It’s difficult to call a game in mid-January a must-win, but that’s how it felt coming into last night’s match with New Jersey.
An ugly, lopsided 8-4 loss in Florida to the Panthers pushed the Leafs’ losing streak to three games and left them just a couple of points away from being on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. The three losses came to the Oilers, Jets, and Panthers, three bubble teams you’d really expect the Leafs to be able to beat, so taking down a garbage team like New Jersey was critical.
Adding to the difficulty for the Leafs was the fact Morgan Rielly wouldn’t be in the lineup. Rielly was placed on the Injured Reserve with a broken foot, joining Jake Muzzin on the shelf, meaning the Leafs had to roll with a completely decimated blueline. Travis Dermott and Justin Holl formed the top pair, Martin Marincin joined Tyson Barrie on the second pair, and Cody Ceci played alongside Rasmus Sandin, who was recalled to replace Rielly.
The silver lining to all of this, of course, was Sandin finding his way into the lineup. At this stage, fresh off of winning Top Defenceman at the World Juniors, Sandin feels overripe in the AHL. He looked good during his cup of coffee earlier in the season and he’s been dominating lesser competition ever since.
Sandin made his presence felt early, dragging the puck all the way across the blueline and finding an open lane to get a shot on net that John Tavares would tip past Louis Domingue to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.
John Tavares tips in the point shot from Sandin! pic.twitter.com/F6HlV4rSGP
— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) January 15, 2020
Right before the end of the period, Sandin fired another shot from the point that was tipped by Zach Hyman to give the Leafs a 3-0 lead. All told, Sandin would put up two points, both from well-placed shots from the blueline, while playing 16:12 minutes. He was on the ice for two goals for and none against at even strength.
Zach Hyman scores with the Superman tip pic.twitter.com/783gGXiSdp
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 15, 2020
Sandin was given the Leafs’ game ball for his excellent return to the lineup…
It was Michael Hutchinson (shutout v NYI in last win) who passed Sandin the Leafs game ball
Was Rasmus surprised?
"To be honest, I completely forgot we had that," he said with a big smile
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 15, 2020
After the game, Sheldon Keefe talked about the impact his former blueliner with the Marlies could make on the Leafs, especially on the power play.
“I’ve seen the impact he can make on the power play,” Keefe said. “He really helped out power play with the Marlies last year. He started the season (injured) but when he got healthy, our power play went from one of the worst (in the AHL) to one of the best.”
The real star of the game for the Leafs, though, was Auston Matthews, who finally recorded his first hat trick since his first-ever game all the way back in 2016 against the Ottawa Senators. You know, the four-goal game.
Poetically, Matthews’ goal he buried into the empty net at the end of the game to seal the hat trick was his 34th of the season. It also came on the Leafs’ 34th shot on goal that night. If you didn’t know, he also wears No. 34. You love to see it.
Matthews is now on pace to put up 59 goals this season. He has 20 goals in 24 games since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench. He’s only six goals shy of his career-high of 40 goals he recorded in 82 games in his rookie season and he’s got the same amount of goals that he scored in 62 games in his sophomore season. Last year, it took him 57 games to hit 34 goals, and he ended up with 37 in 68 games. Barring injury, he’ll shatter the 50-goal plateau. The 60-goal plateau might be the thing to watch.
When asked about going over three years between hat tricks, Matthews was incredibly casual…
“I mean, I figured I’d get one sometime,” he said.
As nice as the win was, it’s still somewhat worrying that Freddy Andersen allowed four goals to a New Jersey Devils team that ranks 25th in the league in goals for, especially given Taylor Hall isn’t around anymore and Kyle Palmieri was out of the lineup. Still, with the injuries the Leafs have to the blueline, it’s inevitable they’re going to have to lean on their offence to win games.
The Leafs have two more games at home against Calgary and Chicago until they’ll be off for over a week for the NHL All-Star break.