It’s the hundredth year of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and their centennial season was expected to be a year of growth, filled with ups and downs and a chance for the Leafs’ many rookies to get solid NHL experience. The year is shaping up to be much more, though. Here is a look at some pivotal games from the first half.
GAME 1 of 82:
Ottawa Senators vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews made his NHL debut against the Senators on October 12. He promptly did what no player had done before in their first NHL game — score four goals.
Matthews’ second goal of the game was remarkable; he controlled the puck at the offensive blue line, nutmegged Mark Stone and then Mike Hoffman. After briefly losing control of the puck, he stripped it from defenceman Erik Karlsson and drove hard to the net. Marc Methot and Craig Anderson tried to stop him, but to no avail — Matthews put the puck neatly in the back of the net.
The Leafs would go on to lose the game 5–4 in OT, on a play where Matthews lost his man in a 3-on-3. He took full responsibility for that play, showing a level of maturity far beyond his 19 years.
GAME 2 of 82:
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins
In a pregame ceremony that was filled with emotion, the Leafs kicked off their centennial season for the first time on home ice. Of the 18 jersey numbers that hang from the rafters of the Air Canada Centre, only two had been retired up until this game: Ace Bailey had his number 6 retired in 1934, after a career ending injury; and Bill Barilko’s number 5 was pulled from circulation in 1951 and permanently retired in 1962.
The Leafs previously had a tradition of honouring those other 16 numbers, but players could still wear them — if they were lucky. Before the game, however, the Leafs retired those honoured numbers, including 13 for Mats Sundin, 93 for Doug Gilmour, 17 for Wendel Clark, and, my personal favourite, number 1 for Turk Broda and Johnny Bower.
In the game itself, the Leafs beat the Bruins 4–1. Mitch Marner scored his first NHL goal, and it was a beauty. He took the puck in stride, between his legs, and let off a wicked wrist shot from the circle to beat the Bruins goalie.
GAME 10 of 82:
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Edmonton Oilers
The build-up to the game centred around the matchup between Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Matthews. These two, of course, had been the first overall draft choices in 2015 and 2016, respectively. It was supposed to be McDavid vs. Matthews but the Leafs’ Nazem Kadri was having none of that. He played one of his best games of the year thus far and shut McDavid down.
Not only that, he scored the OT winner, after stripping McDavid of the puck. After signing a lucrative contract in the summer, Kadri has proven time and again this year that he can compete at both ends of the ice.
GAMES 34 and 35 of 82:
Florida Panthers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs,
and Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Coming off of the Christmas break, many fans were concerned with the Leafs possibly starting out slow and sluggish. Against the Panthers, the Leafs came out strong and took a two-goal lead into the third period. But, Toronto has had problems with keeping leads through the third period. The Panthers tied it up within the first five minutes of the third, and the game needed a shootout to decide the winner.
The Leafs had been atrocious in shootouts, 0–6 at this point in the season, but Marner scored the shootout winner to break the streak.
In Tampa the next night, the Leafs again got themselves an early lead, and again they gave it up. In OT, however, Kadri scored to win the game for Toronto.
GAME 36 of 82
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings
at BMO Field (Centennial Classic)
The build-up to this game was awesome. The behind-the-scenes TV series showed two teams who were battling every night to win. The stadium was filled with fans from both sides, and the ice was better than ever for an outdoor game.
The first two periods were dull, with Detroit taking a 1–0 lead, but that all changed in the third. Leo Komarov started the period with an early goal to tie the game. The Leafs then scored three more goals to take a 4–1 lead.
The Leafs’ goals galvanized Detroit, who answered with three goals of their own to tie the game again. Goal number four came with less than two seconds left. In the remarkable 3-on-3 OT frame, Morgan Rielly had a breakaway but failed to convert. Matthews, with a flair for the dramatic, scored a ridiculous backhand goal while he was skating away from the net to win the game for the Leafs.
GAMES 40 and 41 of 82:
New York Rangers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs,
and Ottawa Senators vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs came off their NHLPA-mandated bye-week with back-to-back games in Manhattan and Ottawa. A young team coming off a week spent basking in the sun didn’t sound like a recipe for success. Yet, this Leafs continued to surprise.
They beat the Rangers handily 4–2, this time being able to hold on to a third period lead. In Ottawa the next night, Matthews failed to match his 4 goal debut, but he did add a pretty neat assist; allowing the Ottawa centre to win the faceoff, Matthews immediately grabbed the puck and backhanded it to Connor Brown, who scored a goal on his birthday.
The look of excitement between Brown and Matthews as they celebrated was truly special — the type of excitement that comes with being really good and very young. The Leafs would go on to beat the Senators 4–2, silencing those who thought they would struggle after a week off.
At the all-star break the Leafs have played 47 games and accumulated 55 points. They sit one point back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot and are also only one point back of the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. But, crucially, they have played three fewer games than the Flyers and five fewer than the Bruins.
Now, granted, the entire second half of the NHL season is still left to be played. The Leafs are not the only team playing well, and many of the teams struggling at the moment, like Tampa Bay, are surely going to start winning some games and getting healthier; Tampa has 50 points despite being depleted by injuries.
Still, the Leafs are not an apparition. They are a genuinely good team. They are fast, they score a ton — the Leafs average the sixth most goals per 60 minutes — and their goaltending, which has for years been the Achilles heel of the team, is now stabilized. The Leafs are tied with the Nashville Predators for allowing the eighth fewest goals in the NHL.
The Leafs’ schedule will not do them any favours in the second half, with a congested schedule and more back-to-back games — the Leafs will play back-to-back nights eight more times this season.
In February, the Leafs play six games in 10 nights, and then eight in 14. In March, there is a stretch where they play seven games in 12 nights. In April, they finish the regular season with six games in nine nights. But, they are a young team and have the ability to win many of those games; they’ve proven they can do this in recent weeks.
The Metropolitan Division is astoundingly good, and when the dust settles, I’d wager that the two wild card teams in the East will come out of that division, so the most likely scenario for the Leafs to be a playoff team is for them to finish top three in the Atlantic.
To reach first in the Atlantic, the Leafs would have to beat out Buffalo, who haven’t been good; Detroit, whose playoff streak looks to be in greater trouble with each passing game; Tampa Bay, who are injured and have not been playing well; Florida, who are in shambles on and off the ice; Ottawa, who the Leafs can beat and are less talented; Boston, who have just one more point with five more games played than the Leafs; and Montreal, who the Leafs can’t seem to beat and are probably out of reach.
Realistically, the Leafs are capable of finishing in second place in the Atlantic Division though, which would earn them home ice in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Leafs may actually make the playoffs — don’t miss their first game of the second half of the season on Tuesday, January 31 at the Dallas Stars.