‘He was due’: Bertuzzi’s birthday hat trick caps hottest Maple Leafs streak in 20 years

DENVER — There was a time, not so long ago, when Tyler Bertuzzi must’ve wondered if he’d ever score again.

Nineteen games the $5.5-million man had gone without lighting the lamp. And before that, another 12 with no luck.

Instead of finishing, Bertuzzi would miss the net in close or ping a crossbar. He’d get robbed by a brilliant save or stuff a breakaway chance into pads that looked like brick walls. 

Once during the slump, he did manage to push a puck across the line… only to have his apparent goal scrubbed due to goalie interference. Another time, he missed an empty net high.

Bertuzzi told himself to remain positive, to keep working, to drive the paint once more. Still, the strings of zeroes on his game log grew longer. He told himself, eventually, the goals will come. But, of course, his confidence was taking a beating. Whose wouldn’t?

A critical contract year plus a career-low shooting percentage is a recipe for disaster.

In short, no member of the Toronto Maple Leafs needed a night like Saturday more than Bertuzzi — who celebrated his 29th birthday with a hat trick, a 4-3 comeback victory over the mighty Colorado Avalanche, and the franchise’s longest winning streak in more than 20 years.

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“Felt good. That was a great road trip for us, collecting eight points. And being able to go home on that note was awesome,” Bertuzzi said, swapping out the birthday cake for a post-game chocolate protein shake.

“Everyone’s just buying in. We’re at a point in the season where we got to kinda turn things on and have a winning mentality. Take no games off and try and be as consistent as possible.”

Partly to help Bertuzzi get off the schneid, coach Sheldon Keefe threw speedy playmakers Max Domi and William Nylander on his line and threw him onto the deadly top power-play unit, asking captain John Tavares to step back.

“I mean, look at the types of goals he scored here tonight. He’s been getting those shots and those chances all season long, and the puck hasn’t fallen for him,” Keefe said. “So that’s why you just kind of stay with it. And obviously we’ve increased his opportunity to get even more of those types of looks. Thrilled for him.”

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Bertuzzi’s first goal Saturday came on the man-advantage, after he drew an interference penalty on Ross Colton. So did his final one, the game-winner with under three minutes to go.

“It’s pretty tough to be out there with a couple of us, because we always want the puck, we’re trying to call for the puck. We want it. Usually that middle guy doesn’t have too much fun. He’s just kinda skating around, trying to be net-front and get rebounds and tips,” Mitch Marner explained.

“You knew he was due. I think the last couple of weeks he’s really been playing some great hockey. And that line between him, Willy and Doms, they move the puck very well. They communicate very well. They’ve done a great job in the O-zone, and through all three zones. So all three guys got a lot of skill. And they can make plays. Bert’s that guy that can get in the grimy areas, and he got rewarded for it tonight.”

Bertuzzi’s first-star showing — he also flashed moments of fearlessness, blocking three shots — marked his first multi-goal regular-season game since Jan. 4, 2022 and the first birthday hat trick in Leafs history.

“It’s awesome,” Morgan Rielly said. “I think the puck luck kinda comes and goes, and he hasn’t let that affect him at all. He’s been playing great. He’s been a great teammate. So, to watch him have a great night here is awesome for our group.”

Added Ilya Samsonov: “Maybe it’s tough start to season for him, but it’s more important what he’s doing right now. He scored a lot of goals, and we so like it and so happy for him.”

Toronto’s offence has never been happier. 

The Leafs rank first league-wide in goals per game (3.68) and, with a perfect 2-for-2 effort Saturday, are headed in that direction with power-play percentage (29.3).

Colorado coach Jared Bednar says the Maple Leafs are playing their best hockey. That’s undeniable after a perfect 4-0 road trip, their first seven-game win streak since 2003(!), and the long-awaited spike in meaningful contributions from role players like Bertuzzi.

“Number one, they’re first in offence in the league in the last 10 games. And then you look at their defending numbers: I always feel like they don’t get enough credit for the way they defend and how hard they defend and their chance suppression,” Bednar said. 

“It’s been good now for a couple of years, and yet they still get beat up over it at times, I think, because they’re a really good offensive team. And, you know, there’s a lot of weapons on the team, but they’re committed to what they’re doing on the defensive side of it. They put the whole package together here, especially in the last 10 games. And they’re winning every night.”

Keefe sees growth on and off the ice, a team gelling and committing — to puck pursuit, to defensive structure, to outnumbering the opposition in key battles and rushes.

“We’re in sync right now, more so than we’ve been,” Keefe said. “I felt on this trip in particular that the group is really coming together closer than it’s been at any point in the season.

“Something that’s been a little understated is just how many different people were brought in, and then combine that with a number of players that we have that are in their first year in the league. So, we had expected to be a group that will get better as it moves along, and we’re in a good place here now. But as we know, the NHL is a very demanding and difficult place, and you just got to stay humble and keep working.”

Fox’s Fast Five

Cale Makar had never gone more than three consecutive games without a point — until this month. 

The perennial Norris contender snapped his career-worst seven-game point drought with an assist on Artturi Lehkonen’s opening power-play goal.

Bednar sensed a breakthrough coming.

“I don’t see a lot of differences in his game,” Bednar said pre-game. “It just looks like he’s fighting the puck a little bit. He’s still working hard. I think he’s still creating a bunch of good chances. It just takes one to go in for him, and I think he’ll be back. It’s not a lack of competitiveness or lack of work ethic for him, so he’ll get out of it.”

• Six wins in a row for Samsonov. That’s his longest streak as a Maple Leaf. What a reversal.

“I had some hard start to the season, too,” Samsonov said, unsmiling. “Just enjoy time right now. I don’t think about too much right now. Just focus on the next puck and next game.”

• On loan to the AHL Marlies for conditioning purposes, Joseph Woll stopped 36 of 37 shots faced in Friday’s 4-1 win over Laval. Not too shabby considering this was the goalie’s first action in 78 days.

“Sounds like he’s had a really good week and a good showing yesterday,” said Keefe, noting that Woll’s return to the Leafs is not imminent. 

That’s Brad Treliving’s call.

• The Leafs’ new goal song, “Dup Dup,” sounds strikingly similar to the Avalanche’s goal song.

• MacKinnon extended his home point streak to 28 games with a trio of primary assists. Wayne Gretzky (40 games) is the only player in history with a longer run in his own barn.

“Consistency,” Bednar says. “You look at what he’s done, especially in the home point streak, and just an impact player every night — no different than what Auston’s doing for them. It’s pretty incredible when you can play at a high level, and then you’re able to do it every night. Regardless of circumstances, energy level, you still find a way to help the team win and help produce offence. And still does a really nice job on the checking side of it.”