TORONTO – The night before Halloween, Sheldon Keefe elected to “shock the system” of his underachieving group.
And not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the reassembled parts came alive.
At least in the offensive zone.
The Toronto Maple Leafs coach pulled a rare trick out of his bag, scrambling his top four defencemen, busting up his go-to shutdown pair, and sitting a healthy Justin Holl in favour of Timothy Liljegren.
“Instead of reducing his role or minutes, we thought we’d shock the system here and take a step back — because he’s an important player for us,” Keefe said. “I haven’t made any guarantees about whether he’s going right back in. We’ll see how he plays.”
Toronto’s much-improved defensive effort of 2020-21 has yet to find its groove in October.
And although the Leafs routinely outshoot their opposition, the odd-man rushes and easy net access they surrender is concerning enough to bench a player they protected in the Seattle expansion draft.
So, a message was sent, and the experiment yielded success.
Though far from perfect, the refreshed blue line duos and a breakout game by the Alexander Kerfoot–John Tavares–Mitch Marner line secured Petr Mrazek his first victory as a Leaf — 5-4 over his former employer, the Detroit Red Wings.
Still, there was a handful of candy corn spoiling what should’ve been a pillowcase overflowing with full-size Snickers.
Every time the Leafs snagged or increased a lead, they let a tired Wings team — playing without their top scorer — streak back and make it close.
“The win should feel better than it does,” Keefe said. “But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s hard to win games, so I’m not going to stress about it too much.”
The Maple Leafs struck first with a mere 13.4 seconds remaining in the first frame.
Jake Muzzin took a pass from new partner T.J. Brodie and worked the puck down to the circles, where he fired a puck through traffic and beat Thomas Greiss.
Muzzin’s strike was Toronto’s first goal by a defenceman all season, and Keefe revealed that a Muzzin-Brodie shutdown unit was something the staff has been curious about trying for a long time.
“I thought it was Muzzin’s best game of the season,” Keefe said.
Muzzin had entered a team-worst minus-8 and had becoming a growing source of concern, at least outside the dressing room.
“For a guy that has been so good for so long, you have confidence that he's going to find it,” Keefe assured. “We're just talking him through it. Reassuring him. Challenging him. But he doesn't need too much of that because he's a very self-aware guy."
Toronto’s self-assured play in the first, during which they doubled their visitors in both scoring and high-danger chances, gave way to a more even second and a nail-biting third.
Tavares, seemingly agitated by a borderline high hit, committed a slashing penalty on Michael Rasmussen that opened the door for Filip Zadina to unleash a power-play wrister and tie the score.
But the Leafs stormed back with a power-play goal of their own with just 18 seconds left in the middle frame. When their out-of-sync first unit failed to gain any traction, it was Jason Spezza’s second group that took care of business.
Spezza, who had drawn a slash from Rasmussen, delivered a smart slap-pass to Michael Bunting in the slot, and Scarborough’s own tipped it home to restore the lead.
Tavares wasted no time doubling the advantage. On the first shift of the third, he created some space for himself behind Greiss’s net and fed Alexander Kerfoot for a one-timer in the slot.
The won’t-quit Red Wings struck back on the next shift, thanks to a tally by game-day callup Joe Veleno in his first NHL appearance of the season.
But Kerfoot returned the favour to Tavares on a pretty 2-on-1 rush, and the captain made no mistake, bending the twine and registering his third point of the night.
“John Tavares was all over it tonight,” Keefe said.
Again, Detroit narrowed the gap to one, courtesy of a Vladislav Namestnikov crease-crasher.
But Marner scored the eventual winner late, snuffing out a 16-game drought that stretches back to May 8.
Tavares enveloped his winger in hug and some encouraging words.
"It hasn't come as easy for him production-wise, but his game is still so effective and solid for us in so many areas,” Tavares said. “Eventually he was going to break out, and it was just great to see him get it. Just happy to see it. He deserved that one."
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 31, 2021
Ding-dong, the witch is dead.
It took nine games, but the Maple Leafs’ offence was the difference. They thumped Detroit 21-6 in high-danger chances, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
This unassertive team that had yet to score four in a single game, hung five on their opponent. And they needed every last one of them.
“Go! Leafs! Go!” chants rang out on the eve before All Hallows’ Eve, and with back-to-back wins, suddenly Toronto’s record (4-4-1) looks a little less frightening.
“Some mixed emotions,” a terse Muzzin said at the podium. “You know, we'll take the win. We did a lot of good things. But we definitely have to tighten some things up and play better with the lead, that's for sure.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Red Wings rookie defenceman Moritz Seider wears No. 53 because he just so happened to watch Herbie the Lovebug the day before he was asked to pick his number.
Seider already has eight assists through his first nine NHL games. On Saturday, he killed penalties, teed up Zadina on the power play, and finished a plus-1 in 22-plus minutes. This after logging 26-plus minutes Friday.
This six-foot-four kid is a blast to watch. He has poise well beyond his 20 years of age.
• Rasmus Sandin is thrilled his parents, Patric and Helena, flew over from his native Sweden this week to take in all five games of this homestand. Patric religiously stays awake from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. to catch his son’s games live. Rasmus says Patric “gets more nervous than I do” for puck drop.
Hello Toronto. Härligt att vara här
— Patric Sandin (@psan1969) October 30, 2021
• Grand Rapids Griffins leading scorer Joe Veleno carpooled all the way from Michigan with GM Steve Yzerman. Oh, to be a fly on the (inside) windshield for that four-hour drive.
“I was a little bit shy, and I really didn’t know what to talk about. He made up most of the conversation,” Veleno said, following his two-point NHL night. “Once I got to spend a bit of time with him in the car, I was a little more comfortable."
Veleno took a nap, and the two listened to the Michigan–Michigan State football game on the radio, not "Holiday Road."
"It definitely means a lot to drive with Steve Yzerman. I guess it’s a story I can tell in the future.”
The Red Wings fell to 0-2 in Canada, where leading scorer Tyler Bertuzzi is unavailable to play because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.
• Prior to puck drop, Keefe showed his players the viral clip (below) of the Red Wings selling out on shot-blocks in desperate attempt to stay in their battle against the undefeated Florida Panthers Friday. (The Wings nabbed a loser point in that one.)
“A really quick snapshot of the type of mindset that Detroit has,” Keefe said. “That sense of urgency. They're competing at a very high level early in the season.”
• Short-lived Maple Leafs centre Mike Amadio (0-0-0 in 3GP) got scooped off waivers Saturday by the Vegas Golden Knights, marking the second depth forward Toronto has lost to the wire in this young season (Adam Brooks, Montreal).
Amadio didn’t need to catch a flight. The Knights were already loading their gear into Scotiabank Arena as the buzzer sounded on the Leafs-Wings game Saturday.