One week ago things were pretty pessimistic in Leafs Land.
Must have been a day that ended with a "y".
There were bumps in the road over the first three weeks. And after a three-game losing streak where the Maple Leafs dropped games to a tired San Jose Sharks squad, got humiliated by a Pittsburgh Penguins team without any of its stars in the lineup, and then outclassed in an "eye-opening" loss to their former goaltender and the Carolina Hurricanes, the Maple Leafs were surrounded by well-earned doubts from the outside.
Some of the same old problems were present. Shoddy defensive play, top players not pulling through on offence, and a power play that was inconceivably inefficient.
"I think that noise and that panic from the outside can't shake us — because there's no reason it should. It's still early, and we're still trying to figure out our game,” Auston Matthews said last Tuesday.
The Leafs ended that stretch of losses with back-to-back wins, but even those came with caveats.
They beat the Blackhawks. Ya, but Chicago didn't have Patrick Kane. They beat the Red Wings. Ya, but Detroit didn't have Tyler Bertuzzi. They won two games in a row! Ya, but the Hawks and Wings should be soft touches for a contender anyway.
This week was setting up to be a stretch of measurement stick tests for the Leafs, on par with that Carolina game, with Vegas, Tampa and Boston all rolling through Scotiabank Arena.
Vegas arrived with a slew of its stars out to injury as well, and William Karlsson was the latest addition to that list with a broken foot. The Maple Leafs dominated a 4-0 decision for their third win in a row Tuesday night, against a Vegas lineup that included recent waiver claim and former Leafs healthy scratch Michael Amadio.
Though it might be tempting to look over Vegas' Tuesday lineup and asterisk this win as well, there were some meaningful positives to take away from the victory -- the best full effort from the Maple Leafs through their first 10 games.
"Right from the start we took control of the game and I thought we maintained that all the way through," head coach Sheldon Keefe said after his team's cleanest performance of the season.
"We were good on special teams. Good goaltending. So ya it's certainly more indicative of what we think we're capable of. That's a shorthanded team playing over there, but as we all know we've played against shorthanded teams before and it hasn't gone like this here today. I thought we did what we needed to do here tonight."
A FULL 60 MINUTES
Last week's win over Chicago came after the Leafs dug a two-goal first period deficit and were rallied in the dressing room by passionate intermission speeches. On Saturday's win against Detroit the Leafs couldn't pull away from three separate two-goal leads and won a narrow 5-4 decision.
But Toronto didn't let off the pedal against Vegas' depleted roster. They took an early lead on Mitch Marner's spectacularly silky goal, outchanced the Golden Knights by 20 at 5-on-5 and left Jack Campbell with a relatively simple clean up job for his first shutout of the season, turning aside 26 shots.
"I think just really complete from start to finish," Auston Matthews said. "Just really good energy. I don't think we gave them too much around our net, too many opportunities. Obviously 'Soup' played unbelievable. I think all four lines kept rolling all night. I think that's an ideal display of hockey we'd like to play."
Through two periods the Maple Leafs held an 11-3 advantage in high-danger, slot areas chances at 5-on-5, which Vegas clawed back at only a little in a desperate third period. Toronto owned the key areas and opportunities from start to finish.
The Nylander-Matthews-Bunting line which Sheldon Keefe said hadn't played to its potential yet earlier in the day outshot the competition 10-6 at 5-on-5 and scored their first goal as a unit. The Kerfoot-Tavares-Marner second line continued its two-way dominance, outshooting the Knights 9-2 and outchancing them 10-0.
"I just love their start and the way we played for the full 60 minutes," Jack Campbell said. "It always gives you a lot of confidence when we start that way. We get on the scoreboard early, heck of a play by Mitchy and the team took off from there, it was great."
SPECIAL TEAMS A POSITIVE
The power play has been an unlikely sore spot for a star-studded unit dating back to last season and entered Tuesday's contest ranked in the bottom-third of the league in 2021-22.
The Leafs were only given one man advantage against the Golden Knights in a decidedly un-chippy evening, but it came early in the second period when they held just a 1-0 lead. Miss on that opportunity and maybe Vegas finds a way to hang around; score on it and the flow of momentum continues to favour the Leafs.
Matthews, given a wide-open shot off a deceptive pass from Nylander, scored the type of goal we've seen so often from him. A goal scorer's catch and release.
The penalty kill was equally as impressive, going a perfect 3-for-3 against Vegas' own struggling power-play unit. The Leafs, in fact, had more scoring chances (5) on their one power play than Vegas (3) did on their three man-advantage opportunities. Heck, the Leafs' penalty kill generated as many chances as Vegas' power play.
"I thought the power play in the one opportunity we got really snapped it around well and really hunt pucks and got pucks back and just kept creating chances," Matthews said.
Toronto's power play is now two for its past three opportunities after going 0-for its previous 17 over two weeks.
BREAKTHROUGH GAME FOR THE CORE STARS
The major narrative following this year's Leafs is how they've doubled, even tripled, down on the "Core 4" forwards after past playoff failures. We can talk about how the new third line has been a positive shot driver, how Alex Kerfoot is obviously a better fit on the wing, or how well Campbell has played in the crease, but the Leafs will only go as far as the big guys will take them.
Part of the reason for the team's bumpy start was that their big tickets weren't paying off yet.
Matthews had one goal in his first six games. Marner had one point in his first seven games and wasn't quite playing like himself, perhaps forcing the issue on offence a little. William Nylander came in to Tuesday's game with two points over his previous six games.
They all showed up against the vulnerable Golden Knights.
Marner's goal will be on your highlights Wednesday, but don't forget the two assists he also added to this stat line for his first multi-point game of the year. Marner led the charge on the penalty kill as well and nearly broke out a couple of high-quality chances down a man. That's now three solid performances in a row to follow a gripping-the-stick-too-tight first few weeks.
"He just looks like himself," Keefe said. "That's the Mitch we know and love, of course. He's playing with confidence, he looks like he's free out there. When he's free and the game is just flowing for him, he makes great things happen on both sides of the puck."
Matthews scored the aforementioned power-play marker to give the Leafs a two-goal lead and added a second goal in the final minute of the second period to keep the Golden Knights on the mat. He led the Leafs with six shots. Nylander had five shots himself, scored the final Leafs goal after being sprung by Bunting's pass, and added an assist, too.
"I thought it was evident early in the game for Matthews and Nylander and Bunting, that line, I thought they had a little extra jump in their step right from the very beginning," Keefe noted. "The Tavares line continued their momentum, they scored us a huge goal again here tonight to get us moving".
The spreadsheets (and, you know, common sense) indicated this was inevitable. Here is the danger of drawing sweeping new conclusions too early.
Of course, this group of leaders will face far more defining moments than a Tuesday night in November. But this was a start.
The Leafs face another stiff test Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning who will be without their top star Nikita Kucherov and sit tied with the Leafs at 11 points in the Atlantic Division. The result against Vegas' scraped-together lineup isn't especially meaningful in a vacuum, but the takeaways are positive and timely. What happens next may be the better measure of impact, though.
One strong, full-game effort needs to lead to another for it to mean anything in the long-term.