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This article was published 27/10/2021 (212 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CHICAGO—It took an overtime goal from William Nylander against, statistically speaking, the worst team in the NHL for the Maple Leafs to take the heat off themselves.
Nylander scored on a breakaway off a feed from Auston Matthews for a 3-2 win over the turmoil-filled and COVID-ridden Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said captain John Tavares. “We’ve got a lot of things to work on and get better at, but any time you get two points on the road, especially the way it’s been going for us, (is) a good character win for us.”
The Blackhawks — still looking for their first victory of the season — got goals from Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach to open a 2-0 first-period lead.
That led to a team discussion in the first intermission that changed the course of the game. What was said and by whom remained a team secret, but the theme was clear, according to Nylander.
“Time to wake up. Enough feeling sorry for ourselves,” he said. “Nobody’s going to get us out of this but the guys in the locker room. We’re not playing to where we can play. That’s what was just being said, that we needed up the battle. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this slow start.”
Tavares scored in the second on a feed from Mitch Marner as Toronto’s core four came through in the same game as the Leafs avoided a fifth loss in a row, ending their first road trip to the United States since before the pandemic on a high note.
David Kämpf, an ex-Hawk playing as a visitor for the first time, tied the game in the third.
“Our guys have been through a lot here on this road trip,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, “some of it self-inflicted. Nonetheless, mentally, to get two points going home feels good, for sure.
“The fact that at the end of a long road trip here, with the way things have gone, that we fought back — we got a great goal from Kämpf — and then find a way to get the second point, that’s big for us going home.”
With a day off Thursday and the Red Wings, another bottom-feeder, in town on Saturday, the team may have reduced some of the pressure that had been building.
Still, the fan base has been quite discontented, calling for blood at various points including firing for the coach or GM or president — or all three. Or breaking up the core of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares.
It didn’t help optics wise that team president Brendan Shanahan showed up on the trip in Carolina and was joined by most of the front-office staff in Chicago, though the team said two days in the Windy City was a reward for a staff that had been cooped up in Toronto during the pandemic.
The players say they’re blocking out all that noise.
“That’s the Toronto market,” said forward Wayne Simmonds. “Obviously we’re not playing the best right now and we’re going to hear it from every different angle. We know what we’ve got in the room. We got full belief in ourselves. And that said, we’re not really listening to what the naysayers are saying. You can say whatever you want, but we’ve got full belief in ourselves.”
- Another drought ends: Marner’s six-game pointless streak came to an end with the primary assist on Tavares’s backhander in the second period. Toronto trailed 2-1 after two. Marner didn’t go more than two games without a point last season. The last time he went six was in 2017-18. The pressure has been on Marner to produce during the team’s slide, and that’s been a special focus for Keefe.
“You’ve got to reassure him of the good things that he’s doing and give him opportunities to succeed, in terms of his ice time and the situations you’re putting him in,” said Keefe. “Our players (have to) recognize their role and their responsibility in each area of the ice and do their job for the team. And then the players, whether it’s Mitch or any of our other guys, they’re just too good to not break out.”
- Start over: Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Leafs got off to another terrible start and were trailing 2-0 by the end of the first period. It was the seventh time in eight games the Leafs gave up the first goal. It matters because the team that scores first typically wins two-thirds of the time. What’s even more remarkable is that the Blackhawks — 0-5-1 coming into the game — hadn’t had a lead in this season until that point.
- Familiar spot: Kämpf, a Blackhawk for four seasons before signing with the Leafs, took the opening faceoff at the United Center in his first game back: “I spent four years here and I have great memories in this city in this building, so it’s good to be back.”
- Bad trip: It was an unusual three-game trip for the Leafs to say the least. The cities — Pittsburgh, Raleigh, N.C. and Chicago — have rarely been stops on the same trip before. And it went from bad to worse, the spectre of previous failures against the Penguins, Hurricanes and Blackhawks haunted the team.
First there was an ugly 7-1 loss in Pittsburgh to a team without five key players, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Then it was off to Carolina, where Leafs president Brendan Shanahan joined the team. In itself that’s not all that unusual. But two years ago, after a similarly ugly performance in Pittsburgh, Shanahan arrived on the road and coach Mike Babcock was fired.
And at that Carolina game — a 4-1 loss — the Hurricanes brought in David Ayres as a special guest, a reminder of one of the Leafs’ most infamous defeats — to a 42-year-old emergency backup goalie. Their former netminder, Frederik Andersen, left Monday’s game to cheers of “Freddie, Freddie” and was the game’s first star.
Then it was on to Chicago to face a Blackhawks team dealing with the fallout of a sex assault scandal from 2010. A loss here in 2012 was Ron Wilson’s last game as coach of the Leafs, part of a poor run that then-GM Brian Burke likened to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff.
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran