The last time the Nashville Predators were in Toronto, they didn’t get to play. They arrived on March 11, 2020, and expected to face off against the Maple Leafs the following day.
They were at their hotel when the NBA announced it was shutting down due to COVID-19.
“When we heard that, we figured ‘This cannot be any good for us either,’ ” Mattias Ekholm, a Nashville defenceman, said Tuesday morning.
The NHL and all other major sports leagues followed the NBA’s lead the next day.
“We walked into the arena here and heard the game was cancelled and tried to figure out what was going on,” Ekholm recalled. “It was the day everything broke, and we are still fighting it. I am happy we are up and running and able to play in Canada again. I am glad we are progressing.”
Both off to hot starts, the teams met for the first time since then on Tuesday evening at Scotiabank Arena. Given an early lead on a power-play goal by Auston Matthews, the Maple Leafs went on to a 3-0 victory. It was their fourth win in a row and fifth in the last six games, and added to the good cheer on the night Toronto celebrated the retirement of former captain Dion Phaneuf.
Phaneuf, who played 14 seasons in the NHL, was honoured with a video presentation before the opening puck drop. Fans rose to their feet as Phaneuf and his Canadian actress wife Elisha Cuthbert and their young daughter were introduced and walked out onto the ice on a carpet.
Toronto added Nashville to its growing list of top teams that it has beaten as it improved to 11-5-1. Others include the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. The New York Rangers are up next on the calendar on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
The game was the first of just two meetings between the Leafs and Predators during the 2021-22 season. They won’t see one another again until Toronto visits Nashville in the third week of March.
Nashville dropped to 9-6-1. It was 4-0-1 in its previous five games, and 8-1-1 in its previous 10.
Jack Campbell had 24 saves to register his third shutout of the season. He has won six of his last seven starts and is 9-3-1.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Matthews, whose goal was his seventh of the season. “He’s been so good for us since he got here.”
Campbell came to Toronto in a trade from Los Angeles early in the 2020 season. He has mostly been a career backup, but has suddenly flourished with the Maple Leafs. He is playing so well he could find his way onto the preliminary list of 55 players for the U.S. Olympic team.
“I am just really grateful to be here,” Campbell, who is from Port Huron, Mich., said.
Earlier in his career he played with Phaneuf in Los Angeles.
“Before my first start in L.A., he came up to me in the change room and gave me a pep talk,” Campbell said. “I really appreciated it and never forgot it. He was truly a legendary teammate and had a legendary career on the ice.”
Toronto got third-period goals from David Kampf, his third, and Mitch Marner, his fourth. The latter was an empty-netter.
“That’s as good a third period as we have played all year,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs head coach, said. “We play really good hockey in spots which puts us in a good place.”
Keefe shuffled his lines hoping to get more production out of his top four players five-on-five and moved Nick Ritchie onto the first line with Matthews and Marner.
After scoring three goals in three preseason games, Ritchie has only two assists in 17 games during the regular season. He did not score once again, and was penalized twice.
“We have seen positive things in Nick’s game, but the reality is that he has not produced; it has not worked out,” Keefe said. “Part of it is on him and part of it is on us to give him the opportunity and see if we can get some traction here.”