TORONTO — On a raucous Tuesday night under the Scotiabank Arena lights, under a blanket of cheers from a hometown crowd that’s had plenty to celebrate of late, it all came full circle for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Forty-four days ago, when these Maple Leafs last met the Anaheim Ducks, they floundered. They got exposed, letting their younger, more inexperienced opponent mount a comeback and sink them. Letting a miserable road-trip streak stretch to four straight losses, letting the fan base feel every bit defeated as the new season seemed to capsize.
And then it all changed.
These Leafs found their legs, found their game. And in the weeks since — a month-and-a-half of franchise records and win streaks and career-best performances — they’ve let those fans cautiously dream of silver again.
Tuesday night, with the Ducks back in front of them, Toronto put an exclamation mark on that revival, doing what they should’ve done in October and easily dispensing with the basement-dwellers.
“I think we’ve just really come together with the identity of the team, and how difficult we have to be to play against,” captain John Tavares said from the bowels of Scotiabank Arena, after the final buzzer had sounded. It’s a fair bet the visiting side down the hall found his Maple Leafs plenty difficult to play against given the final score on the night, Tavares’ side putting the Ducks through a 7-0 drubbing to earn its fourth straight win, and 15th straight game with a point collected.
“I think we really just slowed them down and made it difficult for them to get to the neutral zone and establish any kind of offensive game,” the captain continued. “Just sound play as a five-man unit and [them] having to come through all of us, and then that led to a lot of good offence. Good to see all lines contribute — a lot of guys chipping in, making plays, and putting the puck in the net as well.”
The night wasn’t short on offensive standouts, surely.
On one end of the bench was Alex Kerfoot, coming up with his first two-goal performance as a Leaf. Further down, there was TJ Brodie, having scored his first of the year. Further still, Pierre Engvall, Michael Bunting, Joey Anderson, all with goals to their name. And a handful of other dutiful depth soldiers — Pontus Holmberg, Conor Timmins, Rasmus Sandin — with multi-point nights of their own.
As he has been on so many nights during his club’s resurgence, Mitch Marner was at the centre of much of it. With a first-period assist Tuesday — a dish that was the picture of poise, No. 16 floating towards the opposing net and waiting out every Duck on the ice before feeding Tavares for a tap-in goal at the netfront — the winger extended his scoring streak to an absurd 23 games.
He finished the night with another point on the board, taking his total to 32 over that 23-game roll.
But for all the goals and points piled up, it was the Leaf on the far end of the sheet who wound up glinting golden with the player-of-the-game belt draped over his shoulder in the locker room post-game.
“A long time I wait,” netminder Ilya Samsonov said with a chuckle after the win was in the bag, giving the belt a pat. “I’m enjoying. I will go to sleep with this.”
His teammates surely won’t mind if he holds onto the prize after the performance he came up with Tuesday — a 28-save shutout that extended his run of not being scored on to two straight games.
Of course, through the early goings against Anaheim, it looked like his night might be headed down a different path.
“I thought we gave them just a little bit too much room in the first period, a little too easy access to our zone and to the middle of the ice. But Sammy was excellent in that period and allowed us to settle in,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the 25-year-old. “His first period was excellent. And then a big save in the second period on a breakaway, and it’s still 2-0. And then I thought the team took care of him from there.”
It’s been a tumultuous road for the young Leafs ‘tender since making his way to Toronto, with injuries, a rollercoaster season, and tough competition for the top job in the cage pushing him to find his best. On this night, he gave it. And for those who share a dressing room with him, it’s no surprise.
“What really stands out is the work that he’s put in since he arrived at our facility, how he’s embraced the program,” said Keefe. “When I say that, I mean, it’s goalie coach, strength coach, performance team, nutritionist — it’s all the way through. He has embraced everything that we’ve brought to him, and everything we’ve asked him to do.
“He’s put the work in, and I think he feels good about where he’s at with his game.”
Samsonov agrees. But it’s easy, the goaltender says, when the whole team’s rolling like this.
“I think everybody feels comfortable right now, because we play really hard,” he said Tuesday night. “It looks like a champion team. That’s really important for us.”