NHL Notebook: Maple Leafs look to build on November to remember

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  • Toronto Maple Leafs
    Toronto Maple Leafs
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Morgan Rielly
    Morgan Rielly
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • John Tavares
    John Tavares
    Canadian ice hockey player
  • Auston Matthews
    Auston Matthews
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Sheldon Keefe
    Ice hockey player, coach, general manager

The Maple Leafs were on the ropes.

Down 2-0 after the first period to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on Oct. 27, Toronto's season could have very well careened completely off the rails.

The group instead battled back for an overtime victory and then beat the Detroit Red Wings at home later that week to calm the waters in a hyperactive hockey market ready to explode coming off yet another crushing playoff setback five months earlier.

The performances were far from perfect, but the Leafs had a couple wins on the heels of a four-game losing streak as the calendar flipped to a November they won't soon forget.

Toronto finished the month an NHL-leading 12-2-0 — and is on a 14-2-0 run overall — to sit atop the standings and fifth in points percentage heading into Wednesday night's action.

"The one thing that we all feel, and that's consistent with everybody right now, is that we can still be better," Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "Everyone can be better all the time."

Toronto has been pretty good the last five weeks.

Since that victory in Chicago, the Leafs have allowed a league-best 1.63 goals against per game — netminder Jack Campbell possesses an NHL-topping .946 save percentage on the year — own a power play that's clicking at 30 per cent, and have continued some solid work on the penalty kill.

And they aren't only relying on the star-studded forward group of captain John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander to get things done thanks to contributions up and down the roster on a nightly basis.

"It's a lot of fun to be a part of," said Tavares, who leads the team with 22 points. "This is what you play the game for."

The game, however, wasn't all that fun for the Leafs during their 0-3-1 late-October slide — including a 7-1 loss in Pittsburgh — that led to plenty of uncomfortable questions.

"The guys have stayed focused on what they can control," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "What happens inside the walls, happens inside the boards ... and that's really it. It's just blocking out a negative noise. You've got to block out all the noise."

Rielly conceded that's much easier said than done — in good times and bad.

"You can block out the noise all you want," he said. "But you know there's noise that needs to be blocked. It's out there, but it's just the nature of the business.

"That's what happens when you don't get results. Whether you're a professional athlete or whether you're not doing your job at work ... there's consequences."

Tavares said the Leafs have talked a lot about standards, expectations and identity as a team that hasn't won a playoff round since 2004 — or the Stanley Cup since 1967 — looks to right past wrongs.

"We've been good," he said. "A long ways to go."

"Seems like we've really found our game," Matthews added. "There's still areas that we'd like to clean up and improve on."

And as a fan base scarred by playoff failure after excruciating playoff failure will attest, November results don't matter much if it comes apart in the spring.

"We were able to do it in the short-term," Rielly said. "It's important now that we keep growing, keep getting better, and keep it going.

"We'll see if we can."

JETS GROUNDED

Winnipeg got a much-needed 4-2 victory in Calgary on Saturday to snap a five-game losing streak, but fell 1-0 to Arizona at home Monday to drop to 1-5-1 over the its last seven.

The Jets' biggest issue has been scoring. They've been shut out twice and found the back of the net only once in three other recent losses.

Winnipeg (10-8-4) is hovering around the playoff cut line, but the temperature could be turned up further on head coach Paul Maurice if things don't turn around soon.

NHL TIGHTENING COVID-19 RULES AS CASES RISE

The NHL circulated a memo this week that ordered teams to cancel holiday parties, and also barred players and club personnel from taking part in public events as COVID-19 cases rise across the league.

The Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders have both experienced outbreaks that resulted in the postponement of five games, while there's been a significant uptick of players and coaches placed in the NHL's virus protocol.

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Cody Ceci, St. Louis Blues centre Tyler Bozak and Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy were all placed in COVID-19 protocol Tuesday.

"You can see the number of cases," said Keefe, whose team has kept the coronavirus out of its locker room up to now. "It's very unfortunate that these things are continuing to happen, but just a reminder we are still in the pandemic.

"We are functioning in a more normal state, but it's not completely normal."

HABS FOCUS ON MENTAL HEALTH

Somewhat lost in the Canadiens' housecleaning that included the ouster of general manager Marc Bergevin, and the hiring of Jeff Gorton as vice-president of hockey operations, was owner Geoff Molson's organizational pledge to focus on mental health.

Molson said he's directed Montreal's medical team to form a strategy to support players.

Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin and goalie Carey Price have both left the team for mental health reasons during the last calendar month.

"The focus will be on our players off the ice," Molson said. "We see these additions as a critical component to our success."

FIVE FOR BITING

The five-game suspension handed to Los Angeles Kings forward Brendan Lemieux for biting Ottawa Senators winger Brady Tkachuk during their fight Saturday included a key point in the NHL's department of player safety's video explanation of the ban.

"While circumstantial evidence supports the argument that Lemieux may have bitten Tkachuk multiple times during this fight, we are limiting our review of this incident to the bite that occurs almost immediately after the players fall to the ice," the narrator said.

It also isn't the first time a Lemieux has been fingered for chomping down on an opponent.

Brendan Lemieux's father, Claude, was accused of biting both Jaroslav Pouzar of the Edmonton Oilers and Jim Peplinski of the Calgary Flames in the 1980s when he was with the Montreal Canadiens.

"He think me hamburger," Pouzar was quoted saying at the time.

Said Peplinski: "I didn't know they allowed cannibalism in the NHL."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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