Maple Leafs attempting to out-sprint competition with condensed schedule

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, right, celebrates his goal with teammate Jason Spezza during third period NHL hockey action against the Calgary Flames in Calgary, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Heavy hearts inside the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Heavy legs in all four corners of the dressing room.

It was a sombre Sunday with news of George Armstrong’s death and a quirky 2 p.m. game to be played under conditions that screamed “schedule loss.” The Leafs landed in Calgary some 20 hours before puck drop and hadn’t had a chance to come up for air since training camp began three weeks ago. The Flames hadn’t played in six days.

“It was our seventh game in 12 days and travelling out here and then having to play a 2 o’clock game, it’s a tough ask. And then you’re playing against a rested team,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “This one we felt would not be pretty.”

The only beauty to be found in a 3-2 victory was the two points it added to their total in the North Division standings and the strong play of backup goalie Jack Campbell, who continues to build a case for giving Frederik Andersen more nights of rest.

But what was even more telling than the game itself was the way Keefe, in particular, approached the circumstances of the day.

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He broke from tradition in the typical pre-game meeting to honour Armstrong rather than focusing on finer points of the Flames attack or details of defensive emphasis. Keefe is 40 and never came close to seeing the man known as “Chief” play. Many of his players are a generation younger than that and may not have even realized that Armstrong spent 75 years with the organization, captaining the Leafs during their last Stanley Cup win in 1967 but also serving as a coach, assistant general manager, scout and community ambassador.

The message that came with a video about Armstrong’s life is telling about the mindset of the club in the here and now.

“What we talked about is just how efforts like [those from Armstrong] back in the 60’s in particular — the last time the Leafs won the Cup — that’s the reason why Leaf Nation is as strong as it is,” said Keefe. “That’s why generations of families grow up as Leaf fans, because of those efforts, and we have a role to play to continue to build upon that.”

There was nothing scripted about the way Auston Matthews paid tribute to Armstrong in his post-game availability with reporters. He actually interrupted a member of the team’s public relations staff running the Zoom call to make sure he could get in a few words before the questions started.

“First off, I just want to extend my condolences to the Armstrong family,” said Matthews. “Obviously George was an incredible ambassador for the city of Toronto and the Maple Leafs. He paved the way for guys like us that are obviously trying to accomplish something big here.”

This is not a group hiding from its aspirations.

When it was revealed recently that their season is being documented by behind-the-scenes cameras for an upcoming series on Amazon Prime, a couple players mentioned that they welcomed it because of where they expect to go.

Keefe is pushing hard, too.

The Leafs expect to have a great regular season and are putting the pedal down during this 5-2-0 start. Under different circumstances, Matthews may have been given another precautionary game off after sitting out Friday’s win over Edmonton because of a hand injury and not having skated with any purpose since Wednesday.

Instead he logged 21:42 against the Flames despite both he and the coach acknowledging that he was missing some explosiveness in his stride.

“I think that first period I just tried to get my legs going and then I kind of felt a little bit better towards the second half of the game,” said Matthews.

A trend is developing here. No NHL forward is averaging more minutes than Mitch Marner (24:03) so far and beyond that only Anze Kopitar (23:52) and Mark Scheifele (23:32) are getting more playing time than Matthews (23:07).

With a Cup on their minds and a compacted 56-game schedule inside their agendas, the Leafs are attempting to sprint ahead of the competition.

They needed some good bounces to beat Calgary on Sunday, seeing all three pucks that got behind Jacob Markstrom go in off a piece of equipment other than a stick. Campbell took care of the rest with 31 saves.

“Soup was an absolute rockstar for us,” said Matthews.

The Leafs have now beaten every team in the division except Vancouver and won’t see the struggling Canucks for the first time until Feb. 4. Given the binary nature of results in a season featuring only intra-division play, that’s a fantastic start.

There are process-related objectives they’ll need to improve upon, including finding ways to more consistently generate quality chances from their time in the offensive zone and ideally creating a mix on the fourth line that can be trusted to play.

But you won’t find them chopping apart their victories right now, particularly with the challenging pace of the schedule.

Results are what matter when your goal is to hang another banner beside the one Armstrong and Co. put up 54 years ago. The standard needs to be set high. That’s why Keefe made sure not to allow Armstrong’s death to pass without special mention on Sunday afternoon.

“When you’re in this every single day, you’re in the moment, you’re taking care of what you can control,” he said. “I do think it’s important to stop and pause every now and again just to look at the bigger picture and recognize that what we’re doing here every day is for a greater purpose beyond ourselves.

“And we have a role to play within how we prepare and how we play and people like George showed the way.”

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