PHILADELPHIA — Behind the scenes and between the ears, Toronto Maple Leafs players and coaches have been wrestling for solutions to their sluggish starts.
Heading into Philadelphia Wednesday night, the club had yet to score first in any road game and had dug itself an early hole in nine out of their first 13 games.
How can a group that struck first in 34 of 56 games last season begin so many nights with its feet in the mud?
“It’s a $1-million question,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Coaches will beat yourself up over that — and sometimes players will, too — just trying to figure it out.”
In a venomous Philly barn, where the locals loudly chant “Sucks!” after the introduction of each member of the visitors’ starting lineup (Announcer: “Right wing Ondrej Kase.” Crowd: “…sucks!”) and boo their own power-play with lust, falling behind early again could’ve been a recipe for disaster.
“We can’t sit back,” challenged ex-Flyer Wayne Simmonds. “We can’t wait. I feel like we’ve probably done that a little bit too much this year, you know, the feeling-out process. And we don’t want that to be the makeup of our team. We want to go out there and jump on it right away.”
Although it would be difficult to argue that the Leafs jumped all over the Flyers, they more than held their own playing without the injured John Tavares (day to day, lower body) in a rather even if uneventful first period.
Then they drew first blood in the second.
William Nylander’s all-important deflection off his boot kickstarted the Leafs, who cruised to a 3-0 shutout — easily their most consistent and defensively sound effort away from home.
“I liked the intensity our team played with defensively in a game we knew was going to be low-event and hard to get much offence,” Keefe said. “It was a clean win for our team.”
The coach instructed his group that they needed to be comfortable locking things down and winning 1-0. Responsible defence led to opportunities to build the lead.
“Everybody took his words of wisdom to heart and came out and executed like we know we can. And we’re going to need that to continue to beat these really good teams,” Jack Campbell said, facing only five high-danger chances en route to his 36-save blank sheet.
“I didn’t have to do too much.”
Nylander pounced again in the third, wristing a puck clean past Carter Hart on the power-play off a buttery backhand feed from Nick Ritchie, promoted to the top PP unit in Tavares’s absence.
For Ritchie, it was just his second point as a Leaf.
For Nylander, he ties Tavares for the team lead in goals (seven) and Leon Draisaitl for the league lead in game-winners (four). He is rolling on a five-game point streak (4-3-7), has shot more pucks on net (56) than everyone not named Alex Ovechkin, and is now humming along at a 40-goal pace.
“Whew. Got some fire in his belly. He is moving out there and doing everything we could possibly ask,” said Campbell, noting Nylander’s effort on the backcheck to bust up the Flyers’ attack.
Nylander’s 14 takeaways rank him sixth in the category league-wide.
“When he’s going, he’s going, right? When he’s skating and moving his feet, he’s dangerous all over the ice. He reads the play well,” Auston Matthews added. “He’s been shooting the puck, I think, a little bit more, and it’s obviously been going in.”
Game-time decision Ondrej Kase played well despite battling an injury and added an insurance goal late in the third, benefitting from a nice hustle play by Alexander Kerfoot on the forecheck. Kase’s goal snapped a 16-goal run during which only the Core Four was finding the back of the net.
Toronto’s penalty kill was pristine (four for four), and Campbell, making his 12th appearance already, was stellar in a bounce-back effort.
But with a back-to-back looming this weekend (versus Calgary Friday and at Buffalo Saturday), Tavares’s health will join Campbell’s heavy workload among the Leafs’ challenges.
“Certainly gotta step up. I think everyone felt that. When your captain and one of your best players, leading scorer is out of the lineup, it’s a big ask for everybody. But also a great opportunity,” Campbell said.
“I just felt like everybody was in a zone, top to bottom. Doesn’t matter who it was, everybody did their job — and did it for 60 minutes. It’s great to see.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• You gotta feel happy for Tavares’s replacement, Kirill Semyonov. The undrafted 27-year-old moved his young family to Toronto from Omsk this summer to chase a long-deferred NHL dream. After producing nine points in nine games for the AHL Marlies, Semyonov’s dream came true Wednesday. He did not look out of place.
• With a grand total of one goal this season by Toronto defencemen (Jake Muzzin), Keefe has been investigating the dearth of blue line scoring.
“I’ve looked at a lot of the defence scoring around the league and a lot of it is activating offensively in the offensive zone; it’s on the rush. And our D are just as active if not more than most teams, yet that hasn’t produced the results that we want,” Keefe says. “It is a bit of an oddity.”
• Flyers defenceman Justin Braun registered seven blocked shots.
• Ritchie had some excellent chances and a game-high seven shots during his promotion to Mitch Marner’s line and to the top power-play unit. Offensively, this was easily his best showing, but he is still hunting for his first goal as Leaf.
“It’s not easy,” Ritchie concedes. “You want to score as many as you can, but it’s not that easy right now, and I got to get back to basics.”
Says Keefe: “We want to make sure we stay on top of him with just the urgency of the situation. It is not so much the fact that he hasn’t scored, but shift to shift, it’s bringing urgency and consistency in his play…. We expect a lot more, and we need to get a lot more out of him. Part of that is on him, and part of that is on us to help him get there.”
• Auston Matthews has raised nearly $58,000 for Movember. He has promised to shave off the moustache he’s been rocking since 2019 if that total reaches $134,000.
“It’s really important to me and a really big month,” Matthews said. “I try and have fun with it and raise awareness.
“I hope we reach the goal, though, because I want to see what it looks like without it.”
Hockey icon and facial hair connoisseur @AM34 is putting his muzzy on the line for #menshealth. If he reaches a fundraising goal of $134K in for #Movember: his moustache GOES.
The fate of his moustache lies in your hands. Donate today: https://t.co/7rZMCaOC1A pic.twitter.com/bXsvZ2hPKZ
— Movember Canada (@MovemberCA) October 28, 2021