What can’t Sheldon Keefe do?
While he won’t take credit for it, previously beleaguered backup netminder Michael Hutchinson was an absolute star under his watch Saturday night in Toronto, making 33 saves in a 3-0 shutout of the New York Islanders.
Pierre Engvall, Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman scored the goals for Toronto, and Mitch Marner registered two primary assists, while John Tavares and William Nylander saw their impressive point streaks snapped in what was a low-event, low-output struggle between two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
With the win, the Maple Leafs made Keefe the first head coach in franchise history to win 15 of his first 20 games, and improved to 11-1-1 over their last 13.
Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers will be in town Monday.
Until then, three points:
In a clean, tight-checking, near-penalty-free contest — where the shots were at a premium — most of the battles were won from the defensive side of the puck and the netminders were super sharp. It was going to take something special to see a breakthrough.
There were two plays that achieved that standard in the end, both of which belonged to the Maple Leafs.
After 30-plus minutes spent failing to gain entrance through the mostly-impermeable Islanders defensive wall, Kasperi Kapanen finally found himself with some neutral-zone ice to skate into with possession. Still, with two men back for New York, the odds of even creating a decent scoring chance were slim, and something special was required to make use of that rare daylight.
Pushing the puck forward, almost as if he was trying to bait youngster Noah Dobson into making a play for it, Kapanen swept it across at the exact moment that the Islanders defenceman started into his reach. The Leafs finally had a rare mismatch and Kapanen sent the puck across to Engvall, who waited just long enough to open up a hole as Semyon Varlamov slid across.
Less than three minutes later, after Johnny Boychuk whiffed on an attempt to send a rimmed puck back the other way, Marner collected possession in the offensive zone. Four defenders were back and ready to settle into their stymying structure, but Marner immediately rid himself of the puck, sending it onto the path of Matthews.
With the slightest touch — so much so that it wasn’t clear how it happened — the Leafs’ leading scorer was able to drift it off the ice and over the shoulder of Varlamov to make it 2-0.
Auston Matthews makes it 2-0 for the Leafs pic.twitter.com/IoVFjuYOge— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 5, 2020
From that moment on, the Islanders turned the shots and attempts in their favour, but failed to match the special plays that won the Leafs the game.
You would need two or maybe three hands to count the number of times that Hutchinson prevented the winds from blowing in a different direction Saturday night.
There was the incredible glove save on the Josh Bailey half breakaway a little less than five minutes before the Engvall goal. There was the pad down on Anders Lee and the glove save on Mat Barzal with a little less than nine minutes to go as well. Hey, he even needed to stop Marner once.
But the most important save might have been on a brilliant deflection from Barzal just before Matthews doubled the Leafs lead. Shutting down the space between his pads as the puck changed directions, Hutchinson’s rebound helped send the Leafs out in transition, leading to the dumped in puck that Marner would eventually control and dish ahead to Matthews.
After starting 0-5-1, Hutchinson has now won his last three appearances, having allowed just five goals over that stretch. For the meantime he’s eliminated the need to look elsewhere in order to insulate Frederik Andersen.
No third wheel
Engvall is figuring it out pretty quickly.
No, I don’t mean the offensive part of his game after being trained, initially, to be a defensive-first contributor at both the minor-league and NHL level.
But about how to be that humble hockey star.
That means not leaving anyone out.
After being asked about his connection with Kapanen, Engvall made sure to not leave out his other new linemate — the veteran Jason Spezza.
“He’s a huge part of this too. He knows what to say to get us going, and he’s helping us with where to be,” Engvall said. “He’s a really positive guy. If we have a bad shift, he’ll tell you, ‘try to do this, try to do this,’ and we figure it out almost every time.”
So, basically, Spezza is the Engvall whisperer.
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