Maple Leafs' North Division lead widening as trade deadline looms

John Tavares scored the game-winner in the third period as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Calgary Flames 4-2.

Like masked pedestrians approaching each other on a sidewalk, the gap just keeps widening.

One week ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames are speeding in opposite directions. To the point where the former can dress their third- and fourth-string goalies, generate a big bag of nothing through two periods of fun-sucking Darryl Sutter hockey, muddle 15 minutes without a shot on net, and still pull out a decisive 4-2 victory.

With their playoff chances shrivelling to 1.2 per cent and no Hamburglar in site, the underwhelming Flames are playing for pride and milestones and, perhaps, their own trade value.

To that end, Sutter’s bunch did a fine job of making the division leaders look something less than ascendent on Easter Sunday. Although Morgan Rielly scored on the game’s first shot, Joakim Nordstrom responded for the home side in short order, laying a skilled blade on a Mark Giordano point shot that gave the captain his 500th point of his career.

Giordano revealed that he’d promised his son he’d get on the board.

“I’ve got my little guy, Jack, at home, and it’s his birthday,” said Giordano, looking into a TV camera at intermission. “That’s for you, buddy.”

Andrew Mangiapane gave Calgary a 2-1 lead with 40 seconds left in the first frame, ripping a high shot that probably should’ve been snuffed by one of the four Toronto bodies between him and the net.

Mangiapane’s go-ahead marker was part of Calgary’s mid-game push that featured 14 consecutive shots and the Maple Leafs’ anemic power play failing to score on its 28th straight attempt.

But Alex Galchenyuk driving the crease and cashing in a John Tavares pass late in Period 2 gave the Maple Leafs life and Galchenyuk his first goal for his seventh NHL organization.

“Sooner or later, it’s gonna go in,” Galchenyuk had said Friday, but it was unclear if he was promising the Leaf Nation he’s slowly winning over or himself. “It’s something I definitely try to focus on — getting my first one as a Leaf.”

“A big goal by Alex. Got us back in the game,” Joe Thornton said. “It’s huge for his confidence. He’s a young player still.”

So what if Calgary had reined in the explosive Leafs to just four high-danger chances at that point? Tie game.

“We obviously were not very good at all through 40 minutes, but we were in a game,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We gave ourselves an opportunity to win a hockey game.”

“No one was happy,” Galchenyuk said of the second-intermission mood. “We knew we got better and definitely had to come out and with more intensity, more compete level. And we did that, and the game kinda shifted over to our advantage.”

The Maple Leafs’ game-winner was a rebound own-goal that clicked off Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin’s skate blade only after netminder David Rittich stopped shots off the rush by both William Nylander and John Tavares.

The type of head-hanger that crams Calgary’s dismal season into a nutshell.

Auston Matthews provided the insurance — after stripping Matthew Tkachuk of a puck in his own zone — and became the first NHLer to hit the 25-goal plateau.

The Flames offered little pushback, and Michael Hutchinson stood tall when it mattered, backstopping the Leafs to the league’s best road record (13-4-1).

With 53 points, Toronto now holds a six-point lead atop the North over both Edmonton and Winnipeg — and an 18-point lead over Calgary.

So, on a day when prime New Jersey trade bait Kyle Palmieri is healthy-scratched to make sure the merchandise is fresh, Leafs fans wonder if Palmieri might waive the contending Leafs off his no-trade list, and Flames fans wonder what they might salvage from their own expendable forwards.

While it’s no secret Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is trying to add a forward capable of slotting alongside Tavares and Nylander, Galchenyuk says the chemistry with his linemates is growing by the day.

“You’re around the group, playing in our system, the type of team and the type of players we have, you’re only going to get more comfortable,” Tavares said. “At this time of year, things get tighter and tighter. It gets much harder to get open ice and time and space. I think that’s where his work ethic and determination will continue to come through.”

Galchenyuk perks up when describing the upbeat vibe that comes with contributing to a 25-10-3 squad.

“Obviously, it's a confident group, and everybody has a lot of fun. It’s a loose group. But when it comes to game time, it's all business. So, that's what you want,” Galchenyuk said. “Everybody has a lot of fun, but nothing's more fun than winning.”

You don’t have to tell Hutchinson that.

Flashback to the 2020 trade deadline: Hutchinson commissioned a custom Felix Potvin throwback Leafs mask to represent his team, only to get dealt to Colorado before he could break it in.

Back for his second go with Toronto, Hutchinson has been practising in the Potvin. And if he keeps performing like he did Sunday, maybe the mask will even see game action.

“He’s obviously performed better, but I think we’re a better team. I think we can’t not address that. I think at times when Hutch was struggling last season, our team didn’t play well in front of him,” Keefe said.

“We regrouped in the third and got a win — that’s on the back of solid goaltending. Our guys have done a really good job, all three goalies this year, of giving us opportunities to win games. It’s a big part of why we are where we are.”

Where the Maple Leafs wake up Monday, readying to face the Flames for the second half of this Easter back-to-back, is the same comfortable yet uncertain place they’ve awoken for a couple weeks.

Their power play is in shambles. They’re not certain who will start in goal (Jack Campbell skated Sunday and is hopeful). And yet, they feel pretty good about their chances of winning a hockey game.

“We’ve got 100 per cent confidence in whatever goalie is playing on whichever night,” Matthews said.

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