As Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving, the Maple Leafs delivered to their legion of fans a performance to be grateful for.
Auston Matthews fired home the game-winning goal at 3:43 of overtime to give Toronto a 4-3 comeback win on a holiday Monday night. It was the third win in a row to start the Leafs’ season.
The Blue and White had a rather mundane beginning to the game, surrendering the first two goals and carrying its first deficit in a game all season. Jan Rutta and Jonathan Toews put Chicago up 2-0 before the game was eight minutes old.
Nikita Zaitsev finally got the Leafs on the board in the second period. A crafty cross-ice pass by Connor Brown found its way to the Toronto defender, who netted his second goal of the year. Calle Rosen drew the secondary assist on the play for his first NHL point.
Chicago extended its lead to 3-1 on a power play after Andreas Borgman was called for interference, crushing Alex DeBrincat into the boards on a hit that 19,456 armchair critics at Air Canada Centre deemed to be legal. On the ensuing man advantage, Gustav Forsling fired a point shot into the Toronto zone that caromed off the end boards right on to the stick of Richard Panik. The former Leaf made no mistake in depositing the puck into the gaping net for what appeard to be the insurance goal.
But Mike Babcock’s squad wasn’t quite willing to put up a turkey of a game in front of the home fans. (sorry!)
Brown cued the comeback with a wrist shot from the slot area that eluded Blackhawks goalie Anton Forsberg to get the Leafs to within a goal.
Then with under six minutes to go in regulation, Rutta was called for slashing; Chicago’s fourth slashing minor on a night that both teams combined for eight such infractions. The Leafs capitalized on the opportunity. Tyler Bozak’s shot from the left wing boards hit James van Riemsdyk’s foot and behind Forsberg for the equalizer.
Overtime was nothing short of spectacular. Chicago iced a formidable trio of Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to begin the extra session. But the Leafs weren’t intimidated. Matthews, together with William Nylander, generated their share of scoring chances prior to the game-winner. Matthews burst into the Hawks’ zone down the right wing and roofed the puck over Forsberg’s glove.
“I thought we showed a lot of poise and we were able to crawl back into it and win it in overtime so it’s exactly the start we wanted,” Matthews said after the game.
With optimism abound in Leafs Nation, the youthful talent-laden hockey club is drawing inevitable comparisons to the version of the Blackhawks from eight years ago, a Windy City squad that was on the verge of a dynasty during which they went on to win three Stanley Cups in six seasons.
“They’ve got a lot of great pieces,” Chicago coach Quenneville said of the Leafs. “They’ve got some speed off the rush, that’s what you have to give them credit for.
It’s premature to label Monday’s game as an official changing of the guard.
But at the very least, the Leafs are showing that they can skate alongside the league’s contenders.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.