The sizzling start the Toronto Maple Leafs so badly desired has been built on a lethal power play and the ability to find one more goal every time they need it.
But their commitment at the less enjoyable end of the ice merits some mention as well.
In beating the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 on Thursday night, the Maple Leafs kept another opponent below 30 shots. They are averaging just 27 against per night during the 7-2-0 climb to the top of the North Division, which is a marked improvement from where they were a year ago.
Protecting the net-front was a priority spelled out on the first day of training camp by Sheldon Keefe earlier this month and the head coach is seeing progress. Call it a long-range goal for a roster that can seemingly summon offence at will.
The Leafs were disappointed by squandering 2-0 and 3-2 lead at Rogers Place. Keefe was livid at seeing his players take seven minor penalties in the game, saying “Obviously we have to stay out of the penalty box. The penalties have been crazy. It’s just not good enough.”
But the sting was softened by an Auston Matthews power-play strike with less than seven minutes to play since it delivered another regulation victory and allowed everyone to step back and look at all the good happening for the team at 5-on-5 over the first couple weeks.
“We’ve defended hard,” said Keefe. “The guys are working and we’ve really significantly cut down on the high-danger chances and odd-man rushes and the players have been really committed to that. It’s been far from perfect, we’ve got a lot of areas to grow. We’re not even close to being the team that I think we can be, the team that we would need to be.
“I think the greatest news of all is that none of the games have been perfect and there’s lots of room for growth.”
With that mind, here are some observations from Toronto’s fourth straight victory.
Jason Spezza has already passed through the waiver wire this season and was coming off a healthy scratch Tuesday in Calgary.
As deeply respected as he is within the organization, the 37-year-old is battling to carve out his niche on an extremely fluid fourth line that featured Travis Boyd and Alexander Barabanov on Thursday, but has also included Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks and Joey Anderson in prior games.
This should help.
Spezza had a goal and an assist among his five first-period shifts in Edmonton. After taking a Boyd pass and beating Mikko Koskinen for his first goal since Feb. 7, 2020, he wisely kept the puck in at the line before William Nylander made it 2-0.
Keefe had felt the extra rest would help Spezza in sitting him out in Calgary.
“Obviously he was right,” said the veteran centre. “I felt good tonight and had a little bit of an extra jump. It’s nice when those things work out.”
He also went 5-3 in the faceoff dot and continues to be one of the NHL’s most reliable faceoff men. Despite seeing limited playing time, Spezza has five points to show for his eight games this season but indicated that he hadn’t been feeling any added pressure by a goal drought that stretched back 27 games.
“I’m not judging my play on goals and assists anymore,” he said. “I’m in a different role and I have to make sure I play that role well and be fine with it.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 29, 2021
You almost had to laugh.
Just hours after acknowledging that he needed to shoot the puck more often, William Nylander found himself on 2-on-1 with Ilya Mikheyev during the opening shift of the game and … passed.
His attempt was broken up by Oilers defenceman Tyson Barrie.
But Nylander ended up rebounding to make good on his intentions, firing a season-high five shots on net with seven attempts. He also scored for the first time since bagging two on opening night against Montreal.
One of the key ingredients to his breakout 31-goal campaign a year ago was more volume, with an average of 2.9 shots on goal per game. He had just 13 over the opening eight games this season.
“Yeah I think we haven’t been getting the solid [offensive] zone time that we have been used to getting and we’re working on that,” said Nylander. “But I know myself I’ve been looking to pass in certain situations where I should definitely get a shot on goal. That's something that I keep in mind and something that I’ve got to do better and get pucks to the net.”
Among the biggest areas of emphasis for him, Mikheyev and John Tavares are generating better puck retrievals in the offensive zone. That remains a work in progress after Thursday’s game where they spent most of their 5-on-5 time defending while seeing a healthy dose of both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Nylander’s shooting mentality was mostly on display during his power play minutes.
Wayne Simmonds won’t want to see this Alberta road trip come to an end.
He’s scored in all three games the Leafs have played out there, getting a stick on Mitch Marner’s shot in the third period Thursday while stationed in his usual spot at the edge of the crease.
“It feels really nice, obviously,” said Simmonds, who signed with his hometown team in October. “But without everyone else on the ice that doesn’t happen. The team did a great job tonight. Most importantly we got the two points.”
The Leafs wrap up the trip Saturday night with another game against the Oilers.