PHILADELPHIA – They can’t all be classics.
The Toronto Maple Leafs touched down in Philadelphia crashing off an emotional wave. An electric week saw them knock off a pair of divisional foes (Boston and Florida) in convincing fashion, then fete super-sniper Auston Matthews on home ice and exact revenge on the Winnipeg Jets.
Would it be possible for them to attack the lowly Flyers with the same vigour, knowing their first measuring-stick trip to Florida was right around the corner?
“It hasn't gone as well for us in these types of games, against these types of opponents,” coach Sheldon Keefe conceded pre-game. “We're expecting them to play a good game with lots of energy, and our guys have to be prepared to go and execute the way we have in recent games.”
Keefe tried to draw on Jack Campbell’s long-awaited return and prospect Nick Abruzzese’s debut for motivation, but his players came out flat against another lottery-bound opponent.
Former Flyer Wayne Simmonds pitched Philly tough guy Zack MacEwen on a fight (denied by the linesmen, to the crowd’s loud disapproval) to inject some life into a listless bench.
“I was just trying to spark the boys. I didn’t think we were playing too well,” Simmonds explained.
But the Maple Leafs needed to get a little lucky before they got good, jetting out of town with a 6-3 comeback victory and two more points in the vault, despite a 20-minute effort.
“Yeah, it was not a great hockey game by us,” Keefe said. “We know what our team is capable of doing. Maybe that's the problem: [The players] know what they're capable of doing.”
Following a no-goal, low-energy first period, Kevin Hayes popped open on the doorstep and got the Flyers on the board first.
Toronto needed all of 69 seconds to leap back into a game it had no business leading.
Simmonds accepted a beautiful stretch pass up the gut from T.J. Brodie and beat Carter Hart one-on-one with a whiffed deke, snapping a 32-game goal drought.
“Blackie [Colin Blackwell] goes to me, ‘That’s the ugliest breakaway move I’ve ever seen.’ And I don’t think he’s wrong.”
Then defenceman Timothy Liljegren wired a point shot wide that ricocheted off the end boards and clicking it in off the back of Hart’s foot as the goalie tried to slide to his post. Yikes.
Ivan Provorov tied the contest with whack from the slot, one of the few pucks that fooled a dialled-in Campbell.
“It's fun to get in there and get back to just stopping pucks and having fun,” Campbell smiled. “I definitely felt like myself.”
Keefe agreed: “He just looked like Jack. I loved the way he played tonight. The first period, especially. That first 10 minutes or so was a disaster by us in front of him.
“His job is to be there when things break down — and certainly they did break down.”
With the Maple Leafs suddenly awake and pressing hard in the third period, they got Hart scrambling in his own net and Auston Matthews scored his 51st to regain the lead.
Pierre Engvall held and sniped on a shorthanded 2-on-1 to give the Maple Leafs a league-leading 12 shorties on the season.
Provorov struck again to narrow the gap, but Morgan Rielly responded for the Leafs. John Tavares piled on the party, too, beating Hart clean off the rush.
An explosive four-goal frame that reinforces the notion that the Leafs can survive on bursts of brilliance and don’t necessarily have to turn in a full 60 to scoot by a weak team.
The only thing that made the coach happy about the “disappointing” effort, however, was that fact that Campbell looked calm and loose.
“We didn’t play the game that we wanted to play all night. The third period we got some timely scoring, and that was ultimately the difference in the game,” said Simmonds, a realist.
“But ideally we don’t want to repeat a performance like that.”
The Maple Leafs’ road trip now heads south to Tampa Bay, where the forecast is a 100 per cent chance of better hockey.
They won’t have an opponent to play down to.
Fox’s Fast Five
• Hayes, Keith Yandle’s close friend, on the end of the ironman streak: “I can’t say I agree with it.”
Hayes said the scratch was on the players. Had the team performed better, they’d be in the playoff hunt and management wouldn’t feel it’s necessary to bring in college players and start getting a peek at the future.
But Hayes, clearly bothered, also acknowledged that ending Yandle’s streak “was a big deal” and referenced Phil Kessel: “I know someone’s right behind him.”
• With the Maple Leafs desperate to gain momentum for the first 30 minutes, Keefe went full blender with his top nine in Period 2. Ilya Mikheyev–John Tavares–Mitch Marner is compelling look.
• For the first time, we’re told, in four and half years, the 76ers played a matinee on the same day as a Flyers night game. (Apparently, former coach Alain Vigneault was a fan of the daytime slot.)
As a result, the Leafs were jostled out of their routine and not given access to Wells Fargo Center for their morning skate and meeting.
“We walked in the building, and they still had part of the court down,” Simmonds said.
• Another rare sight: duelling rookie laps. A pair of NCAA recruits, Toronto’s Abruzzese and Philadelphia’s Ronnie Attard, made their NHL debuts Saturday.
Admitting to nerves, Abruzzese had his parents and sister in town to watch his dream come true. “It hasn’t fully sunk in yet,” Abruzzese said.
Attard’s debut put an end to Yandle’s ironman streak at 989 games.
• Very cool scene pre-game: Spotted a gregarious Simmonds catching up with a long-serving Flyers staffer in the bowels of Wells Fargo Center. The gentleman had pulled out his smartphone and got his wife on FaceTime so Simmonds could visit with her too.
“I spent eight years here,” said Simmonds, who got his fight in the end. “So I had fun tonight.”