It was about as good as anyone could have envisioned.
The Leafs put together an impressive team effort last night, fighting off the looming potential of a third consecutive loss that would have sent them into the All Star Break on a 3-8-0 tailspin in their last 11 games, stretching back to December 29th. And while 4-7-0 over that stretch is nothing to write home about, wins the last week against the league-leading Lightning and now the Capitals have re-instilled a sense of easy breathing in Toronto, and have reassured fans that this recent stretch of tough losses will prove to be nothing more than a blip on the radar.
This Year and Last
Strangely enough, this Leafs core may begin dreading December 29th rearing its ugly head. That pesky date has now kicked off cold snaps in back-to-back years for the Leafs, who in 2017-18 dropped 8 of 11 between December 29th and January 22nd, going 3-4-4 over than span and eventually falling to 26-18-5 on the season by the time all was said and done.
This year, however, the Leafs seemed to be able to correct their course more quickly, and just in time to head into a week off with a clear conscience. This year’s 4-7-0 stretch over the same time span has still seen the team boasting a 30-17-2 record, good for 62 points – a 5 point improvement within the same number of games.
Last year’s team also surrendered multiple 2-goal leads over that span of losses, including back-to-back games on January 16th and 18th, against the St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers. They lost three straight and four straight on two different occasions during this stretch.
This year’s team just improved to 8-0-0 in games following a 2-game losing streak, and have largely enjoyed tremendous success when leading. Cold streak or not, this year’s Leafs simply are not last year’s team, and that’s a good thing. It signifies growth, and progress, even when things get frustrating and the team isn’t clicking.
Third Line’s The Charm
Could last night have gone any better for Nazem Kadri?
The Leafs’ third line centreman has been knee-deep in bad luck this season, before finally breaking through with a 4-point performance last night, and his first hat trick of the season (goals 11, 12 and 13 of 2018-19).
It was a clear monkey-off-his-back performance for Kadri, but more understated is how badly the Leafs have needed that breakout of productivity from their bottom six. Kadri hasn’t exactly been a nonfactor, but the offense simply had not been there up until this point. Coupled with Auston Matthews’ slump, the Leafs were turning to Mitch Marner and John Tavares simply too often to get their offense going. And as good as they have been, they cannot be expected to do it all for this team.
Credit William Nylander, too, for finally showing his offensive dominance for the first time this season. Nylander’s 21st game of the season was a career game for the young Swede – who notched a career-best 3 assists, including two primary points, as he finally is beginning to look like his old self, in new company no less. Their linemate, Connor Brown, even snuck two primary assists in there on Kadri’s second two goals. Not too shabby, and it’ll bode well for the Leafs moving forward if this trio continues to mesh.
The All-Star Breaks Through
It was only a matter of time for Auston Matthews, and the Leafs’ power play.
Thirteen games with just one goal to show for his efforts was clearly weighing on Matthews’ shoulders, and the Leafs’ ailing Power Play was not doing him any favors on the scoresheet.
However, what first looked like a dreadful miss by John Tavares turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Leafs, as it allowed for Auston Matthews to finally get one – his first since January 5th against Vancouver – beating Braden Holtby down low to put the Leafs up for good in the 2nd period.
AUSTON MATTHEWS ?
His 21st of the season. 3-2. pic.twitter.com/07ZXI3gG5i
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) January 24, 2019
Matthews, who will be off to San Jose for the All Star Game this weekend, needed that one – and he and the Leafs will rest easy knowing he’ll be coming back with a rediscovered sense of confidence after the break and the Leafs’ bye week.
Two wins in four games may not seem like much, but with wins in the same week against the league-leading Lightning and the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Leafs appear poised to remind us of the team we saw in October and November – a team that threatens shift after shift, where the offense is never in doubt, and the wins often follow.
Victory hugs pic.twitter.com/igMxTpsNck
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) January 24, 2019
It’s good to be back.