A week ago, after a wretched loss to an emergency backup goaltender, the Maple Leafs teetered on disaster. Riddle that they are, they have done something unexpected since then: win three in a row against tough opponents and secure their grip on a playoff position.
After Saturday night’s 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, Tyson Barrie said the embarrassing defeat by David Ayres and the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22 may have been the tipping point in the season.
“We are very proud people and didn’t get to where we are without being that way,” the Toronto defenceman said in front of his dressing stall at Scotiabank Arena. “When something like that happens, you want to crawl into a hole.
“The good thing is that there is always another game and another opportunity to turn things around. We came out and responded in a good way. After that, we came with two nice wins on the road and again tonight.”
The Maple Leafs shut down one of the league’s most potent offensive teams. They held the Canucks’ most dangerous players – Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Tyler Toffoli and Bo Horvat – to one point among them. After allowing two goals on the first three shots he saw, Frederik Andersen stopped the next 24 in his 28th victory of 2019-20.
Martin Marincin scored the game-winner, his annual goal of the season, and Toronto got others from Frederik Gauthier, Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman. The latter was an empty-netter in a sequence during which Hyman blocked a shot, dived in front of a Vancouver player to prevent another and then broke away after a fierce battle for the puck. “I would hate to play against Hyman,” his teammate, defenceman Travis Dermott, said. “He fore-checks hard and has a big impact for the time he is in there. He works until he is dead.”
The goal was the 45th for Matthews, who is two behind David Pastrnak of Boston for most in the league.
Marincin has scored only five times in six NHL seasons, but put Toronto ahead 3-2 only 18 seconds into the third period on a lovely wrist shot after a fancy toe drag and a break toward the net. It was his first goal since March 15 of last year. “You don’t see it often from [him], but when he brings it out, it’s usually a treat,” said Matthews, who has 31 goals in 33 home games.
Marincin logged 20 minutes 48 seconds of playing time – a season high for him – with the team filling defensive gaps caused by injuries to Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Cody Ceci. Marincin also blocked six shots and delivered three hits.
He received the game basketball the Maple Leafs hand out to the night’s top player, a gesture that began this season as a tribute to the Raptors.
“When he is called upon, he gives everything he has,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. Marincin has been shuttled back and forth between the AHL Marlies and the NHL club multiple times this season. “When you are bounced around, up and down and in and out, that takes a lot of heart.”
The Maple Leafs headed off on a California road trip on Sunday in third place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division. The Florida Panthers are a few points back in fourth. The first three teams in the division automatically advance to the postseason.
The Canucks players were angry and shouting expletives as they entered the visitors’ dressing room on Saturday night. The Maple Leafs, who play in San Jose on Tuesday, Los Angeles on Thursday and Anaheim on Friday, were giddy and whooping it up.
After winning tough games against Tampa Bay and Florida on the road, they put together another solid performance with the cast contributing. Barrie and Dermott each had two assists, John Tavares had an assist and went 15-11 in the faceoff circle, and Jason Spezza went 9-5. Nine players found the score sheet.
Keefe believes there is a connection between the way the team is playing now and the loss to Ayres a week earlier. The 42-year-old emergency goalie with a transplanted kidney saved eight of 10 shots while beating them.
"[It’s] a real shock to the system when you have a night like that,” Keefe said. “The connection is we got a wake-up call. When we ended on the road, we got the guys attention on the importance of getting your stuff together, responding well.
“It's going to be tough the rest of the way, all the way through, and we can't have any lapses.”
Toronto dressed six defencemen, including three who have spent time in the AHL this season.
Barrie, now the eldest statesman in the defensive corps, played a game-high 25:40. He has four assists in the three games since last Monday’s trade-deadline day. The team received inquiries about Barrie, whose contract expires at the end of the season.
“I think he has played well,” Keefe said of Barrie. “We have leaned on him a lot more because of our youth and inexperience.”
Barrie said he was anxious for the last two days before the deadline.
“You have to focus on what you can, but it can be tough,” he said.
On Monday, he noticed a missed call on his phone from Kyle Dubas and figured he had been dealt.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m out of here,’” he said. “’Where am I going?’”
Dubas was calling to tell him he was not being traded.
“Now, I wanted to see it through here and finish with these guys,” Barrie said. “We are fighting to get in.”