It was a night the Toronto Maple Leafs finally showed the home fans the kind of game they have mostly saved for the road this season.
The Maple Leafs rolled over the New Jersey Devils by a 6-1 margin, their third win in a row, one that evened their home record to .500 (5-5-0), compared to their perfect 6-0-0 road mark. They had their high-powered offence tuned to perfection and picked a good night to show it off.
This was the annual Hockey Hall of Fame game, where this year’s group of inductees are saluted before the opening faceoff. Among the illustrious group was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Of course he knew the question of getting booed by the Leafs fans would come up. So the commissioner brought it up himself at the afternoon press conference following the presentation of the rings ceremony at the Hall of Fame.
“Perhaps the reaction I get from large groups will be a little different than what I’m used to,” he said. “That would be overwhelming.”
Naturally, Bettman said that with more than a little of his tongue in his cheek. No one has to tell him booing Bettman is a thing with hockey crowds – he famously said he knew Las Vegas was a hockey town when he got booed in his first appearance at a game in Sin City.
Sure enough, the boos came down when he was introduced along with the rest of the hockey aristocracy – Willie O’Ree, who joined Bettman in the builder’s category for his work with the NHL’s diversity program and for breaking the colour barrier in the league in 1958 when he was a player, and former players Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis, Jayna Hefford and Alexander Yakushev. Bettman played along, cocking his ear at the crowd.
Then the Maple Leafs decided to put on a show for the hockey big wigs and everyone else. They came with their skating legs from the start and by the end of the second period turned the Devils into road kill with a 5-1 lead. The visitors simply could not keep up to the speedy Leafs and were outclassed through most of the night, save for a time in the second period when they caught the hosts in a sloppy stretch of defensive hockey.
Travis Zajac scored to spoil Leafs goaltender Frederik Anderson’s bid for a shutout. Andersen was once again outstanding when the Leafs needed him, stopping 38 shots. Thirty-two of them came in the last two periods, although by the third period the Leafs were running in cruise control.
It was the cruising part that probably prompted Leafs head coach Mike Babcock to almost downplay the win.
“I don't think our last couple [games] were any better than when we lost to Dallas or lost to Pittsburgh,” he said. “To be honest with you, we probably played better in those games. The puck went in and that's what happens sometimes.
“You know, at home when it doesn't go your way and you think it should, you start pressing a little bit. That gets in your way a little bit. Ideally, this will loosen us up at home and we'll play better.”
The encouraging thing for the Leafs was that most of their ills at home to this point in the season were cured, at least for one night. They not only scored the first goal of the game, they scored the first three.
The goals came from all over the lineup, from stars like John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri and, most important, from the bottom six forwards as the third line struck for two goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. Tyler Ennis added one from the fourth line. And all of the goals were scored five-on-five.
Johnsson went into the game still looking for his first goal of the season. While the second-year Leaf disappointed the coaching staff with his play at the start of the season, he was given a second chance in the lineup with the injury to Auston Matthews and played much better. But he was plagued by bad bounces and missed chances, although Babcock thought he and linemates Brown and Par Lindholm were due for a breakthrough.
“I thought the last two games their line has been real good,” Babcock said after the game-day skate. “We’d still like them to spend more time in the offensive zone but they did everything right last game [a 3-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights].
“They were our best line at doing things right. We’d like them to get heavier and spend more time in the O-zone but I think it’s just a matter of time.”
It looked for a while like Johnsson was going to have another night of bad luck. He had a breakaway in the first minute of the second period and made a nice deke before trying to roof the puck but Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid got a piece of it to deflect it high.
But the line struck for a goal five minutes later when Brown finished off a nifty three-way passing play for his second goal in as many games to give the Leafs a 2-0 lead.
Late in the second period, it was only fitting that Johnsson finally received some good luck to get off the schneid. Defenceman Jake Gardiner took a shot at Kinkaid that saw the rebound deflected right to Johnsson in front for an easy tap-in. The scoreboard video camera caught him giving a big sigh of relief.
“Yeah, it felt good to score a first goal, especially now that we win [at home],” said Johnsson, who was more interested in the possibility of meeting fellow Swede Peter Forsberg, a Hall-of-Famer who is in town for the induction weekend. “That was probably the most chances I’ve had in a game so it was nice to get it.”
Patrick Marleau hit a milestone when he set up Kadri’s goal early in the second period. It was his 600th NHL assist. He thought he also had a goal in the third period but it was overturned on video review as scored with a high stick.
“It’s always nice when a milestone like that comes with a win,” he said.