Photo Credit: © Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

News and Notes: Sandin scores first NHL goal, Muzzin returns, and Leafs start second half with a bang

After limping into the All-Star break mired in their worst slump since the six-game losing skid that ultimately resulted in Mike Babcock getting sacked, the Leafs have found themselves with little room for error in the second half of the season.

The stretch of losing five of six, including multiple games by lopsided scores, was far and away the worst of the Sheldon Keefe era. As a result, the Leafs sat in 10th in the Eastern Conference at the break with an uphill battle ahead of them in their final 33 remaining games.

After the team’s ugly 6-2 loss to the underwhelming Chicago Blackhawks, Keefe questioned the group’s maturity, claiming they were leaving their goalie out to dry and that they weren’t playing complete games. Monday night’s commanding 5-2 win in a challenging environment in Nashville showed a completely different team than the one who was getting pounded by the likes of Chicago and Florida over the past couple of weeks.

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The Leafs played a more sound, complete game than we’ve seen in quite some time. Offence came from up and down the lineup, the group played solid defensively, still allowing 36 shots against but limiting odd-man rushes and high-quality chances, and Frederik Andersen was rock-solid when he had to be.

Getting Jake Muzzin back from injury was undoubtedly a game-changer for the Leafs. During his absence, the team went 5-3-3 and the blueline at times looked completely lost, especially in the defensive zone.

Prior to the game, Keefe spoke on the importance of having Muzzin back on the ice…

A great deal, both in his play on the ice and also in terms of his voice among our team. In many ways, he’s the conscience of our team. He means a lot and speaks a lot. He has great experience, of course. He’s an important player for us on the backend that makes everybody else a little bit better.

Muzzin led all Leafs skaters with 21:49 of even-strength ice-time on Monday night, which is incredibly impressive given the fact he had been out of action for a month. He was on the ice for just one goal against during that nearly 22 minutes of play and he was Toronto’s most effective defender in terms of limiting high-danger chances against.

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Another key performance from Toronto’s blueline on Monday night came from rookie Rasmus Sandin. Having played nine games in the NHL this season, playing one more game would result in his entry-level deal kicking in and the first year of the contract being burned. Given the way Sandin has played, though, there’s little argument that he should be sent back down to the Marlies.

Sandin played 15:42 in all situations and was a catalyst offensively, picking up an assist on the opening goal and scoring a key goal in the second period that would give the Leafs a 3-1 lead.

First, the brilliant flip pass to William Nylander (this goal set a new career-high for Nylander) for the assist…

And second, Sandin’s first NHL goal…

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After the game, Sandin’s teammates had plenty of positive things to say about the rookie’s play…

“He comes up here and he plays with poise,” said William Nylander. “The way he holds onto the puck; he makes small little plays, too. How smooth he is up on the blue line, it’s tremendous to see.”

“What jumps off the page for me is just his hockey sense,” said veteran Jason Spezza. “His skills are obviously really good, but I think his hockey sense is what his best quality [is]. He sees the game really well.

“If you’re open, he gets you the puck. If you’re not, he hangs onto it that extra second. And that stuff you can’t really teach a guy, and to have that at a young age I think that shows great promise. Physically, he’s going to get stronger and more confident. But the hockey sense is there and that’s a special quality.”

If there’s one positive to be drawn about the injuries suffered to Toronto’s blueline, it’s the fact that Sandin was able to come in and prove that he belongs with the team. While there’s an argument to be made that keeping him in the minors would be a positive for the Leafs’ long-term cap situation, Sandin makes the team better and the Leafs need all the help they can get to climb into the playoffs down the stretch.