Leafs vs. Blackhawks: Toronto bowls over Chicago in Matthews' return

Auston Matthews made a triumphant return to the Leafs' lineup as Toronto overpowered the lowly Blackhawks.

TORONTO — After a three-day hiatus where the Toronto Maple Leafs had ample time to stew, then reflect upon one of their worst losses of the season, there was no way they were coming out flat against the desolate Chicago Blackhawks.

William Nylander personified the Maple Leafs’ renewed focus, scoring nine seconds into the contest after Blackhawks defenseman Jake McCabe blew a tire. It was the fourth-fastest goal to start a game in franchise history. Although Chicago’s Sam Lafferty capitalized on an inexcusable Calle Jarnkrok turnover 53 seconds later, Toronto bowled over its inferior opponent. Rasmus Sandin quickly restored the Maple Leafs’ lead, and then it was a familiar scene.

Auston Matthews, middle, made an immediate impact in his return to the Leafs' lineup. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nylander came out like a wrecking ball in the first period and in a spectacular sequence, circled the entire offensive zone before finding Auston Matthews with a pass right in his shooting pocket. Matthews missed the past three weeks due to a knee injury, but it seems evident he benefited from the rest and rehab period, burying his 26th goal of the season, as the Maple Leafs took a 3-1 lead.

Conor Timmins isn't going anywhere. Timmins was reinserted into the lineup with Justin Holl benched due to poor play. The 24-year-old rewarded Sheldon Keefe’s faith, blasting a slap shot past Petr Mrazek — who was awful for the Blackhawks — effectively ending the game as the Maple Leafs went up 5-2 entering the second intermission, closing the game out in a scoreless, nondescript third period.

Here’s what you need to know from Maple Leafs-Blackhawks:

Three stars:

1. William Nylander, Maple Leafs

There are a few candidates for the spot here, but no one was better than Nylander. He scored nine seconds into the contest, then set up Matthews with a perfect pass that will surely build the reigning Hart Trophy winner’s confidence back up. He drove play, he received a secondary assist on Timmins’ goal to complete a three-point night, and he became the fourth Maple Leafs player in 20 years to reach the 30-goal mark in 55 games or fewer.

After the game, Nylander admitted Matthews drew up the play that led to the initial goal and Keefe raved about how his best forwards earned the trust and creativity to design their own reads.

Nylander, in tandem with Matthews and Michael Bunting, posted a 91 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick. They simply scorched the Blackhawks every time they hopped over the boards.

2. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

We don’t care who the opponent is, posting a three-point night after a three-week injury related absence is always impressive and Matthews showed why he’s still firmly among the best players in the world. He scored from inside the faceoff circle, set up his linemates with prime scoring opportunities, constantly tracked back and won 71 percent of his faceoffs. Perhaps we take Matthews’ routine excellence for granted, but him and Nylander appeared to be in a different league than the Blackhawks on Wednesday.

“We've played together quite a bit. Nothing really changes. We just want to be hard on the puck and move off the puck for each other. Between Mitchy and Willy, they're both so good with the puck, skate extremely well. Obviously, pass it extremely well. I think that mindset never really changes. We just try to get open and use each other out there and I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight,” Matthews said post-game of his camaraderie with Nylander.

“Obviously, it's a huge boost to get him back. The goal was just unbelievable, he picks the corner,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said of Matthews post-game.

3. Rasmus Sandin and Conor Timmins, Maple Leafs

Yes, this is technically cheating but we couldn’t separate the defence pairing. Sandin played his best game of the calendar year, made several good reads, mitigated Timmins’ few mistakes and scored an opportunistic goal when he banked a shot off Chicago’s Connor Murphy and in. Sandin notched a goal and assist, four shots, two takeaways and a few smiles from his defence partner.

Timmins was re-inserted into the lineup and boy, did he deliver. The 24-year-old unleashed a clapper from the point to put the Maple Leafs up 5-2. Mark Giordano raved about Timmins’ velocity during the morning skate, and Matthews presented his view of the goal post-game. He’s going to be in the lineup for the foreseeable future, even though Keefe did point out that he did take two minor penalties.

“I think I took one hard shot when I got here and we’re sticking with that story, so I feel like I have to prove it a little bit,” Timmins said with a huge smile post-game.

“I saw the replay from the camera angle right behind him. Unbelievable shot placement," Matthews said of Timmins’ goal. It was a really nice screen in front by Willy, by Bunting. I couldn't really see it but the shot placement was really impressive."

Sandin was grinning while waiting for Timmins to complete his post-game media session, then jokingly said he’d pay his partner for the kind words. It was a mutual appreciation society. Keefe warned against looking too much into Timmins’ performance against a worn out Blackhawks team playing on its second night of a back-to-back, but through an isolated, single-game lens, both defencemen earned their stars.

Off night: Patrick Kane, Blackhawks

Kane is perhaps the greatest American player ever. Tavares and Giordano raved about Kane’s hockey intelligence and status as one of the NHL’s elite players. And while it seems silly to criticize effort level in the pros, Kane just looked markedly indifferent.

Kane rarely chased down pucks, he didn’t track back, and his line with Philipp Kurashev and Max Domi got cooked to the tune of a 36 percent expected goals share at 5-on-5. Maybe Kane is merely waiting to get traded from the only franchise he’s ever known, but he didn’t play like the game-changing talent that has won virtually everything the NHL has to offer.

Kane wasn’t made available to reporters post-game but Domi spoke about the pressure Kane’s facing, via Mike Stephens of The Hockey News:

Play of the game:

We’ve gone over this a few times and Nylander’s opening goal was in contention. But we have to single out Matthews’ laser that stood as the game-winner. Nylander flew through the offensive zone, surveyed the ice, caught the Blackhawks completely flat-footed and placed the puck right in Matthews’ sweet spot. It was a marvellous goal, but these types of finishes from Matthews and seeing-eye passes from Nylander are almost becoming routine.

Misplay of the game:

This easily could’ve gone to McCabe for falling down and allowing Nylander to score before some fans got to their seats but ultimately Mrazek earned this distinction. He didn’t make a single key save when his team needed it and much like Kane, he appeared to be somewhat disinterested.

On this play, Mrazek absentmindedly left the puck behind his net, even with Maple Leafs speedster Alexander Kerfoot closing in. Kerfoot won the puck easily, tapped it to Tavares, who made no mistake, and the Maple Leafs added to their lead.

Here’s another angle of Mrazek’s blunder.

Stat of the night:

Nylander put himself in pretty exclusive company with his opening tally.

Going viral:

Giordano has carved out a lane as one of Toronto’s unofficial spokesmen and he had some fun while mic’d up on the ESPN broadcast.

Quote of the night:

Tavares on Matthews' return: “Yeah, I mean it's Auston Matthews, pretty good!”

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