It’s starting to snowball.
The New York Rangers erased leads of one and two, but in the end, lost by three as the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to build meaningful momentum and strengthen their hold on a postseason spot with Friday’s 6-3 win at Madison Square Garden.
William Nylander and Mitch Marner each had bids for hat tricks fall one goal short, while Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev provided secondary scoring for the Maple Leafs, who have improved to 9-4 since the switch to Sheldon Keefe.
Another glorious opportunity to bag two points awaits the Leafs on Saturday on home ice with the last-place Detroit Red Wings in town.
Until then, three points:
Given that they’d failed to meet expectations for the first two months, or so, to start the season — and for that reason find themselves in a real battle for a postseason spot — it’s easy to hyperbolize or exaggerate the importance of certain games or even just moments for the Maple Leafs. Still, it seemed paramount that they reverse a recent trend and actually out-score the opposition in a third period after the teams headed into the second intermission tied at three.
To that point, Frederik Andersen had only faced 12 shots, and for one of the few times all season, he wasn’t measuring up to his absolute All-Star standard. With the way it was going, it didn’t seem all that improbable that the Leafs would spend a quiet flight home from New York, to a man considering the possibility that they might not have the goaltending again the next night, as the win-less Michael Hutchinson is scheduled to face the Wings.
Thankfully for all involved, Toronto’s star attractions made sure spirits would be high.
Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner made the difference for the Leafs in the third versus New York, combining for big moments and largely dominating play.
It was Nylander that secured Toronto’s third and lasting lead with a delectably deceitful finish through the five-hole on Alexandar Georgiev, but Matthews made the play with a three-zone sequence that will have Mike Babcock smiling (or crying) from inside his hunting cabin.
Great backcheck by Matthews starts the play and Nylander gets his 2nd of the night!— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) December 21, 2019
4-3 Leafs! pic.twitter.com/8YMAkt2anD
But Marner was the most dominant force in the all-important final frame. Just 47 seconds after the Nylander strike, Marner knocked down a pass in the offensive zone and schooled two defenders before sending his second of the night past Georgiev.
Marner threatened for the hat trick for the remaining minutes before the buzzer but will have to wait another day for his first three-goal night at the NHL level.
Just because the Maple Leafs’ preferred method when gaining entry into the offensive zone is with puck-on-stick possession doesn’t mean that it’s the same with their opponents.
Being able to mop up when the opposition throws the puck deep into their end will remain a crucial element to their game, and the Maple Leafs wasted a two-goal lead in the first period largely due to their inability to efficiently neutralize the Ranger forecheck.
On the first goal, Chris Kreider won the race to the puck and with an intelligent touch into space, creating a mismatch in the slot.
Then the walls closed down fast on Tyson Barrie, and his attempt to find Morgan Rielly failed in a major way.
The evolution will continue under Sheldon Keefe, and this remains one of the elements that require fine-tuning.
Though we might not have seen it all that much tonight, lately the Maple Leafs have managed to create an immense amount of stress on opposing defensive structures through unique means.
When Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie are both shooting up the sidewalls, together voluntarily disassembling the typical attacking structure and sending it into its preferred motion, their aggressiveness has left units scrambling to keep tabs on all the potential shooters.
But what sort of challenge does it place on the Leafs forwards, who have to be mindful of the fact that in certain moments there might be nothing but empty space between Andersen and a counterattack from the opposition?
Apparently not much.
As the Leafs continue to learn and perform the preferred methods under Keefe, the forwards’ role in helping to facilitate what might be the league’s most unique and offensively-focused No. 1 pair hasn’t been a considerable challenge.
“I don’t think it’s re-inventing the wheel,” Jason Spezza offered Thursday at practice.
At first, I just thought Spezza was being a bit cagey.
I mean, with the exception of Zach Hyman on the sequence below, it’s a significant challenge from the couch at home, let alone reading and reacting on the ice, to keep track of each Leaf skaters as they seem to toggle through support and attacking assignments while Rielly and Barrie push as far down as the goal line.
But if you look at one area of the ice, and isolate for one section of interchangeable parts, Spezza has a point. What’s at work is merely the normal chain of support and the typical assignments required of the forwards when a defender pinches.
It’s just happening simultaneously on both sides of the ice.
Simple assignments creating the illusion of something far more complex. That’s Keefe, Rielly and Barrie at their best.
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