In the end, it was a successful celebration of Auston Matthews’s new contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But just barely, as the Maple Leafs took turns napping and skating, not to mention blowing a two-goal lead before pulling out a 5-4 win Wednesday night against the Ottawa Senators, who hold down last place in the NHL standings. Then again, considering the off-ice noise that followed Matthews’s signing, maybe it wasn’t so odd, although it still turned out to be an entertaining night of hockey.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said as much at the start of his post-game briefing, noting the fans left happy. Someone wondered aloud if it was too entertaining for the coach.
“Way too entertaining for the coach,” Babcock said before allowing he would still take the win, being as it was the Leafs’ third in a row and fourth in their last five games.
“I thought we started and I thought we were playing well,” Babcock said. “Then we just got careless and we never really seemed to be able to get it back.
“At the same time, when you're a good team, you win games sometimes that aren't very pretty, but you still won. At the end, when we get up tomorrow and look at the standings, it's going to be pretty.”
Zach Hyman, John Tavares, Matthews, Andreas Johnsson and Morgan Rielly scored for the Leafs with Mitch Marner setting up Hyman and Tavares for easy tap-ins with his usual wizardry with the puck. Magnus Paajravi scored twice for the Senators with Matt Duchene and Thomas Chabot getting the other goals.
The game with the Senators was pretty much an afterthought by the time the opening faceoff came around thanks to all the contract drama dreamed up by the media.
Judging by the manufactured furor in the wake of Matthews hauling in US$58-million and change in his new contract, Marner must have been fit to be tied. Once Matthews took that big bite there was just a little less of the salary-cap pie for his own contract negotiations this summer.
The conflagration started when Marner’s agent Darren Ferris was quoted in the Toronto Star as complaining Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was trying to lowball his client after paying full retail for Matthews and William Nylander. Then Ferris got on radio station TSN 1050 Toronto, said the usual stuff about being taken out of context (ahem) and no, it’s all good with the Leafs.
Either way, it made for a fun day for Marner at the game-day skate and not one of his doing. But the kid handled himself beautifully as a large mob of media essentially demanded, hey, are you jealous and what’s up with your agent?
Marner made it clear he is happy his buddy Matthews cashed in and that as a hometown boy all he hopes to do is sign his own contract at some point to be a Leaf for life.
“It’s a great contract for him,” Marner said. “I’m very happy for him. It’s great for this team as well and great to have him for another five years and hopefully for many longer. I think everyone in this locker room wants to be a Leaf for a long time.”
And, Marner added, his nose is definitely not out of joint over contract negotiations. They are none of his concern. That’s what he pays Ferris to do.
“No. Words are spun upon on things sometimes,” Marner said. “Me and my family love it here, my agency loves it here, this is a great place to play hockey. As long as I’m here for next training camp, that’s all that really matters.”
After all this, Matthews, Marner and company showed how much they love playing in Toronto. But only in fits and starts. They came out flying against the Senators and dominated them in the first 10 minutes. Notable in that stretch was Marner making a perfect saucer pass to Hyman for his 10th goal of the season.
By the way, in the middle of all this there was a wonderful video tribute to Hockey Night In Canada play-by-play legend Bob Cole. He is retiring at the end of the regular season and Wednesday’s game is expected to be his final time at the microphone in Toronto. At the end of the first-period salute during a television timeout, Cole took a figurative bow from the booth to a standing ovation from the crowd.
Shortly after Cole sat down the Leafs stopped skating. They stood around for the rest of the first period and the first three-quarters of the second, which allowed the Senators to take a 2-1 lead. Of course, as only the Leafs can, they suddenly woke up and scored three goals in exactly four minutes to take a 4-2 lead by 18:20.
The fourth goal was a beauty thanks to Marner. The play actually started in the Leafs zone when Duchene whiffed on a three-on-one rush against Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who was outstanding again in keeping the Leafs out of too much trouble. The Leafs quickly counter-attacked and Marner made one of his amazing toe-drags on Sens defenceman Ben Harpur then snaked a pass to Tavares across the slot for the tap-in.
“They pushed back hard, give them credit,” Tavares said of the Senators’ push in the last half of the first period. “They fore-checked hard and they sent everybody. They’re not shy to take some chances. At times that’s going to give you some opportunities, especially when we execute the way we can coming out of our own end and through the neutral zone.
“But also you have to be careful you don’t fall into that trap. It can lead to some mistakes and them taking advantage. That happened to us at times.”
Specifically, it happened early in the third period. Forty seconds in, Chabot was allowed to win a race for the puck in the Leafs zone and he circled the net took the puck back and scored himself. Then there was more standing around three minutes later and Paajarvi got his second goal.
But the Leafs came to life again and Hyman fed Rielly for his 14th goal of the season and 53rd point midway through the period to regain the lead for good. The 53 points are a career-high for Rielly, 24, who is in the midst of a breakout season.