the skill stuff to them and just go to work.”
It’s right back to the grind Wednesday, as the Maple Leafs punch the clock in Washington for a tougher task against the Capitals.