Little has gone right for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the past week.
The team was stuck in a slump with a three-game losing streak. Defenceman Jake Muzzin suffered his second concussion in five weeks, and then, on Wednesday, it was revealed prospect Rodion Amirov had been diagnosed with a brain tumour.
With that heartbreaking news, Auston Matthews scored twice to take over the goal-scoring lead as the Maple Leafs turned in one of their best defensive efforts for a 3-1 win before 9,410 at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
“Rodion, our hearts and thoughts are with you,” Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner said unprompted in his opening post-game remarks. “We hope you get through this. We’re beside you and with you.”
Before their morning skate, the Maple Leafs assembled for a stick salute as part of a video message for the 2020 first-round draft choice (15th overall). The 20-year-old Amirov is undergoing treatment in Germany after his KHL season was cut short to 10 games.
“It’s obviously a difficult thing to be going through,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “But he’s in good spirits, fighting hard. We believe in him, and he’s a big part of our family here. He has tremendous talent and potential, but as a human being, we know he’s very motivated to beat this.”
This win wasn’t a win-one-for-Rodion moment, according to Matthews. But the ailing young player was on the mind of the Maple Leafs.
“I’m not sure those two things correlate,” Matthews said when asked whether the win against the Wild was dedicated to Amirov. “Just hearing the news, we’re hoping for him and praying for him.”
This game pitted the Wild (31-15-3) with the league’s third-best offence against the Maple Leafs’ fourth-best (33-14-4). But it turned into a defensive struggle with a goalless opening period and a 1-1 score after two periods.
“I just thought we stuck with it for the full 60 minutes,” Matthews said. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on out there offensively for both teams, pretty structured game but I thought (Maple Leafs goalie Petr) Mrazek made some pretty incredible saves when we had breakdowns, and we were able to capitalize on a couple of chances, so it’s nice to get back in the win column and going to keep this momentum going.”
Frederick Gaudreau banged in a pass from linemate Matt Boldy for a brief Wild lead midway through the second period. But Matthews managed to tie the game 27 seconds later using Minnesota defenceman Dmitry Kulikov as a screen.
Then in the third, Matthews made a terrific defensive play, stripping Wild fourth-liner Brandon Duhaime of the puck outside the Minnesota blue line. Matthews then turned to see linemate Michael Bunting hustle out of the zone to avoid an offside.
Matthews then found Marner for a give-and-go goal with 9:38 left in the third period.
Mrazek made two big late stops on Minnesota defenceman Jared Spurgeon and Kirill Kaprizov before Alex Kerfoot scored an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“Every game is important, especially after not winning the last three games,” Mrazek said. “So being patient in this game was a big factor, and I think we waited for the right moment and great play by Matthews on the blue line there and finished it.”
The Maple Leafs were playing their third game in four nights.
“It was a low event hockey game, not the most exciting game for sure and our guys I thought just stayed committed to it,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Just kept trying to find ways to crack through offensively.
“So the fact that we stayed disciplined in this type of game when there is not a lot happening offensively is really big for our team.”