Auston Matthews unlocks a very safe, defensive game for Maple Leafs

Auston Matthews scored twice as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1.

TORONTO — The old coach described it as “a tightening.”

The new one termed it “a recalibration.”

We’ll call it necessary.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs leaking dangerous odd-man rushes, and all those costly turnovers culminating in their first three-game losing skid since pumpkin-carving season, there has been a crackdown inside club walls.

A hammered message that has dominated team meetings, trickled onto the players’ individual iPads and into their brains:

Stop surrendering Grade-A chances.

Let’s sacrifice offence for defence.

Give our struggling goaltenders some help.

“My focus is on how we play as a team,” coach Sheldon Keefe said Thursday, when asked about Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek’s concerning save stats.

“We need to do a good job of protecting our goaltenders. We haven’t defended well enough as a team of late. We’ve exposed our goaltenders too much to great chances against, and that’s affected them.”

Well, the Leafs’ recent rash of losing — and the sudden absence of hardnosed defender Jake Muzzin (concussion) — has at the very least caused Toronto to heed the directive.

Few scoring chances of consequence were surrendered either way in Thursday’s patient, controlled and skid-snuffing 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at Scotiabank Arena.

Two of the four most prolific offences in the NHL combined for 11 shots and no goals in a sleepy first frame.

“We got a sense of it pretty early on,” Auston Matthews said. “I remember looking up at the shot zone, and it was like 0-3 halfway through the first.”

It was the style of win that would look more beautiful on an Excel spreadsheet than a painter’s canvas.

“A very low-event hockey game. Not the most exciting game, for sure. And our guys, I thought, just stayed committed to it,” said Keefe, proud. “We’ve been challenging our guys to be more committed defensively…. So the fact that we stayed disciplined in this type of game, where there’s not a lot happening offensively, is really good for our group.”

A zippy Matt Boldy feed from behind the net resulted in a Frederik Gaudreau strike that opened the scoring for the Wild in the second.

Then Matthews started doing what Matthews does.

The Leafs top centre responded 27 seconds later off the rush, sniping from distance and through defender Dmitry Kulikov’s legs. 

“Special player, special shot,” Mrazek said. “You never know where it’s going.

“He’s patient. He’s waiting for what the goalie does first, and then he’s trying to hit the spot.”

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As both sides bided time for their opponent to make a mistake, Matthews pounced again, hounding Brandon Duhaime on the backcheck, earning one of his game-high six(!) takeaways, then converting a perfect give-and-go with Mitch Marner in transition.

Matthews supplied the type of 200-foot performance that will only further entrench his name in the Hart Trophy conversation.

“Without a doubt,” Keefe agreed. “There’s not a whole lot happening; our team is playing a good team game. You need somebody to make a play. You need a game-breaker. The first goal that he scores, there’s a very small number of players in the league that are going to score a goal like that. And the second goal is completely earned. It’s completely effort-based.

“He finds a way to come through with huge goals at big times.”

Matthews’ 36th of the season leapfrogged him over Edmonton’s Leon Draisiatl (35) for tops in the Rocket Richard Trophy race.

So, how frequently does the defending champ sneak a peek at the leaderboard?

“Not really often, to be honest. I try to keep my mind off that stuff and just take it day by day, focus on the games,” Matthews replied.

And then: “I know what I’m capable of, and I just try to bring it every night.”

A solid Mrazek withstood the Wild’s late push, and Alexander Kerfoot tacked on some empty-net insurance with 41 seconds remaining.

Yes, it was the type of safe, positionally sound hockey that thrills coaches and threatens to bore fans.

Make no mistake. Just as the Maple Leafs were wary of opening themselves to Minnesota’s transition game, the reverse was equally true.

“You better be sharp,” Wild GM Bill Guerin had warned on Real Kyper & Bourne. “They’re just too high-powered for you to be loose.”

Hence, the tightening.

High discipline. Low fun. And an MVP performance by a trophy hunter.

Maybe this was just the recalibration Toronto needs as it tries to gain some footing and emerge from its February doldrums.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Michael Bunting has drawn more penalties this season (32) than everyone not named Connor McDavid.

The winger was issued a warning for diving during Nov. 16’s game against the Predators, then dinged with a $2,000 embellishment fine Thursday for this incident against the Penguins last week:

“I try to play my game and play hard. And if I draw penalties, I draw penalties — but it’s not something that I go into every game thinking, ‘I have to draw penalties tonight,'” Bunting said last month. “If I’m able to draw a penalty and we go on the power-play, obviously that helps the team.”

We asked Bunting if he’d ever been warned by an official for riding that fine line.

“No, I’ve never been warned by a ref for embellishment. And I try not to embellish,” he replied. “I don’t want to embellish out there because, obviously, that’s a penalty as well — if I dive or something. So that’s not something I try to do out there.”

Travis Dermott has had a difficult time earning Keefe’s trust, to say the least. So, it was refreshing to hear the coach acknowledge Dermott’s recent three-game stretch has been some of his best hockey yet.

• In the span of an hour, Chris Chelios lost his defenceman games played record to Zdeno Chara and gained the attention of Leafs Nation:

Rasmus Sandin has been hitting it off with his new defence partner, “the Russian bear” Ilya Lyubushkin.

“First period last game, he showed his physical qualities and bear qualities,” smiled Sandin. “But outside [the ice], he’s a nice bear. He’s not afraid to chat about anything. He’s a very soft bear.” 

• From the gospel-flavoured anthems to the Jumbotron history lessons, from the Val James puck drop to all the members of the Maple Leafs wearing “Celebrating Black Excellence” T-shirts, the club’s honouring of Black History Month was well done Thursday.

John Tavares spoke about the positive black influence on a predominantly white sport and how, despite signs of growth, there is much more work necessary to make hockey a more accepting sport.

“Myself or any white players, it’s important to show our support,” Tavares said. “To speak out and just let them know we’re there to help and do what we can to learn and understand and be better and make our game as inclusive and as welcoming as possible.”

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