Just in time for Christmas, Leafs fans received a long-awaited gift.
The return of Number 34. Who lifted his team to a Miracle (near) 34th Street.
Well okay, a 3-2 nail-biter over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden hardly qualifies as an unexpected, underdog result. Yet given the Leafs’ road struggles during the month of December, the result was a welcome one for the blue and white, who had entered Saturday’s action on a four-game losing streak away from home.
Ultimately the Leafs were boosted by the return of Matthews, who had missed six games with a concussion. Toronto had the opening goal of the game after controlling the puck in the Rangers’ end for more than sixty seconds of continuous puck possession. It was Matthews who finally came from behind the net to feed William Nylander waiting in the slot area, and Nylander fired home his seventh goal of the season, at 17:14 of the first period.
Ron Hainsey extended the Leafs’ lead on a second period power play, with a rocket of a point shot that beat Rangers’ netminder Henrik Lundqvist. The Blueshirts responded after a collective miscommunication between Jake Gardiner, Connor Carrick and Frederik Andersen resulted in a turnover behind the net from the Leafs goalie, on which Jimmy Vesey capitalized for the gift-wrapped goal.
Cue the Matthews magic.
Toronto extended its two-goal lead after Matthews was inexplicably left uncovered in front of the goal by the Rangers’ defence. Matthews received the puck, then deftly cradled it to his backhand and deposited into the net past a helpless Lundqvist for his 14th goal of the year.
The Rangers, not be outdone, continued to press the Leafs over the final twenty minutes and came within, literally, an inch of tying the game. J.T. Miller pulled New York to within a goal after beating Andersen through the five-hole on a broken play in the Leafs’ end.
Just 44 seconds later, ex-Leaf Michael Grabner appeared to score the equalizer, sending Madison Square Garden into pandemonium. But upon a challenge from Mike Babcock, the apparent goal was disallowed when video review confirmed that Kevin Hayes was offside on the play.
The teams played firewagon hockey over the final frame. Henrik Lundqvist denied both James van Riemsdyk and Patrick Marleau on consecutive breakaways. Despite the Rangers’ pursuit, they were unable to get the equalizer, sending their fans home with a lump of coal in their stocking.
Andersen made 30 saves for the win.
Video replay favoured each team exactly once during the game. Towards the end of the second period, Lundqvist appeared to be behind the goal line when he stopped a shot from Nazem Kadri. But much to the slumping Kadri’s chagrin (now pointless in ten straight games), no replay could conclusively find the puck past the red line.
“I felt fine,” Matthews said to reporters. “When you get the feel back for the puck and get involved early and kind of rolling around the zone, your confidence takes off from there and throughout the game.”
Indeed the superstar’s return to action resulted in two points under the Christmas tree, for the Leafs and their fans.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.