It had looked like a horrible mismatch right off the opening faceoff.
Three Toronto Maple Leafs forwards with a combined four goals in the season lined up against Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, one of the top lines in the league having produced 41 goals for the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks.
But, this time, they were shut out.
And Toronto’s long-awaited scoring depth finally arrived, in Game 34.
The Leafs routed the defending Stanley Cup champs on Saturday night in their most impressive outing of the year, getting goals from throughout the lineup as part of a dominant 7-3 victory no one would have predicted beforehand.
Chicago’s two young goalies struggled, but Toronto had carried the play, putting in a solid effort and shutting down one of the deepest offences in the league.
The result was completely unexpected for a team that had laboured through an ugly 19-game stretch coming in. They had won just six games in that span – and two of their last 10 – and were routed two nights earlier in St. Louis in what was likely their worst performance of the season.
That led to Leafs coach Randy Carlyle calling out his team as “brain dead” and then radically shuffling his lineup for Chicago. He finally gave veteran defencemen Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger a well-deserved timeout in the press box, promoted Jerry D’Amigo to a new-look checking line and moved Peter Holland into a plum role centring Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond.
Holland responded with two goals, and his linemates both had four-point nights.
D’Amigo, meanwhile, scored the first goal of his NHL career while getting key minutes with Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin, two snake-bitten veterans who have shown life of late.
And the Leafs blueline – with all three of John-Michael Liles, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly in the lineup for the first time – was far more composed, moving the puck efficiently and sparking an offensive game that allowed Toronto to outshoot Chicago 32-28.
“We came into the game feeling like it was pretty close to a must win for us,” Lupul said afterward. “Things were starting to snowball the other way.”
“Off our performance in St. Louis, we could not have anything close to that again,” Carlyle said. “They weren’t very proud of our performance.”
It was the Toronto’s first win over the Blackhawks since February of 2003, a span during which Chicago has become one of the NHL’s most dominant teams and won two championships (2010 and 2013).
They looked little like a franchise with that pedigree on this night, especially in goal, where their two regulars are out with injuries. Rookie netminder Antti Raanta allowed five goals on 25 shots in the first two periods and fourth stringer Kent Simpson – in his first NHL appearance – was victimized for two quick goals in relief duty in the final 20 minutes.
Getting saves has been one of the few problems for the Blackhawks this season, and Toronto’s advantage there showed yet again.
“Chicago’s goalies had a rough night,” Carlyle said. “And you have to take advantage of that when it comes your way.”
But the story was ultimately the Leafs roster more than anything else, and one of the key reasons Carlyle’s changes worked is he simply trusted some of the youngsters more.
Holland played a career high with more than 19 minutes and nearly had a hat trick but for a late breakaway gone wrong. (“It was going through my head, let’s put it that way,” Holland said. “I don’t know what happened, but I missed the net. I’m pretty sure my buddies will be giving it to me about not scoring that one.”)
D’Amigo was dealt just under 14 minutes but many of them were against the Blackhawks superstars, a huge upgrade of an assignment given he had averaged less than six minutes a game in his first five in a Leafs uniform.
There were positives on the blueline, too, as Jake Gardiner logged more than 26 minutes to lead the team and Toronto outshot Chicago 18-9 in those minutes (including 13-6 at even strength). Rielly also picked up plenty of time on a second power play unit that was particularly effective early in the game and continues to contribute badly needed offence.
Combined with Kadri – who had more than 18 minutes as part of a relatively quiet first line – those are the five youngest players on the Leafs roster at the moment and they’re all also among their top possession players this season.
It shouldn’t come as a shock, in other words, that with them all taking on bigger roles, the Leafs were better with the puck.
What the win means to Toronto’s season at this point is hard to say. Thursday’s loss to the Blues was sandwiched between two of the Leafs better efforts of the season, but any confidence built on Saturday could also easily be shattered with another tough game against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.
The Leafs schedule finally eases up a little after that game, but their recent slump has been deep enough that even after this convincing a win over Chicago, no one involved was proclaiming it was over.
It was, after all, only their third win in regulation in the last 20 games, a stretch that nearly completely undid a 10-4-0 start.
“We want to build,” Lupul said. “It’s not like it gets much easier. We’re flying to Pittsburgh in the morning so we’d love to celebrate this one but you get some rest and then it’s off to Pittsburgh to play another very good team in their building. It doesn’t get any easier. But certainly winning a game against the top team in the league gives you a little bit of confidence. Hopefully we can run with it.”
“We don’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Carlyle said. “Because we’ve got another good team coming.”
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