The Toronto Maple Leafs may have their shaky moments but they keep passing the tests.
Their latest hurdle was the first set of back-to-back, road and home games of the NHL season. The Leafs sagged a few times Wednesday night, as teams do in such situations, but always bounced back and came away with a 6-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre.
Combined with Tuesday night's 2-0 win over the Washington Capitals, the Leafs now have a 6-1 record and moved past the Tampa Bay Lightning into first place in the Atlantic Division with 12 points. They are also first overall in the NHL.
The Leafs have a three-game winning streak going but what is important for them is they managed to pull out a win in the second of back-to-back games. Last season, losing those second games, when the legs are heavier, was a habit for the Leafs. In 13 back-to-back sets, the Leafs lost the second game nine times.
"We can definitely be a lot better but when we're coming out with two points in games like these, in back-to-backs, especially our progress coming from last year in these types of games is pretty positive," said Leafs centre Auston Matthews, who scored a beautiful goal in the first period, his sixth in seven games.
Nazem Kadri, Zach Hyman, Matthews, Connor Brown, Morgan Rielly and William Nylander scored for the Leafs, as they spread the offence around on the top three lines. Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Ericsson had the Detroit goals.
Most of the breaks in the action Wednesday night were tributes to Gord Downie, who died Tuesday night of brain cancer at the age of 53. The front man for The Tragically Hip had a strong connection with the Leafs, thanks to his song Fifty-Mission Cap, which celebrated Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko. He, too, died before his time and Barilko's banner in the ACC rafters was lowered in tribute to Downie.
But not everyone on the team was familiar with Downie's music. Such as the famously hockey-obsessed Leafs coach Mike Babcock. He started out well enough trying to answer the obligatory Downie question: "I don't know enough. Obviously, I know there's a tie there with the Leafs. It's tragic."
But when asked if he actually was a Hip fan, Babcock had to admit the only musician he is really aware of is Bob Seger. And that was because he met the Detroit native during his days as coach of the Red Wings.
"I know I'm a fan of all music," Babcock said. "I don't know any musicians except Bob Seger. How's that?"
Also getting a tribute on the scoreboard video screen was Leafs forward Patrick Marleau. Wednesday's game marked number 1,500 for Marleau in the NHL, 1,493 of them coming in the employ of the San Jose Sharks.
"Just surrounded myself with some good people, having people at the rink and away from the rink that are really good at their job, keeping you healthy," Marleau, 37, said before the game when he was asked about the secret to his longevity. But as far as the milestone went, he said, "It's nice to have. Obviously I'm more focused on playing the game."
The game, like a few Leafs games so far this season was on the wonky side. But the wonks were provided by the Red Wing goaltenders, at least in the early going.
Jimmy Howard, the Wings' starter, lasted 15 minutes, 46 seconds before he was given the hook by head coach Jeff Blashill. When Howard let in his third goal on four shots, even though it was a beauty by Matthews, who drew Wings defenceman Trevor Daley toward him with a stutter step and then used him as a screen and fired the puck between his legs, he was done for the night.
And yes, Matthews knew what he was doing all the way on the goal, which is why he is a special player. "[I] was trying to use him as a screen and shoot around him or through his feet or something, just to get it to the net," Matthews said. "It's tough for a goalie to read, especially when its going through [the defenceman's] feet like that to get the angle."
At that point, the Leafs had a 3-1 lead, as Kadri and Hyman scored ahead of Matthews. But it was actually the Red Wings who had the upper hand in the play to that point, hence the mere four shots by the Leafs, who were playing their second game in as many nights.
Petr Mrazek came in to relieve Howard but the Red Wings' woes continued. Mrazek let in the first shot he saw, a long wrister by Brown that came at him through a crowd at 16:26 to make it 4-1 for the Leafs.
"I don't think we were very happy with the way we played in the first," Rielly said. "They came out and controlled the majority of the play. We've got lots of guys who can put the puck in the net. When that happens early on, especially in the second of back-to-backs, [we] get the feeling we had a little bit of breathing room."
Down at the other end of the ice, Leafs goaltender Curtis McElhinney was making his first start of the season. He gave the Leafs what they needed – spelling number-one goaltender Frederik Andersen with a solid outing even though he looked bad on the first Detroit goal, a wraparound by Zetterberg that saw him stuck to the other goal post.
But shortly after Zetterberg's goal, McElhinney stretched out to make a great pad save on Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha. That may have been his most important save of the night, as a goal there would have tied the score. Instead, the Leafs went on to score twice in 42 seconds to open a three-goal lead.
"We have a lot of faith in him, he's a great pro," Rielly said of McElhinney. "He's always ready and I think when you look at the way he played at the end of last year you know we have all the reasons in the world to have confidence in him."