ANAHEIM – Admit it.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are sucking you in again, aren’t they?
You swore you’d wait until April to care, to dream. Yet slowly but surely, you’re warming up to the idea of getting hurt again.
Or just maybe: They’re a contender for real this time.
Toronto’s November reign concluded Sunday with another decisive victory, 5-1 over the Anaheim Ducks, and an exclamation point on one of the smoothest road trips a hockey club could ask for.
In going a perfect 4-0 and sweeping California with relative ease, the scorching-hot Toronto Maple Leafs leapt to a share of first place in the NHL standings, set a franchise record by ripping off a seventh consecutive road win, and gathered their 13th win in the past 15 games.
The Leafs’ goaltending has been superb and their defence stingy. Their special teams are dialled in and their offence punishing again.
“It feels great. We’re rolling,” Auston Matthews said. “It just seems like we're getting consistent play out of all four lines. Our goaltending has been amazing. I think all through our lineup, we're getting everything we need from everybody.”
Fans of arguably the most infuriating playoff team in recent memory will have to fight the urge to let hope seep in.
For it’s not just the piling standings points (33) that bode well. It’s the lockdown of leads, the overcoming of injuries, and the 200-foot pledge of the group that is growing increasingly difficult to deny.
“I think everyone's buying in — and that's what it starts with. It really starts with a decision amongst the group that everyone really has to buy into it. Everyone has to be on the same page,” Alexander Kerfoot said.
“When, on an individual level, you're all committing to defence, it really helps a team game as well. And structurally we've been great, and then obviously Soupy has been unbelievable. So that's probably the No. 1 key for us.”
Take, for example, how stud sniper Auston Matthews scored in each California barn.
Not with his patented pulled wrister or his evolving one-timer, but rather by driving to the hash marks for tips, rebounds, and greasier tucks in tight.
“You see some of the goals Auston's scored of late, being in the right spots, fighting for positioning and scoring in and around the net, those are the types of goals that are hard to earn," coach Sheldon Keefe said.
"They're available if you can work like that. Especially for a guy like Auston, who is so big and strong and fast that he's a lot to handle when he gets inside that slot area and you're trying to defend him off the puck."
Following a 0-0 first period in which the Ducks controlled the run of play, Matthews opened the scoring in the second by posting up inside the hash marks and getting some fibreglass on a T.J. Brodie point shot.
"There hasn't been an abundance of chances available on the rush for our team," Keefe said. "Teams have been doing a good job defending us in that regard. Anaheim will do that. One of the things I've been happy with through this trip is how our team's adapted to that and found different ways to score."
Kerfoot describes Matthews as “a complete goal scorer.”
Allow him to explain: “He can score in just about any way that you can put the puck in the net. He's got great hands. He gets a stick on a lot of pucks. He battles hard to get to those areas, and he's able to really dig pucks out of the front of the net, which is key, because there's always loose pucks around there, and he always seems to get the puck on his stick in those situations. And then, he's got great hands in front of the net. He can make people look silly, and there's not many guys that can beat goalies from the outside and he's obviously one of them. So, there's not much more you can ask for out of a goal scorer.”
A much more Leafy goal came next.
Jake Muzzin triggered a rush by completing a wonderful stretch pass to Mitch Marner, who then fed Michael Bunting for a pounded one-timer that beat John Gibson clean.
“Mitch has great vision, probably one of the best visions in the NHL,” Bunting said. “I know whenever it's on his stick, I just gotta find those soft spots and he'll find me. He made a hell of a pass for my goal tonight.”
Kerfoot found the net 13 seconds into the third period, essentially putting the thing to bed.
Hampus Lindholm scored a greasy shutout-buster for the Ducks midway through the third. But William Nylander added an empty-netter, and Wayne Simmonds threw one more past Gibson for good measure.
How tempted was Alexander Kerfoot to pump one in the empty net?
“I wasn't really that tempted. Will did all the work on the play anyway, so he deserves to get it. It was a great way to close out the game.” https://t.co/xj8XPM1712
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) November 29, 2021
And, yes, Olympic hopeful Jack Campbell made 38 saves, outdueling his fellow American goalie.
Toronto dominated its opponents by a combined score of 18-4 during this roadie and never trailed a game at any point.
We dare say, we are witnessing the most consistent stretch of hockey by this Maple Leafs core.
Twelve wins in one month.
Their belief is growing.
Will you allow yours to?
Fox’s Fast 5
• Ryan Getzlaf (plus wife Paige and their four children) was honoured pre-game for scoring his 1,000th point. A custom engraved gold stick is on the way.
“It's cool to be here for all these milestones that he's hitting," rookie centre Trevor Zegras said. "I feel like every other night we're doing a Getzlaf ceremony, which I know he hates. But it's pretty cool for all us young guys to see. We have a couple more coming up for him, which he'll be mortified about, but we'll definitely enjoy it.”
• Former Marlies coach Dallas Eakins was asked a question about Matthews and countered with praise instead for Morgan Rielly.
"He quietly goes about his business very, very well back there. He's a highly, highly underrated defenceman in this league,” said Eakins, who believes Rielly’s understated personality has him flying under the radar.
"There is a lot of focus on the forwards the Leafs have, and it's easier to look at the shiny toys a little bit. Those young men have earned everything they get there. They're excellent players."
• Despite the early 5 p.m. local start, Campbell still wanted a morning skate. So, the creature of habit hit the ice at 9:30 a.m. (instead of his usual 11:30 a.m.). No other player in the game did so. The Leafs also had the team leave the hotel and come into Honda Center in the morning for a meeting. All business.
• Anaheim winger Nicolas Deslauriers leads the NHL in hits (99).
• Toronto’s 55.7 per cent success in the faceoff dots is the best in the league. Part of that is due to Matthews’ improvement, and part is the addition of David Kämpf, who takes most PK draws.
But Keefe says the club placed an increased focus on winger wins during training camp. So, you’ll see Leafs wings jump into the dot with more aggression and help recover pucks that aren’t swiped cleanly.