Winter’s first blush arrived in Toronto on Thursday. Residents woke up to fresh snow. Coats came out of the closet. Scarves, too. Real hockey weather. Finally.
Perhaps the nip in the air would prompt a spring in the step of the Maple Leafs. It did. A bit.
As games go, the skirmish at Scotiabank Arena was highly entertaining and tightly played. With the exception of one pummelling, Toronto has elevated its play against better opponents. But it still struggles to beat them. They won 2-1 in overtime on a goal by John Tavares in a victory that was both exhilarating and frustrating.
The Vegas Golden Knights are nettlesome to everyone. They are fast and relentless. They dig for pucks and rarely lose those battles. With them, there is no room for a breather.
They are not an easy mark, but they were also not at their strongest. They came to town bearing a gift. They left Marc-André Fleury, their spectacular goalie, on the bench. It is only the third time he has sat one out this season.
His backup, Malcolm Subban, started instead. He had yet to win a game this year. He is P.K.’s younger brother, and this is their hometown. It was the first time he had played an NHL game in Toronto.
Undoubtedly, he was inspired, but he should have been beatable. It should have been relatively easy. Instead, Malcolm, who entered the night with a 4.32 goals-against average, put on a show. He had 35 saves.
Max Pacioretty flipped a puck past Frederik Andersen to break a goalless tie with 15:52 left in the third period. Auston Matthews tied it with a wrist shot four minutes later. He scored on a power play, which has turned into an inexplicable struggle for a team that brims with so much talent.
Matthews’s 13th goal of the season came on Toronto’s sixth man-advantage of the evening. It was so lousy on the first five chances that boos swelled within the partisan faithful.
“We had some real good power plays where we got real good shots but didn’t score, and we had others that were hard to watch,” Mike Babock, the Maple Leafs coach, said.
The power-play woes are moving into epic territory. Toronto entered the game 9 for 52. After going 0 for 3 in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, it was 2 for the last 26. Matthews’ goal was only the Maple Leafs third with one more man on the ice in 10 games.
After they flubbed their first two opportunities, their exasperated radio play-by-play man Joe Bowen, told listeners: “That is nothing new.”
The goalies, Subban especially, were the story. Both were marvellous. Neither deserved to lose. Andersen had 37 saves, including three in the last five seconds of regulation. he has been playing so well that is not a surprise. That Subban had 35 is.
He said afterward that he was frustrated at being unable to outplay his Toronto counterpart.
“He played unreal,” Subban said.
He was up to the task from the start. He was tested early when Nicolas Hague, the Golden Knights’ 6-foot-6 defenceman, was flagged for interference 27 seconds into the game.
With the Maple Leafs on the power play, Subban gloved shots by Matthews and Alexander Kerfoot in rapid succession, and deflected another by Tyson Barrie. A Paul Stastny hooking penalty gave Toronto another advantage with 6:12 left before intermission. Subban continued to do what he had until that point, stopping two more shots by Matthews and batting away a wrist shot by Mitch Marner.
The Leafs peppered him with 13 shots in the first 20 minutes. This is third season with Vegas after being claimed off waivers from the Boston Bruins. He likely turned in the best performance of his career in his family’s back yard.
Toronto improved to 9-5-3 with the victory, its third straight. It has a chance for No. 4 at home on Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The victory was the 700th of Babcock’s NHL coaching career. He is 700-413-163 with 19 ties in 17 seasons for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Detroit Red Wings and Maple Leafs.
It came on a night where his team hung on and put away a quality opponent, and that is good. It is 4-1-1 over the last six. That’s great.
The Maple Leafs got caught with too many men on the ice with 1:21 left in regulation. It is the third time in 17 games.
“That one could have been a big deal,” Babcock said.
The power play is still rancid.
“A work in progress,” Babcock said.
Matthews’ goal with the man advantage was scored after Vegas called a timeout. As they waited on the bench, he told his players to relax: “Lighten up there, fellas, and breathe a little bit,” he said. “Then do what we have to do.”
“We’ve been in a lot of these games that haven’t been as fluid and pretty as they can be,” Tavares said. “We keep getting results and that is crucial. It is a long year.”