In the remarkable space of about three months, the Toronto Maple Leafs have morphed from the Panic Attack Kids to the Cardiac Kids.
The third period of every game is still a wild adventure but now the baby Leafs, led by their remarkable crop of rookies, are skating out of the chaos with wins rather than blowing leads. Thanks to Saturday night’s heart-stopping 5-4 win over the Detroit Red Wings, in the Leafs’ final game at Joe Louis Arena, they landed in second place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division with a tenuous grasp on home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
“I think this is a good time of year for us to be playing well and for our whole team to be getting hot,” said the leading man in the Leafs’ rookie class, Auston Matthews, who scored twice and added an assist to tie a franchise record for points by a rookie in one season at 66. “You definitely learn from your mistakes.
“I think we’ve come a long way from the first couple of months of the season. There’s always room for improvement, always things we can get better at. At this point of the season, when we can close out these games, that’s definitely a good sign.”
What a ride it was until Matthews’s second goal of the game, with one minute 19 seconds left in the third period, seemingly put the game out of reach for the Red Wings. But the adventure wasn’t over, as the Wings pulled goaltender Jimmy Howard and stormed the Leafs end, with Mike Green scoring with 45 seconds left. The Leafs, though, with goaltender Frederik Andersen stepping up again (he faced 42 shots in total), hung on for the win to leave their record in their last 12 games at 10-2-1.
“That’s the thing we’re doing a lot better now, just creating offence when we’re up, not being scared and sitting back, letting them come to us,” said another of the rookies, Mitch Marner, who finished with a goal. “We’re taking it to them still. That’s what we’ve got to do more of.”
By the end of the night, the Leafs were tied in points with the Ottawa Senators, who lost 4-2 to the Winnipeg Jets, at 91 points. Both teams have five games left in the regular season, but the Leafs officially sit in second place because they have one more regulation or overtime win than the Sens.
The usual crowd of Leafs fans made the cross-border trek to The Joe, which will fall to the wrecker’s ball after the Wings move to their new arena next season, so there was a distinct postseason atmosphere for the game. Duelling chants were the main feature from the crowd, with the Leafs fanatics adding a quick “Go Leafs Go!” to the end of every “Let’s Go Red Wings!” chant, making them sound as one.
“It was crazy,” Marner said. “Back and forth, go Leafs go. On the bench, you can feel the atmosphere.”
While the Leafs skated hard in the first period, the Wings had the better scoring chances and emerged with a 1-0 lead on a goal from Gustav Nyquist. But Matthews tied the score early in the second with his first goal of the game on a power play. The Leafs took a 3-1 lead by 15:08 on goals from Marner and William Nylander, the second time this season all three star rookies scored in one game.
But the Red Wings fought back to tie the score with Nick Jensen scoring late in the second and Niklas Kronwall providing the tying goal at 14:41 of the third period. That set up the wild finish, as James van Riemsdyk and Matthews, with his 38th of the season, scored within 77 seconds.
“In the second half of the year, we started to not shoot ourselves in the foot as much, making the right play, making the high-percentage play,” Van Riemsdyk said. “When you’re not giving away those free goals, it makes a huge difference in the game. You’re not chasing games as much. We’ve got guys that have been coming through, delivering in the big moments in games.”
None have been coming through more than Matthews, who ended a seven-game stretch without a point on March 18. Since then, he has seven goals and four assists in eight games. His 66 points are now tied with Peter Ihnacak (1982-83) for most points in one season by a rookie.
“That would be awesome,” Matthews said of the prospect of hitting 40 goals, which would top Sidney Crosby’s rookie total by one, although he was quick to add it is not a priority. “You play the right way and that kind of stuff takes care of itself.”Report Typo/Error