TORONTO – There was a time, not so long ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were winning games because of their goaltending.
Lately, they’ve been winning in spite of it.
Jack Campbell is dipping into uncharted territory.
And while you wouldn’t know it from his win-loss record, he’s been thrashing in the wilderness.
No, we’re not pinning the ugly hole the Maple Leafs dug themselves en route to another dramatic 6-4 comeback victory to the cellar-dwelling New Jersey Devils on goaltending alone.
Not at all.
There was plenty to dislike about the home team’s lackadaisical start and uneven engagement level through two periods, as the Devils stormed Toronto’s crease with clean looks early and often.
Let’s be clear, however: the Maple Leafs have been doing a much better job defending Campbell’s net post-game than in-game.
“It just seemed like we weren’t ready to play for the puck drop, and I think it showed,” said Auston Matthews, his assessment as accurate as his shot. “Soup didn’t play bad. We just gave up such Grade-A chances for them, and they capitalized on them.”
Pavel Zacha, Jesper Boqvist, Nathan Bastian and former Leaf Andreas Johnsson — in his long-awaited but utterly un-celebrated return to a familiar Scotiabank Arena — each scored for the Devils in the match’s first 27:33 as they build leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2.
“You deserve to lose games when you play like that and start that way and spot them three,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That's not nearly good enough. You know, we've got a guy that's battled for us all season long and has been our backbone through this first half of the season. So, for us to start that way for him in this game here tonight was not good.”
By the time the Maple Leafs woke up and decided to win, Campbell had exchanged his mask for a ballcap, having surrendered three goals on the first nine shots directed his way.
To a man, Campbell’s second and fastest yank of the season (the first was a mercy pull during October’s 7-1 debacle in Pittsburgh) was described not as an indictment on his night but as “a wake-up call” for the players in front of him to defend harder.
And yet one can’t help but wonder if preserving some of the goalie’s confidence, as his numbers regress hard to the norm, came into play.
The Leafs’ Number 1 earned himself a deserved trip to the all-star game in Las Vegas later this week.
Ironically, since being selected to represent Toronto at the showcase, Campbell has turned in four consecutive starts with a save percentage of .850 or worse. He’s allowed an average of four goals in each of his past six starts.
Compare that to Campbell’s gilded November, in which he allowed more than two in a game just once in 11 games.
Despite being drafted in the first round of 2010, Campbell has never been anointed a Number 1 coming out of an NHL training camp. Nor has he played so many minutes in a full season as he has in the first half of this one.
Is this a natural lull over an 82-game haul? Has Campbell’s poise taken a hit? Are the Leafs taking hot goaltending for granted? Is the competition of a healthy Petr Mrazek and/or contract-year pressure complicating matters?
Dialled in leading up to Christmas, Campbell hasn’t looked nearly as sharp since recovering from his COVID quarantine and having his rhythm and routine shaken by a string of postponed dates.
Down 3-1 just nine minutes and 10 seconds into the game, Keefe burned his timeout and tagged in Mrazek, who would sop the bleeding and become the goaltender of record.
“Jack hasn't played to the same level that he's established for himself. But our team has not played at the same level in front of him. It’s not nearly good enough,” Keefe said. “He's trying to get back in that groove here.
“He's got lots of rest, lots of time between games. And he's trying to find his game. And he will find his game, but our guys have got to help him out — and we just have not done that. And that's disappointing.”
Matthews busted a season-long four-game goal “drought” with a vengeance — a determined and versatile hat trick.
A third-period strike by Jason Spezza narrowed the gap, and the scorching-hot Mitch Marner tied the contest.
Marner hasn’t turned in a soft performance since escaping protocol. With a three-point effort Monday, he has 12 points in six games since his return.
“You can’t really put into words what he means to this team,” Justin Holl said.
“Great play by Kerf,” Marner said. “He's a guy that I don't think gets enough love in the media or anything like that. But I’ll tell ya one thing – he gets a lot of love in our locker room.”
Much like Saturday in Detroit, spotting their opponent multiple two-goal leads did not prove too steep a mountain for the skill-at-will Maple Leafs to scale.
They can outscore their defensive and/or goaltending woes.
The Maple Leafs and Devils dive directly into a rematch Tuesday night in New Jersey, their final game before the all-star break.
And it was telling that a noncommittal Keefe wanted to speak with both his netminders before deciding on a starter.
“Whoever is in net will do the job,” Mrazek said.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Jake Muzzin has been ruled out of action at least through the All-Star break. That makes six games missed since suffering a concussion in St. Louis on Jan. 15. Thing is, Muzzin had been practising regularly with the team as recently as Friday. He did not appear at Monday’s skate.
"With the break upcoming, it's a little easier to pull back," Keefe said. "Any time a player has a head injury, the concern is significant, but I believe he's on the right track. The medical team is on top of it, and we'll do all we can to give him the best care possible."
Certainly, there is no reason to be hasty here, considering Muzzin’s increased value come playoff time.
"You miss him in a lot of ways, but the head's no joke," Marner said. "We got to make sure that when he comes back, he's fully ready to go.
"We don't need anything hurting him in the future or even past hockey. He's got a family and kids. There's more important things than trying to battle through stuff like that."
• It’s difficult to look back at Kyle Dubas’s 2020 trade of Andreas Johnsson for Joey Anderson as much more than a salary dump at this point.
Johnsson, 27, is now tied for second on the Devils in goals (11) and ranks third on the team in points (25). “Mango” is on pace for his first 20-goal campaign since he achieved that feat with the Leafs in 2018-19.
The younger Anderson, 23, has been a fixture in the AHL Marlies’ top six, but in his five career games with the big club in Toronto, he’s a fourth-liner still in search of a point.
• Condolences to Devils head coach Lindy Ruff, whose father, Leeson, passed away Friday at age 88. Assistant coach Alain Nasreddine filled in and will run New Jersey’s bench again Tuesday.
• Marner hasn’t turned in a poor performance since escaping protocol. With a three-point effort Monday, he has 12 points in six games since his return.
“You can’t really put into words what he means to this team,” Justin Holl says.
• Keefe abandoned his spread-offence lineup of forwards after just a game and a half and reverted back to something more familiar.
“It's no secret that this is our optimal look," Keefe said.
Here’s what optimal looks like:
Extras: Ritchie, Clifford