The Toronto Maple Leafs were riding the high Monday night from a second consecutive third-period comeback victory when head coach Sheldon Keefe strolled into the dressing room with some quick congratulations and an immediate challenge.
"We got one game to take care of here," Keefe addressed the group, before they hopped a late-night jet to New Jersey for the back half of their home-and-home set.
"We know we're still looking to put together a complete effort. We haven't done it here for quite a while. Might as well start off the second half of the season, Game 42, by doing that just before the break."
If Keefe were the teacher handing out one final pop quiz before Reading Week, his Maple Leafs were a class full of prized pupils acing that sucker with time to spare, snatching their knapsacks, and beelining it to the beach. (Or, in the case of all-stars Auston Matthews and Jack Campbell, the desert.)
Toronto dusted the Devils 7-1 - easy, like dirt off your shoulder.
The canyon separating the Cup-contending Leafs and the lottery-loitering, goalie-deprived Devils was so evident Tuesday that a young boy looked at the score bug on the television during the second period and asked: “Isn’t it just bullying at this point, Dad?”
Since a disengaged Leafs group dug itself a 4-2 deficit through two periods Monday, it erupted for 10 — yes, 10 — unanswered goals against the same foe.
“Because you're playing the same opponent for the second time here in back-to-back nights, we were trying to have some continuation of the third period from the [Monday] night in terms of taking the will away a little bit of your opponent,” Keefe said.
“All four lines just relentless on the puck at both ends, and Soupy came up big when he had to,” Matthews added. “It's just a testament to our resiliency and just making sure that we get the job done for a full 60 minutes.”
For as hard as us critics try to hover a magnifying glass over the local heroes’ weaknesses and amplify their poor efforts, it’s worth zooming out and considering what these players have accomplished in the two weeks since their “soft and purposeless” loss to the Rangers — the closest thing resembling mild controversy in this predominantly cruise-control regular season.
By embarrassing New Jersey on its own sheet and summoning the boo birds at Prudential Center, the Maple Leafs extended their win streak to five games. Over this span, they have doubled their opposition by a total score of 26-13.
This is without dressing their best defender, Jake Muzzin, who is nursing a concussion. On the back of the most uneven fortnight of goaltending they’ve received all season.
“Tonight, I think, was a prime example of us just being at our best,” Mitch Marner evaluated.
Marner is playing as fun and dangerous as Johnny Knoxville drunk with the safety off. He scored twice Tuesday, to extend his career-best goal streak to seven — a run that ties linemate Matthews for the longest on the team this year.
“He's so deceptive. So, he when he's got the puck, I think a lot of people kind of anticipate him passing it,” Matthews said of his wingman. “I mean, you've seen it the last couple games, him being able to beat the goaltender clean. He's got a great shot. It might need to get a little more juice on it, but he's definitely really accurate.”
Hanging four goals in 48 hours on Jersey, Matthews himself has leapt right back in the Rocket race with 29 goals.
Michael Bunting and Pierre Engvall have already set career highs in goals and points, respectively.
David Kämpf has quintupled his goal output from last season, and Ilya Mikheyev tied his (seven) in a dozen games played.
The team is scoring just for kicks at this point, and evidently having a hoot doing it.
“That is about as good as we could ask the game to go,” Keefe said. “You take control early. You build a big lead. You can use your bench and play your top guys less and play your depth guys more. You're comfortable, and you just kind of ride out the clock into the break.”
Campbell bounces back
Keefe and Campbell made each other look brilliant Tuesday.
Faced with the first meaningful starting goalie decision of the season, the head coach smartly went with the cold hand.
Brilliant before Christmas, the self-critical Campbell had posted a dismal .853 save percentage in a six-game January run that hit its low point Monday, when he spotted New Jersey three goals in the game’s opening nine minutes.
“It's not like I was beating myself up like the old days, but there were obviously a few starts recently that I just didn't like, and no excuses about it,” said Campbell, following a tidy, 31-save bounce-back effort. “It’s important. It’s a humbling game.”
This start was originally earmarked for Petr Mrazek. But after the backup salvaged a W Monday, Keefe elected to give Campbell another shot, allowing him to wash the sour taste from his mouth before heading to Vegas.
Campbell was hoping to play but allowed that “Petr deserved to play tonight” and left the decision to Keefe.
“I'm grateful Coach put me back in and gave me the chance to move on past that game last night,” Campbell said.
“When I found out I was playing today, it felt like a playoff game. I was ready to go and just excited to get out there and compete with the guys.”
Composed and controlled, Campbell made stellar stops on a couple of early defensive breakdowns that allowed his skaters to seize the night and break the weaker team’s will.
“Outstanding” is the word Keefe used.
“In a game like this, where we score so much, you tend to overlook the goaltending part of it. That’s the Jack that’s played, really, all season for us like that,” Keefe raved.
“I love the way that he battled and responded tonight. Frankly, not a surprise — because he's a guy that is a competitor. He wanted to get back in the net here tonight.”