OTTAWA – If D.J. Smith’s crystal ball could show him how the night’s first goal would develop, he might have been a tad less effusive in his praise for defenceman Nikita Zaitsev.
Before Saturday’s Battle of Ontario installment was but five minutes old, Auston Matthews — he of an NHL-co-leading 42 goals — scooted on a rush down Zaitsev’s right side, burned his former teammate wide and snapped an insta-release wrister through Marcus Hogberg’s legs.
“I don’t know if he let Taylor Hall in more than a couple times [Thursday] night. His feet are the best of anyone I know,” Smith said of Zaitsev prior to puck drop. “His gap is really good. He doesn’t give you much time. He plays you hard in the D-zone.
“He’s a guy you want to play against the best players. He’ll be seeing every shift against Matthews tonight. And he’s gonna do everything he can to keep that puck out of the net.”
No one doubts that the Senators are doing everything they can.
And surely Smith deserves kudos for keeping a fire stoked under his young, exciting roster, a thin group working honestly through a cultural rebuild most locals are electing not to witness in person.
But when the Sens’ leading scorer, Connor Brown, is a guy whom the offensively loaded Maple Leafs deemed expendable this summer because $2.1 million was too much cap hit for a fourth-line winger, well… the gap is really good. In favour of Toronto’s depth chart.
Matthews’ early strike was a reminder how much better the Leafs have fared with a lead and on the road this season, as a well-rested Toronto group won 4-2 and took care of business.
Even if things got scary.
Jake Muzzin, who hadn’t found the net since before Halloween, sifted a seeing-eye puck through four bodies crowding Hogberg’s crease to register his first goal in 35 games.
Then William Nylander laid a nifty tip on John Tavares’ shot to increase the visitors’ lead to 3-0 and chase Hogberg out of the net.
Smith had dubbed this as “a playoff game for free,” a chance to see how his developing stars respond to a loud, sold-out barn when the standings points matter desperately to their opponent.
Brown responded with a second-period goal to give Ottawa a jolt of life, Craig Anderson was excellent in relief, and defenceman Cody Goloubef’s first goal since 2015(!) chopped the lead to one.
But Toronto clamped onto a third-period lead the way it should, by continuing to press, and Mitch Marner flipped one into the empty net with 74 seconds left to seal the deal.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 16, 2020
“They play very hard,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of those pesky Sens.
“Be it the Battle of Ontario, be it the number of former Leafs that are on the team, including D.J. himself, the game means a lot to Ottawa — and we’ve got to make sure that it means a lot to us because it certainly does for all those same reasons, in addition to the fact that we’re in a battle here, as we all know, right through to the very end.”
The Maple Leafs’ tussle for playoff security picks right back up Sunday night in Buffalo.
With backup Jack Campbell holding up his end of the bargain, having now picked up seven of a possible eight points as a Leaf, Frederik Andersen will get the start.