It was a battle of streaks Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Toronto Maple Leafs came to town to put their dominant five-game win streak on the line against the Minnesota Wild, who also entered on a five-game win run. In the end, it was the Wild stretching to a sixth W, besting the Maple Leafs 4-3 via shootout after a hard-fought tilt.
But on a night that saw Sheldon Keefe’s squad under pressure early, and down 3-0 halfway through the evening, leaving town with one point is far from the worst-case scenario.
As the Maple Leafs head to Winnipeg for the second half of a back-to-back on Sunday night, here’s a look at what went down on Saturday:
Mix and match
One glance at the Maple Leafs’ roster, and there’s no question who the big dogs are. The club’s top four up front rank as such in team scoring, and have each done what’s been expected of them so far this season. The question that’ll define Toronto’s quest to become a bona fide contender is how everyone below them on the depth chart performs.
That was put to the test more directly than the Leafs would’ve liked on Saturday with winger Mitch Marner out of the lineup after colliding with teammate Jake Muzzin in practice Friday, a loss that prompted Keefe to throw his 5-on-5 lines and power-play units in the blender.
When it all shook out, it was Jason Spezza who emerged as the one to step up in No. 16’s absence, the veteran factoring in on all three of his team’s goals as the Leafs constructed their comeback bid late in the second period.
While the first of those was a gift from as fortuitous a bounce as Spezza’s had in his near-two-decade career, his latter two points came off exceptional plays on the man-advantage, with the veteran filling in for Marner on the top unit. First, a one-timer wired home from the slot, and second, a laser of a pass whipped through traffic to an open Auston Matthews, who deflected it home.
It was more than just Spezza stepping up on a night when his team needed him to, though. Beyond that, there’s a sense of consistency throughout the club’s offensive group that’s given Keefe some newfound versatility and flexibility. That took shape Saturday in the ever-changing cast of wingers who appeared on Matthews' left and right, with Keefe throwing out different combos to match each situation.
With Marner not able to suit up in his usual top-line spot, it was Wayne Simmonds who got the first assignment with Matthews and Michael Bunting. But No. 34 also hopped over the boards with Bunting and Spezza at times, or with Simmonds and Nick Ritchie, with Bunting and William Nylander, along with some all-star shifts with Nylander and John Tavares.
Looking down the line to the games that will truly matter, when injuries and slumps and stiff defensive schemes will throw wrenches into the best of offensive plans, that flexibility is invaluable.
“He’s obviously not a guy that you can just replace, but we have a lot of belief in our group,” Matthews said post-game of Marner’s absence. “No matter who I’m playing with, I have confidence in every single guy out there. Obviously tonight, you know, a lot of mixing and matching, and that’s fine with me. We just go out there and compete no matter who’s on the ice.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 5, 2021
Comfortable with a comeback
There’s been plenty of talk already of this Maple Leafs team being different. Of them learning from past ills and finding a new level this season. We won’t know whether that’s true until the post-season rolls around, but two months into the 2021-22 campaign, there is one bit of identity emerging.
Piling up goals and outscoring the opposition is one thing. We know they have that in their arsenal. It's the close games, the nail-biters, that seem different this time around. The club's seven wins by one goal this season are among the most in the league. And on Saturday, they proved once again that even if they don't leave with a W, even if things get much dicier than expected, they won't crumble.
We saw that even more in the early goings of the season. Before the team launched into its stretch of dominant wins, there was a two-and-a-half-week stretch that saw the Maple Leafs, on three different occasions, battle back from a deficit in the latter half of a third period before tipping the scales in overtime.
They haven’t had to dig as deep since mid-November, given the win streak they’ve been on. But here, tested for the first time since then by a Wild club that currently ranks among the league’s best, and who put up a three-spot on the Leafs early, Toronto again managed to claw its way back to level ground and leave with at least a point.
“It’s a big point for us,” Keefe said after the game. “I love that our guys didn’t go away at 3-0, instead just dug in and wanted to make a game of it. … The way things are going for our team, you get down like that, we’ve got to play tomorrow night, it’s an easy one for the guys to just say, ‘Look, we’ll get ready for Winnipeg,’ you know? But we didn’t do that. We fought hard.”
Campbell keeps it alive
It might’ve been Spezza guiding the Maple Leafs back from 0-3 to level ground, but once they were there, it was Jack Campbell who got them their point in the standings.
As he has been so often this season, the former King stood tall for the Maple Leafs precisely when they needed him to. Like his coach said, it would’ve been easy to fold, especially for Campbell, who was undone by not one, not two, but three absurd bouts of bad luck on Minnesota’s trio of early goals.
First, a Matt Dumba point shot that clanged off the post and happened to float out right to an open Jordan Greenway. Then, a Mats Zuccarello shot that deflected in off Campbell’s own defenceman’s skate. And finally, a truly wild sequence that saw a clearing attempt deflected, intercepted and then bounced off a Maple Leaf, off the official and onto the stick of a waiting Marcus Foligno, who put it home.
It was a wacky one. But once his mates got it back to 3-3, there was Campbell weathering an early storm from the Wild in the third, turning away chance after chance from Kirill Kaprizov and Ryan Hartman on a lengthy 5-on-3 power play that should’ve tipped things back in Minnesota’s favour, and coming up with a bevy of others to close out regulation and get Toronto to the extra frame.
Nights like these show just how valuable Campbell’s poise is to this group. With the firepower Toronto has up front, the Leafs don’t necessarily need a netminder who can steal game after game, who stifles opponents every night. It would be nice to have, sure. But what Toronto must have, at the very least, is someone who can give them every chance to flex that offensive muscle when it’s needed most.
In a 3-3 game against one of the best offensive clubs in the league, Campbell did just that, keeping it level, keeping his team in it, giving them every chance to try and find a fourth goal late in the third. Ultimately, they couldn't find that fourth, but if not for their netminder standing on his head late, that comeback bid would've been erased by a late flurry from the Wild, that one point replaced with a goose egg.
“I think there’s a lot of good that we can obviously take from it, being down by three and just the resiliency of this group to continue to play and battle back,” Matthews said of the club’s mentality Saturday night. “I mean, it would’ve been easy to just pack it in and just hope for the best, or live to fight another day. But we just continued to work and compete and got some big goals, and obviously got the point.
“Obviously we’re still leaving the rink a little sour. But I think all in all we can be proud of the effort that we had to battle back.”