Reaves-Rempe fight ignites Maple Leafs in showdown of heavyweight contenders

William Nylander scored to push his point streak to 10 games, Ilya Samsonov made 32 saves including some huge stops down the stretch and Max Domi potted the shootout winner on his birthday as the Toronto Maple Leafs edged the New York Rangers 4-3.

TORONTO — They came for a fight, and a hockey game broke out.

Saturday night. Centre of the universe. And the Toronto air was muggy with expectation.

As the city’s hockey-literate fans filed into Scotiabank Arena early for warmups, all eyes were fixed on New York Rangers rookie Matt Rempe and Maple Leafs bulldog Ryan Reaves.

The oohs and ahhs with every heavy hit, each fourth-line shift, and particularly Reaves’ vocal jabs at Rempe had the barn frothing for a heavyweight tilt that seemed prewritten.

Will they drop ’em? If so, who’d win? 

Would it be the six-foot-eight cowboy trying to pummel the hockey world into overnight submission? Or the calm, cool Mufasa of a jungle no longer populated with so many predators?

Is it possible to give a man a third black eye?

And while it took more than 54 minutes of maybe!… nah, maybe not, and it took the Maple Leafs’ first trade acquisition walking down the tunnel in pain, Reaves and Rempe gave the people what they came for.

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“Our fans were fantastic tonight,” captain John Tavares said, following an entertaining 4-3 shootout victory over a legit contender. “Everyone was itching for it. So, credit to both those guys. 

“You know, I don’t know how anyone would ever want to drop ’em with Reavo. So, great job by him.

“I think it was exciting for everyone. And a little throwback there with how that went down.”

Centre ice. Rempe’s Mister Fantastic reach versus Reaves’ granite reputation. Blow for blow. Show for show.

It’s entertainment. It’s business. It’s dangerous. It’s a sideshow. 

It gets the people going.

“Unbelievable,” Max Domi said. “You see the crowd was extra amped up tonight for a huge event like that. Both of them, they left it all out there. Respect to that kid. He’s a tough dude. And Reavo’s the toughest dude in the league. So, for him to hang in there like that, all the credit to him. But Ryan, it was great to see and I’m super happy for him. He was a huge part of that win tonight.”

Reaves had a reason for tangling with Rempe, though. The rookie delivered a violent hit to Leafs defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin, inspiring the fireworks.

Thing is, with all due respect to Rodney Dangerfield, Saturday’s spectacle was much more than Fight Night in Canada

Leafs-Rangers was a heckuva hockey game and, fingers crossed, a potential post-season teaser, for two of the hottest teams in the East delivered big-time goals, hits and saves. 

The type of back-and-forth, tight-checking contest that gets fans salivating in April, even without the torch-passing five-minute majors.

“You could almost say it’s bit of a playoff preview. Both teams are playing heavy, playing skilled, playing hard to win,” Bobby McMann said.

The chatter in the Maple Leafs room during the second intermission was that this was precisely the type of earn-your-chances hockey that will prepare them for spring. (And for next week’s home-and-home with the rival Boston Bruins, for that matter.)

The Metropolitan-leading Rangers were a refreshing test, considering the number of low-octane games on the schedule.

“Tough hockey game,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, careful not to make too much joy out of a decision decided by a skills contest.

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And a great result for Keefe’s Leafs, who persevered through scores of 1-1, 2-2, and 3-3, when neither side’s power play could break through.

Toronto grinded out an even-strength goal from star players on each of its top three lines (Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares), received clutch saves from Ilya Samsonov, and appeared more defensively sound with the return of a healthy Calle Järnkrok.

The Maple Leafs have now won nine of their past 10 heading into trade deadline week.

“We played together. We stay hard fighting,” Samsonov enthused. “You know, I think it’s really interesting game for fans, for everybody.”

As a cherry on top of this delicious night for the home fans, it was Domi, son of this town’s most frequent fighter, who deposited the shootout winner — on his 29th birthday no less.

“Get the two points. It’s the best birthday present you can ask for,” Domi said, flashing his trademark tooth-deprived smiled.

“Big win.”

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Fox’s Fast Five

• Touching down at 11 p.m. Friday night from California, Lyubushkin figures he only got five or six hours of sleep before his re-debut with the Maple Leafs.

“Super excited to join this team because I know this organization, know these guys. It’s unbelievable,” Lyubushkin beamed pre-game. 

“I feel like it’s a big family here.”

Lyubushkin, who has been dealt three times in just over two years, was not surprised by the move. He’ll be counted on to stuff cycles, kill penalties, deliver hits, and play security blanket during partner Morgan Rielly’s rushes.

“It gives a good Boosh to the group,” said Rielly, wryly. “He’s a big, strong guy who plays well defensively. He’s physical. He was one of those guys that you like being around. He’s competitive. He puts the team first with how he plays and how he acts. He’s just one of those guys you like having on your team.”

Not two full periods into his second Leafs tenure, Lyubushkin departed with a head injury after receiving this hard check from Rempe:

Lyubushkin was hanging around the dressing room post-game and had quiet chats with Treliving and Samsonov. 

“I asked him after the game,” Samsonov relayed. “Yeah, he’s a little bit hurt. But I think he’s good. He’s good right now, and he’ll have time for recovery a little bit.”

Regardless, Keefe took issue with Rempe’s check: “Comes a long way. Leaves his feet. Hits him in the head. Injury.”

• Keefe sat Nylander for the final 8:27 of the first period after seeing his star winger give a soft, fly-by stick check on Adam Fox and drift out of the D-zone. Fox then fed Alexis Lafreniere (Nylander’s man) in the high slot.

Lafreniere had enough time to make a sandwich and load up a wrister that beat Samsonov clean for the opening goal.

“Mistakes are gonna happen, and it starts with the puck on my stick on that goal, actually. I wasn’t able to clear it,” Domi said, defending his linemate. “I’ll take that one on the chin.”

Mini benching served, Nylander returned reenergized in the second and tied the contest with his 33rd goal of the season. 

“Loved how he responded,” Keefe said, before turning his attention to the mistake. 

“Willy knows what we need from him in that moment. I’ve worked with him a long time. I met with that line yesterday, [talked about] some very specific things. That wasn’t it.”

• Rangers coach Peter Laviolette, asked at morning skate how to contain Auston Matthews: “We were hoping he had the flu.”

• Of the dozen or so NHL games I’ve seen Lafreniere play live, this was easily his best.

Three primary points on the night to tie his career high for a season (39). 

The patience may be paying off.

• Nick Robertson must be wondering where — or if — he fits on Toronto’s roster.

With Lyubushkin acquired, Järnkrok activated off IR, and Treliving worried about waiving a goaltender, the waivers-exempt winger was demoted to the Marlies Saturday.

Robertson has already posted career highs in games played (41), goals (eight) and points (19) this season, but he is not one of the coach’s top 12 (13?) forwards right now when everyone is healthy.

One wonders: Could he be traded? Is there a market for him? Or will Robertson return inspired?

“A lot of the best hockey he’s played for us is when he has come in and out of our lineup. He’s given us a boost,” Keefe said. 

“He’s got energy and adrenalin and all those things. That’s when he plays at his best. His opportunity will come back around, and he’ll do the same thing for us.”

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