TORONTO – Immediately after he was traded to Toronto Maple Leafs, Alex Galchenyuk’s phone illuminated with a welcoming text message from Auston Matthews.
The two top-three NHL draft picks with very divergent career trajectories had developed a relationship over the pandemic off-season, engaging in some exclusive, private skills and skating sessions in Phoenix with Galchenyuk’s father, Alexander Sr., and Matthews’ boyhood trainer Boris Dorozhenko.
On Saturday night, Galchenyuk (now with his seventh franchise) and Matthews (destined to become the face of his first) were integral to the construction of a come-from-behind, 4-3 overtime victory over the dynamic Edmonton Oilers.
Matthews snuffed out his five-game goal drought by scoring his league-best eighth game-winner in the extra frame.
But that opportunity would not have presented itself had Galchenyuk — bumped up to Line 2 mid-game by coach Sheldon Keefe — not played a helping hand in the set up of third-period strikes by linemates John Tavares and William Nylander.
“It’s funny how things work out,” said Galchenyuk, following his first multi-point effort since three teams ago. “Definitely happy to be on the same team.”
If you’ve played any left wing for the Maple Leafs this season, chances are you’ve had a tryout alongside Tavares-Nylander as Keefe searches for a third tenor to make his second line sing.
Jimmy Vesey, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Alexander Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev….
At the risk of drawing conclusions from a four-game, three-point sample size, maybe Galchenyuk is not only the one that sticks, but the one who makes general manager Kyle Dubas wonder if he already traded for his top-nine winger.
That low-risk, high-reward flyer the Leafs GM plucked off the Carolina Hurricanes, in part, because, hey, Galchenyuk was already in Ontario, had already cleared waivers and wouldn’t require an extensive quarantine.
Saturday’s showdown between two-thirds of the North Division’s best was loaded with blinding assist highlights: Connor McDavid’s top-speed, no-look rush pass to Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl’s no-look, behind-the-back, behind-the-net, give-and-go with Tyson Barrie. And Galchenyuk’s no-look, between-the-legs, backhanded drop pass to Tavares in the slot — on a rush that began off a D-zone draw and which triggered the Leafs’ rally and further endeared castaway Galchenyuk to a Toronto team growing tighter by the win.
“He plays with a lot of energy,” Matthews beams. “He’s really passionate about hockey. He works extremely hard. He cares a lot. He’s been playing great over the games he’s been with us. He works hard every shift, he competes, and you can’t really ask for more. He’s got plenty of skill to go along with that. He made a couple of really nice plays tonight, and a couple of huge goals from that line.”
That line — Galchenyuk-Tavares-Nylander — has now generated 82 per cent of expected goals and 90 per cent of high-danger chances in the 30 minutes it’s been on the ice together.
Keefe had started Simmonds in that spot early, but once the Maple Leafs started getting caved in and lost their legs — and the lead — in the second period, the coach peeked at Galchenyuk’s minimal ice time and gave him a promotion.
“I thought Galchenyuk had played well to that point. I hadn’t used him very much, yet the shifts that he had I thought were good,” Keefe explained post-game.
“Galchenyuk hadn’t done anything to come off of that line. He had played quite well. It was more just about giving Simmonds that opportunity there. Just the way that it works out with how the game was going, needed to make some changes. And it was nice to see that line continue the way that it had been playing.”
Especially nice for Tavares, whose strong work in the D-zone and the face-off circle hasn’t kept critics from noticing his lack of even-strength production.
On a night where the Oilers rolled McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line, conjured up wow moments and still lost, it’s worth remembering that the success of the Maple Leafs rests on the Matthews and Tavares units smacking defenders with a one-two punch at even strength.
Particularly when Toronto’s vaunted power play, now 0 for its past 18, gets stuck in the mud.
"Nice to get one,” said Tavares, up to 10 goals in 34 games. “(Scoring) is a big part of my game, and this year it hasn't seemed to be as consistent as I'd like.
“I'm still trying to figure some things out. Not a perfect science. Just got to bear down on some opportunities. I'm good around the net at finding rebounds and plays in tight, and I haven't seemed to get as many of those."
Tavares credits Galchenyuk’s blend of talent, work ethic and playmaking sense as a complement to him and Nylander.
“He was drafted really high for a reason,” Tavares said.
“He's had really good success in this league. He makes plays quickly, and great two plays on the two goals that help tie it up. Just the energy that he brings. He won a lot of loose pucks, getting first to pucks and just keeping possession and doing a lot of things like that that just help you just make positive plays and over time wear the opponent down and create the openings that you're looking for.”
Hockey, as always, is a game of breaks. Of opportunity seized.
Galchenyuk, it seems, needed a club willing to be patient, to pump up his confidence and comfort in the minors, then give him shifts him alongside high-end talent to jolt a revival.
And Matthews, after drilling posts and pounding Mike Smith’s pads all night, needed an OT puck to clink off Draisaitl’s stick and Darnell Nurse’s foot before finally finding twine and quenching his drought.
Next one’s going in, next one’s going in, the Rocket leader kept thinking to himself as his attempts got denied.
“Sometimes those ugly ones help you get out of a big slump,” Matthews smiled.
“Not really how I drew it up, but I’ll definitely take it.”
We could say the exact same for the Maple Leafs' incorporation of Galchenyuk into their top six.
Funny how things work out.