The Toronto Maple Leafs strolled into the Honda Center Friday with an opportunity as golden as the California sun.
Victory in Anaheim would give the Leafs 28 points and bump them to first overall (to be fair, Toronto has played one game more than Nashville and Tampa Bay).
In squeaking by the Ducks 2-1 in an overtime thriller, the Leafs did that and more.
They improved on the NHL’s most enviable road record (9-1-0) and tacked on to an incredible offensive pace (a league-high 70 goals) made all the more remarkable considering the absence of first-liners Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
Perhaps most telling, however, is that for the first time since December 1995 and only the second time ever, Toronto swept California 3-0.
Scorching Marner, Rielly enjoying all-star seasons
Since Matthews went down, all Mitch Marner has done is put up 13 points, move into third-overall with 20 assists, and set up Morgan Rielly for Friday’s winner off a smart 2-on-1 rush kick-started by a John Tavares backcheck.
With a perfect high snipe in stride, Rielly extended his lead over the rest of the league’s blue-liners in both goals (nine) and points (25).
Is it safe to call the guy a No. 1 defenceman yet?
“Mitch made a good play. All I had to do was put it away,” Rielly, ever modest, said on the post-game broadcast. “We feel good heading home.”
Valley of Death, R.I.P.
My, how quickly power can shift.
The Pacific Division — once home to hockey’s bruising titans — is a disaster for the taking.
Of the eight teams that comprise the group, just one has won more games than it’s lost (Calgary at 10-8-1), and only one owns a positive goal differential. That would be your Arizona Coyotes.
Combined, California’s Kings, Sharks and Ducks are minus-36, and speedy Toronto feasted on the weak, outscoring The Golden State 12-5 and taking all six points. The last time they did that Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” was blaring regularly from the radios of Honda Civics.
This is the type of road swing that bonds a team’s conviction.
“Especially some of the West Coast trips, it gives you a lot of good laughs, a lot of good stories,” Tavares told reporters.
“The calmness we have amongst the group and the confidence that no matter the situation, there’s a strong belief we can do what needs to be done.”
Marleau is the best kind of old
Patrick Marleau’s skate deflected the opening goal past John Gibson off a Jake Gardiner toss to the crease as he got tangled with Ducks defenceman Josh Manson — reinforcing the importance of driving those 39-year-old legs to the goalie.
“Anytime you grab the lead, it puts you a bit in the driver’s seat,” Tavares said.
The Leafs struck first in all three California games, each within six minutes of puck drop, and have yet to lose when securing that coveted first goal (9-0).
Marleau fell under scrutiny for his lack of production on Auston Matthews’ wing through October, but he’s been a reliable source of secondary scoring in November next to Nazem Kadri, registering a point in seven of eight games since the calendar flipped and thriving under these familiar West Coast start times.
The mild-mannered veteran his young teammates simply call “GOAT” (not to be confused with The Gaut) is now on pace for his most productive campaign in four years.
Being back home this week has made our hearts full. pic.twitter.com/GL4tfxXbBp
— Christina Marleau (@c_marleau) November 16, 2018
Ducks are so lame
Blame head coach Randy Carlyle if you wish.
But his Ducks, who fall to 8-10-3, have now lost 123 man-games to injury, and we’ve only reached the quarter mark of the season.
Corey Perry (knee) won’t return until the snow thaws, and minutes-munching defenceman Cam Fowler underwent face surgery Friday after suffering a complex fracture due to a flying puck. Carter Rowney (upper body), Maxime Comtois (lower body), Patrick Eaves (shoulder), and Korbinian Holzer (wrist) are also sidelined.
How battered is this team? They’ve already dressed 21 different forwards. Yikes.
“Sports is cruel at times to the human body, and we’re for sure getting our fair share of it this year,” Carlyle lamented on the broadcast.
Forced to work with a black-and-blue line, Anaheim dressed three rookie D-men Friday — and at times it showed.
Makes you wonder: Where would these Ducks be if Gibson wasn’t so awesome?
Sparks rebounds with career performance
Not all back-to-backs are equal. Facing arguably the most dangerous line in hockey after waiting 25 days to get stale is not the same as going up against the NHL’s 30th-ranked offence (2.1 goals per game) on five days’ rest.
The much-scrutinized Garret Sparks was perfect through 38 minutes, stoning both Pontus Aberg and Rickard Rakell at the doorstep. But it was Aberg who solved the Leafs’ backup with a far-side slapper off the rush from above the circles late in the middle frame and pushed the game to overtime.
(Aberg — once jokingly given the moniker “Pontus AWOL” — couldn’t stick in either Nashville or Edmonton but now leads all Ducks with six goals, making the most of his top-six opportunity.)
Sparks shut the door in a frantic third period and OT, en route to a career-best 38-save performance that boosts his record to 3-1.
“Ideally, now he can relax and earn some confidence and feel good about himself and play well in the National League,” Babcock said.
Friday signaled a giant step forward.