The Toronto Maple Leafs will try to extend their winning streak to five games Saturday night when they complete a two-game set with the visiting Vancouver Canucks.
The Maple Leafs (32-13-5, 69 points) took the opener 4-1 on Thursday night as the Canucks (19-22-3, 41 points) took their third loss in a row. The Maple Leafs, who have already clinched a playoff spot, have a nine-point lead in the North Division.
The last-place Canucks are playing a crammed schedule to make up for time lost because of a COVID-19 outbreak. They are completing a four-game road trip and still have 12 games remaining – eight of them on the road.
The Maple Leafs have had their problems with the Canucks, carrying just a 4-3-1 record into the teams’ final regular-season meeting this season. That’s the Leafs’ worst record against any of their five opponents in a season limited to games within the division.
Auston Matthews scored his league-leading 36th goal Thursday night and it was set up by Mitchell Marner, who earned his 44th assist of the season (third most in the NHL). Marner added his 18th goal of the season in the final minute.
Matthews and Marner have worked together even better this season than in the past.
“I would say just in terms of how they’re finding each other on the ice, Auston finds space to get available and is ready to shoot,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Mitch knows to buy some time and find him and then deliver the puck at the right time and in the right place.
“I think the 2-on-1 was a pretty good example of it on Auston’s goal [Thursday]. Didn’t really seem like there was going to be a whole lot there developing and then Mitch makes the play happen anyway, and Auston’s ready for it and makes no mistake. Just little things like that. I think they’re definitely on the same page and enjoying being together.”
With a playoff spot clinched, the Maple Leafs did not have Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, Nick Foligno and Jack Campbell in the lineup.
Keefe did not feel that load management would be common for his team for the rest of the season.
“We’ll take it a day at a time, a game at a time, based on how the guys are feeling and what the schedule is bringing us,” Keefe said. “The easy answer is no, I don’t foresee it, but how the players are feeling is going to dictate it.”
The Canucks are in the midst of playing a compact schedule of 19 games in 32 days after not playing for 24 days during their COVID-19 outbreak. They returned to competition on April 18 with an overtime home win against the Maple Leafs.
They have appeared tired, but Canucks coach Travis Green said he appreciated the effort on Thursday.
“It was a tight, competitive game,” he said. “We probably played better against this team than we did in the first game at home [after COVID-19].”
“We had the right idea,” Canucks goaltender Braden Holtby said. “But that first period, you’ve got to give them some credit. They were really patient, they just tried to wear us down in our own end. Next game we want to do that.
“We’re trying to grind our way through it. You’re experiencing things you haven’t felt before, but we’ve got a proud group.”
Said Green: “I thought [Toronto’s] skill made a couple of plays, probably the difference at the end of the night.”