The Maple Leafs reached the halfway point of the season as well as, if not better than, could be expected. Through 28 games, their longest losing streak was three, their longest stretch without a win in regulation time stands at four.
Other than in doomsday Toronto, that is nothing much for concern. Most years, even the best teams lose four or five in a row and then find their way back to the right path.
The Maple Leafs enter Saturday’s home game against the Jets with a comfortable lead over Winnipeg and Edmonton in the seven-team all-Canadian North Division.
Despite battling a sore right wrist, Auston Matthews continues to hum along and rack up goals. He has had three in two previous games against the Jets this week, including a magnificent backhand in overtime on Thursday. It was his league-leading seventh game-winner, and he enters the weekend leading the NHL with 21 goals.
“He is a star, and that’s what stars do,” Sheldon Keefe said Friday. He was speaking specifically about Matthews’s most recent winner, but he just as easily could have been addressing his performance over all.
There are scant few things to quibble about with Toronto at this point. A potential one: Frederik Andersen has yet to put together a string of outstanding games in the net. He has accrued 13 victories but for the most part has been ho-hum. A case could be made that, at least recently, his backups, Jack Campbell and Michael Hutchinson, have been better.
That puts the Maple Leafs in an unenviable position because Andersen’s contract soon expires and he will likely command a higher salary next time around. Do they offer a 31-year-old who has struggled in postseason and been subpar in 2021 an expensive long-term deal? And if not, what are the other options?
For a team that is 19-7-2, however, that almost counts as a nitpick. Toronto has been good enough to stay ahead of the pack in its division and still has four games remaining with the Ottawa Senators. Two are next week.
If it can be said that the Maple Leafs are largely playing to form this year, that is also true of the Senators. They are last and far behind in the realigned North and such an easy mark that to play against them is nearly better than a day off. All opponents mostly need to do is show up and collect two points.
Ottawa is kind of in that place that Edmonton was for a few dark years: adding terrific young talent through friendly draft picks, but still unable to be consistently competitive. That will come at some point, but right now everyone who plays them throws down a welcome mat and dons party hats.
The Oilers started the season by winning just three of their first nine with Mikko Koskinen looking untrustworthy as goalie. The 6-foot-7 Finn still causes heartburn, but Edmonton has found an answer, at least temporarily, in Mike Smith. The 38-year-old was injured at the start, but has returned to win eight of 10 starts and is tied for the league’s fourth-best save percentage at .927.
The Oilers laid eggs in three consecutive games against Toronto last week, but rebounded to grind out a come-from-behind victory over Calgary on March 6. They have played twice since then, beaten the Senators both times and toyed with them in a 7-1 triumph on Wednesday. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are first and second in the NHL in scoring, with another chance to run up some points against Ottawa on Friday night.
“We were slow out of the gate but I like that fact that we have found ways to win,” Ken Holland, the Edmonton general manager, said Thursday. The Oilers have won 14 of the previous 19 pending Friday’s result. “We feel like we are trending in the right direction but I have been around the league a long time and know you can never get satisfied or complacent.
“We like that we are in the thick of things, but I still think it is going to be a photo finish in the division.”
Winnipeg has gone 7-2-1 over its past six games to climb within six points of Toronto. After winning the first game of the current three-game series, the Jets had a chance to get within two before the overtime loss on Thursday.
The Jets have a strong lineup and arguably the best goalie in the North Division in Connor Hellebuyck, and look poised to make things miserable for everyone else.
“Our confidence is high,” Mark Schiefele, Winnipeg’s star centre, said Friday. “We feel great. We are playing a 1-2 game on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday. There is nothing better than that.”
Calgary can be expected to rally around its new (and old) coach in Darryl Sutter. The Flames have been a bit of a disappointment, but are not so far behind that they are out of it yet.
After a fast start, Montreal has been mediocre and has started to fade. Another few losses could cause Travis Green his head coaching position in Vancouver. The Canucks have been a bust.
There is still half a season left and there will undoubtedly be some juggling within the division. Toronto does not have first place locked up, but could not have achieved much more.
“We are in a good spot, but there are a lot of things we have to do to get better,” Keefe said. “The division is what is important, and we are focused on that only. I like the success we’ve had, but a lot of teams are in the fight. There is not a lot of distance between us.”