Unfazed by Matthews’ absence, history made, Maple Leafs keep pushing forward

TORONTO — It’s games like these that tell you who you are.

Not the ones where it all lines up, where you overwhelm teams with machine-like dominance, every gear turning with flawless precision. It’s nights like this: still aching from yesterday’s tilt, the best of your best out of the lineup, lines thrown in a blender at the last minute. It’s a tough opponent staring down at you from across the ice, running through you every chance they get, fighting for their playoff lives when yours is already signed, sealed and delivered.

In those moments, what have you got?

On a Sunday night at Scotiabank Arena, the Toronto Maple Leafs proved unfazed by the challenge, taking down the rough-and-tumble New York Islanders 4-2 without reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews. And in doing so, bagging a franchise-record 50th win and 106th point.

They didn’t make it easy on themselves. With the tone set from the opening draw courtesy of a bone-clattering check from New York’s Ross Johnston on veteran Mark Giordano, the Maple Leafs started their trek through the mud. They stumbled early, the Islanders gifted an all-too-easy power-play marker late in the first as Ilya Lyubushkin executed what his coach later called a “textbook screen” on his own netminder, allowing Anthony Beauvillier to walk in and casually snipe the game’s first past Jack Campbell.

But the Maple Leafs battled back, returning to level ground just a few minutes later, Mitch Marner floating to the netfront unseen like a ghost in the slot, eventually landing in the perfect spot to whip a Giordano rebound top corner on Ilya Sorokin.

It was a similar story in the middle frame. This time it was Alex Kerfoot who took over the own-goal duties, a botched clearing attempt in front of Campbell accidentally ricocheting into the back of Toronto’s net. Again, they climbed back, Kerfoot taking it on his shoulders and undoing his error with a gorgeous stutter-step setup for Pierre Engvall on a two-on-one midway through the night.

A few minutes later, William Nylander — who was flying all game, his deft stick-lift, non-pass helping spring Kerfoot and Engvall’s tying tally — took a pass from John Tavares on the power play and fired one home to give his Maple Leafs the lead. They didn’t relinquish it from there.

It’s emblematic of how this season’s gone for this team. Stumble early, fight back, take off.

“There’s been very little complacency in our group. We got off to a tough start at the beginning of the year. Lots of things were being said outside of the room, inside the room, and coming from there to where we’re at right now [says] a lot,” Kerfoot said of that journey post-game.

But just like Sunday night, it could’ve just as easily slipped away from them, had they let it.

“I think it can do one of two things to a group,” Kerfoot continued, speaking of the chatter from the chorus of doubters early in the year. “It can either tear things apart or it can bring you together. I think that our play on the ice has really spoken for how we responded to it.”

The win over the Islanders offered the Maple Leafs faithful a chance step back and take stock, to see beyond the historic dominance that’s become a nightly routine for the squad’s usual focal point. It’s been the Auston Matthews Show in Toronto of late, and rightfully so given the rarified air the young sniper’s putting himself in. But with No. 34 sidelined, the 17,464 in attendance were granted an opportunity to better appreciate what’s been going on in Matthews’ orbit.

In netting his 34th goal of the year Sunday night, Marner collected his 94th point too, tying his career-high in 15 fewer games than the last time he reached the sum, and with eight more goals to his name this time around. The 24-year-old has been the class of the league since the calendar turned from 2021 to 2022 — no other NHLer has outscored him since Jan. 1, in which time Marner’s amassed an absurd 72 points in 42 games. He’s been scoring above a point-per-game pace since November, above 1.50 per game since January, over 1.65 for the past two months.

Nylander’s power-play marker all but guaranteed he’ll be setting a new personal best before the year’s through, too, the goal tying his personal high of 31 — news to Nylander, who laughed when told he’d tied that 31-spot: “I didn’t know that… I thought I had more goals.” — to go along with his already career-best 74 points. And then there’s Engvall’s continued transformation, and Kerfoot’s career-best 50th point, making the Maple Leafs the only club with seven players above the 50-point threshold.

Whether any of it matters in the end remains to be seen, but the team can take solace in the fact that they’re pushing more than they ever have to right their past post-season wrongs, even as key names move in and out of the lineup.

“You know, we’ve had a lot of guys miss a lot of games this year, including myself, and guys have stepped up and played a bigger role, and we’ve won a lot of big games,” Marner said after Sunday’s win. “It’s something that we always talk about — just stepping up and taking on more of the spotlight, and guys have thrived in it.”

Added Kerfoot: “There’s going to be injuries. Every team deals with them throughout the year, and we’ve played with a bunch of different guys out throughout the course of the year. And we’ve really moved forward.”

That’s the most crucial education these Maple Leafs can get this season. There’s no question they’re an elite team, if all lines up correctly, if everything falls in their favour. The questions have always been around what happens when the plans fall apart, when the plot twists arrive. It’s not about perfecting the way you’d prefer to win — it’s about learning how to win any game, any way.

On this night, they did. And in their coach’s eyes, they’ve been doing it for a fair while this season.

“You look at how we’ve played, look at the results that we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten those results — in particular against some of the top teams, and teams that we’re going to face within our division, whether it’s at home or on the road — we’ve done a good job,” Keefe said, “and gotten good results.”

Without their best, they proved they still have elite talent, that they can still take on opponents who meet the game with an approach opposite to theirs, and come out with two points. They even proved they can still make some history without No. 34.

But all of it will only matter if it becomes a brick in the path to the place they truly want to get to. That much is clear from the tone struck by these Leafs in the wake of officially putting together the best regular season in Maple Leafs history.

“It’s a long season. It’s a grind to win a lot of games in this league. There’s lots of good teams. So it’s a really cool thing to be a part of. But we’ve got bigger and better things ahead,” Kerfoot said of the franchise record.

“It really means nothing if we don’t accomplish anything in the playoffs. But it is a grind in this regular season to win games, and we’ve been doing that on a pretty consistent basis.”

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