At the end of an exacting, bordering-on-traumatic few weeks that seemed to trigger waves of consternation and self-doubt, the Toronto Maple Leafs completed a long, drawn-out and highly satisfying exhale on Saturday night.
Feet kicked up on the table after five wins from their last five games, and with each coming more impressive than the last, the Leafs seem to have now reclaimed their regular season identity and rescued a season that went almost immediately haywire at its outset.
Toronto only just returned to its darkest timeline on the second Saturday night of the season with a humiliating and hauntingly familiar loss of the road in Pittsburgh.
Only two weeks later, there is some humour in that horror.
"It was a bit of a slow start for the guys," Morgan Rielly said, flashing his $60 million smile and a laugh after an impressive 5-2 victory over the Boston Bruins in their first meeting with their rivals in nearly two years.
"We were feeling it a bit."
Now there's reason to feel themselves.
What has been so special about the Leafs in recent seasons has only been accentuated in full over the last four games in particular — each played on home ice. Toronto's big four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander has been impossible to contain because each is performing at a high level from an individual standpoint.
Matthews is firing the puck again. Tavares is showing that elite grind and an evolution in his game. Nylander continues to be an absolute handful. Marner's creativity is back to knowing no bounds.
It's all come together to produce something nearly impossible to manage from a matchup perspective.
Whether it's Matthews and Nylander shredding a mismatch or Tavares and Marner free to wheel versus bottom-six competition, the Maple Leafs continue to identify and exploit head-to-heads with their top-end players, and the goals are adding up.
Adding to the danger, the partnerships are showing signs of becoming lethal when working in tandem themselves, as the Leafs power play has finally shown glimpses of what it should be.
It's added up to results that reflect the team's payroll structure.
Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander have accounted for the team's last 13 goals, and 15 of the 18 goals scored on the current five-game road back to respectability. Tavares and Marner had a hand in two of the other three goals scored, while the lone marker without Core Four influence came from the second-unit power play.
In this moment in time, $40 million has been a bargain.
John Tavares came out of the penalty box and snapped pic.twitter.com/DJA7wJ50vU
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 7, 2021
Reflexively, though, we have been conditioned to concern ourselves with such disproportionate levels of production within the team.
This run, however, has been a reminder that production is not limited to just one thing.
For the Leafs, secondary scoring can't be considered an issue when the bottom half of the lineup continues to set-up scorers for success.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe was as delighted as any who spoke following the Boston win, running down a laundry list of positives in his opening remarks, which led with performances outside the superstar orbit.
He called Ondrej Kase "outstanding" on the third line. He lauded Nick Ritchie for his work on the fourth unit and his attitude since being demoted, suggesting a breakout is on the way. He continues to be impressed by the new-look third pairing between Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.
Goals haven't been there from the bottom two lines, but production has been omnipresent in the lineup over the past five games. Kase and linemates David Kampf and Pierre Engvall have not been scored on at even strength and in minutes exclusive to absorbing the punch of a scoring unit. Meanwhile the fourth line of Ritchie, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds have given up one, but have more often than not been the better of the two fourth lines in their last 45-plus even-strength minutes.
Setting the table over and over again, the bottom six has allowed the crooked numbers posted by the scoring units to reflect the scoreboard.
That and their netminder, Jack Campbell, continues to be stellar.
Jack Campbell has been sensational in 8/9 starts this season, which has been about the pattern for his entire tenure in Toronto.
Remarkable consistency out of the position, almost out of thin air.
Just an unbelievable trade for Kyle Dubas.
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) November 7, 2021
Whether it is the fans or the media, or the combination and sheer volume of both, outside noise permeates the Maple Leafs room.
"The highs can get real high here and the lows can get real low," Matthews said, flashing the same smile Rielly did.
It's something that's difficult to manage when things are going poorly.
It's something to laugh about when things aren't.
And the Leafs — and their superstars — are howling at the moment.
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