From the opening faceoff, the Toronto Maple Leafs were relentless in their 4-0 win against the Vegas Golden Knights at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
No more than 20 seconds had elapsed when William Nylander had a partial breakaway at the net. His shot was stopped by Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner. Matthews nearly potted in the rebound, while Michael Bunting’s attempt went overtop of the net and out of play.
The Leafs were buzzing and didn’t hold back. They continued to attack and their stars made their presence felt.
Mitch Marner scored his second goal in as many games to start things off for Toronto.
Auston Matthews scored twice in the second period, including a much-needed power-play goal for the top unit.
William Nylander capped the effort with his team-leading fourth goal of the season.
Jack Campbell made 24 saves to pick up his first shutout of the season.
Although there were some lapses in the third period and the Leafs played a depleted Golden Knights squad that was missing offensive weapons Mark Stone (lower-body), Alex Tuch (shoulder), Max Pacioretty (lower-body) and William Karlsson (broken foot), the effort put forth was one that resembled their dominant showings from last season.
“That was certainly more indicative of what we think we’re capable of,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That’s a short-handed team playing over there. But as we all know we’ve played short-handed teams before and it hasn’t gone like this here today.”
Keefe was alluding to the team’s 7-1 loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins ten days prior. Despite the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and others out of the Pens’ lineup, the Maple Leafs fell flat and were in the midst of a slump.
But all it took was for their stars to score and the effort to show. Their top power-play unit, which has been a pain point for a couple of seasons, scored on their lone opportunity.
“It’s something we always talk about but I think our power play has been rolling, recently,” Marner said. “It’s something we talked about is our special teams trying to win games.”
Marner has exhibited solid two-way play over the last couple of games and his goal on Tuesday began with an excellent defensive play. As Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore connected on an outlet pass to Mattias Janmark, Marner was the furthest player back to break up the play. That allowed Timothy Liljegren to carry the puck back into Vegas’ zone. Marner freed himself for a pass from John Tavares and spun around Lehner to open the scoring.
Matthews, who had one goal in his first six games this season, busted out for a pair of goals. His shot on the power play was a nice catch-and-release play that beat Lehner. Matthews was reunited with Marner and Nylander in the final minute where he beat Lehner for his second of the night.
“It feels really good when you see it go in the back of the net,” Matthews said. “I thought the power play, the one opportunity that we got, we really snapped it around, hunted pucks and got pucks back and just kept creating chances.”
Nylander put the game on ice early in the third period after Bunting found him skating up the wing for a cross-ice pass.
The Maple Leafs improved to 5-4-1 this season and are now on a season-high three-game winning streak. Sure, the first game in that streak came against a struggling Chicago Blackhawks team that hadn’t won at that point. And their game against the Detroit Red Wings left something to be desired when their opponents snapped back with quick goals to keep that game in reach.
And while it’s good that Campbell picked up his first shutout, the biggest positive was the breakout performances of Matthews and Marner.
Struggling to find his groove early in the season, Marner looks like the player he has been for much of his career. A skilled forward who can help drive a line.
“That’s the Mitch we know and love, of course,” Keefe said of Marner. “He’s playing with confidence, he looks like he’s free out there. When he’s free and the game is just flowing for him, he makes great things happen on both sides of the ice.”
Matthews, the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner, had off-season wrist surgery and missed the first three games of the season. He mentioned on Monday that he was still trying to get his timing down. Matthews’ two-goal performance is a boost to his psyche, as well as the team.
It wasn’t the potent Golden Knights that came to Toronto, but the Maple Leafs respected their opponent and played like the team that shot the lights out against their opponents on many nights during last season.
When Matthews and Marner are scoring, there isn’t much to criticize. It’s the first time they both scored in a game this season, and their individual success is necessary if the Maple Leafs are going to make good on delivering a better outcome to this season than last year.
Now they just have to build on it.
According to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, negotiations between Campbell and the Maple Leafs are underway.
The goaltender didn’t address the report directly when asked about the report, he did express his love for his team.
“I truly love it here. the guys have taken me in here like I’ve been here my whole career,” Campbell said. “[It’s a] special city, the fans are incredible. Anytime they embrace me the way they have it means a lot to me and there’s nothing more I’d love than to stay here.”
Campbell is an unrestricted free agent and will no doubt command a raise from his current $1.65 million salary-cap hit this season.