‘We can play with anyone’: Maple Leafs’ depth shining in season-best win streak

Max Domi scored a pair of goals and Auston Matthews potted his 10th in his last five games as the Toronto Maple Leafs cruised to a 7-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.

LAS VEGAS — Jake McCabe was thinking about it Thursday in sunny Las Vegas, in the middle of back-to-back jacks, sometime between wins five and six of the best and most consistent stretch of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey all winter.

When did things click?

What allowed a group so often praised or ripped for its top heaviness to find a little balance and a lot of buy-in? To reel off a six-pack of convincing wins by a cumulative score of 34-14?

To fight through fatigue and stomp the Vegas Golden Knights 7-3 Thursday in their own bass-boosted barn and leap over the reigning Stanley Cup champions to enter the NHL’s top 10 in points percentage (.636)?

McCabe pointed to Feb. 13’s home date against the St. Louis Blues, the first game of Morgan Rielly’s suspension, when core forwards Mitch Marner and John Tavares came down ill, and the supporting cast was suddenly called upon to read lines intended for the leads.

McCabe thought of Bobby McMann’s hat trick that evening, but the effort and purpose spread well beyond the actions of one unlikely hero. It was all hands on deck.

“We played such a simple and north and heavy game. And fast. Got in on the forecheck. And we’ve kind of continued that here through this stretch,” McCabe said inside T-Mobile Arena, after slapping his sixth goal of the season, a career best.

“Building an identity and building confidence within that structure has been really important for us, and it’s paying dividends for us.”

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So, even as the big guns returned to health, and as Rielly now returns from his ban, that ethos of rolling lines, taking care of leads and spreading some minutes to the short-term mercenaries has had a wonderful effect in terms of bonding a bench that, through an inconsistent first half, felt disjointed at best. Destined for disaster at worst.

To that point, coach Sheldon Keefe is recognizing the positive momentum fostered recently by spreading his talent.

Rielly and T.J. Brodie are on different pairs.

Tavares and William Nylander are on different lines.

Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Timothy Liljegren have all been rewarded recently with cameos on the top power-play unit, a privilege previously exclusive to the Core Five.

Extra ice time for the non-stars has led to shared cookies has led to buoyancy for the guys making something less than eight figures.

“It’s great. I mean, it just provides confidence for everybody, each individual, when a lot of guys are playing,” McCabe explained.

“Obviously our stars are confident in their game, but confidence can be fleeting in this league. And when everyone’s playing with confidence, like we are currently, it’s a scary thing. And we just gotta keep it rolling here.”

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In Thursday’s quick-start defeat of admittedly shorthanded Golden Knights, the Maple Leafs jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first period and chased starter Adin Hill by dousing the home net with 23 shots from the blades of 12 different skaters. None of which belonged to Auston Matthews.

And while Matthews would convert the touchdown late, notching goal No. 52 with a deft tip during a net drive, his first point didn’t arrive until McCabe, Tavares, David Kämpf, Max Domi (twice) and Pontus Hölmberg all lit the lamp. All at even strength.

Thirteen Leafs finished with points.

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Keefe’s tweak of having Domi centre the second line with Nylander and Bertuzzi and dropping Tavares to face softer matchups with McMann and Nick Robertson is paying off for all involved.

Domi scored twice in Vegas. He’s been engaged physically and offensively all week.

“When he’s skating and competing at that level, he can play against anybody in the league,” Keefe praised.

There is a snowball effect to involving Toronto’s depth instead of shielding it. The coach’s trust — which was admittedly limited as recently as mid-January — is branching out.

Makes sense, no? Feel valued, try harder.

Sure, Matthews is leading the charge with his historic scoring, but the Leafs are averaging a silly 5.67 goals per game during this heater. They’re more than a one-man show.

“[Vegas], probably more so than any in the league, makes it hard to get to their net. So we had to really be committed to get into that space, and I thought we did a really good job of it,” Keefe said. “Every single line did a really good job, our defence contributed, just getting to the net and stressing the goaltender.”

The ripple effect of the team playing better is that its performance could force GM Brad Treliving further into a buyer’s mindset.

“Well, I think we believe in the depth and the type of group we’ve had all year,” Tavares said. “Obviously, we got some pretty special players that are heavy catalysts and can produce on a nightly basis. But, no doubt, when you get contributions throughout the lineup … it goes a long way.”

No one enjoys riding coattails. We all wish to be part of the ensemble.

“Everyone was good tonight. We had contributions from everyone,” Domi said.

“When we have everyone going like that, we’re a tough team to beat. We can play with anyone. Four lines going short and hard. And everyone’s sticking to the game plan: keeping it simple, staying disciplined, not taking penalties. When we do that, we just come at teams in waves — and that’s the Stanley Cup champions. I mean, they might not have had their best tonight, but I’m sure they’d say that we’re a tough team to play against.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• Careful not to disrupt the in-sync pairs discovered during Rielly’s suspension, Keefe deployed the returning Rielly and William Lagesson together, keeping Brodie on his natural left side with a rising Liljegren.

Brodie has been a remarkable plus-14 over his past seven games, looking way more comfortable breaking out on his strong side.

“It just simplifies it,” Brodie said. “Neutral zone is a huge positive. You’re on your forehand. You can make the cross-ice pass a little easier, and it’s easier to see the ice.” 

• When McMann anticipated being a healthy scratch that night he ended up scoring a hat trick and jump-starting his best stretch as an NHLer, he refused to sulk.

Instead, he hit the ice for a two-hour practice session. He worked on carrying the puck backhanded. He peppered pucks to improve his quick release. He took the demotion as a wake-up call.

Now, the late bloomer is noticeable nightly in the top nine. Since the threat of a scratch, he has nine points and a plus-9 rating over six games.

“I think I can be a consistent contributor, and I’ve always thought that,” McCann said. “You kinda have to earn your way, too. You can’t just assume it’s going to happen. I think I’ve been earning it more and more.”

McMann is one of a handful of Leafs forwards auditioning to stick in the top nine once Calle Järnkrok (broken knuckle) returns.

Keefe said: “I would put Bobby at the top of the list of guys who’ve taken advantage of the additional time.”

• Vegas fancies itself a threat to repeat but has been a middle-of-the-pack offensive squad this season.

That Mark Stone (week to week; upper-body) and Jack Eichel (LTIR; knee) are sidelined with significant injuries doesn’t help.

GM Kelly McCrimmon seldom shies from the bold move.

I wonder if he turns to ol’ trade partner Pittsburgh and considers a pitch for Jake Guentzel or possibly a Reilly Smith reunion.

• Marner’s six consecutive multi-assist games is a club record.

• Rocket, Hart, Ted Lindsay: Matthews will be in contention for them all. Like it’s 2022 all over again.

McCabe wants to add another: “He should be in the Selke conversation too, frankly. I mean, the guy’s stick is unbelievable. He’s super responsible defensively. We go back for pucks, and he’s always there for an out. He plays a complete 200-foot game that definitely gets overshadowed with the goal-scoring. But him and Mitch, frankly, don’t get enough credit defensively.”

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