ANAHEIM There’s a downside to trying to create too much of your NHL offence with the stretch pass. If you over-rely on the home-run feed — and the Maple Leafs have, in recent years, occasionally been guilty of doing exactly that — you can spend a game looking desperate and disjointed, throwing away puck after puck on a series of long-distance prayers.
Still, used skilfully and judiciously, the stretch pass can be a powerful weapon, one Toronto’s NHLers employed beautifully at a big moment in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
The pass in question came off the stick of Jake Muzzin, who sprung a streaking Mitch Marner midway through the second period. Muzzin’s quick-thinking feed — a laser sent from deep in the defensive zone all the way to the opposing blue line — created a three-on-one. Marner sped down the left wing. Linemates Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting spread out accordingly. Bunting promptly buried Marner’s perfect cross-ice pass for what turned out to be the winning goal.
To say things have been going well for the Leafs of late would be an understatement.
Sunday’s victory, Toronto’s 14th in 16 games, gave the Leafs a clean sweep of a four-game road trip on which they won each game by at least three goals. According to a tweet from Randy Robles of the Elias Sports Bureau, the last NHL team to do that was the Montreal Canadiens of 1978-79 — an all-time great collection of talent en route to its fourth straight Stanley Cup.
With 59 games remaining in the regular season and zero playoff success in recent memory, it’s safe to say the Leafs, while tied for first in the overall standings, have light years to travel before they convince anyone they’re for real. Still, the recent returns have been undeniably impressive. And the thing that was significant about Sunday’s Muzzin-Marner-Bunting connection was that it amounted to an outlier.
Save for that play, Toronto didn’t score much in transition during their road swing. Head coach Sheldon Keefe spent the trip emphasizing the importance of creating traffic and scoring so-called “dirty” goals around the goalmouth. His team complied.
“There hasn’t been an abundance of chances available on the rush for our team,” Keefe said in the lead-up to Sunday’s game. “Teams are doing a good job defending us in that regard … (Toronto’s players) have got to adapt. And I think that’s one of the things I’ve been happy about during this trip, is how our team has adapted to that and have found different ways to score.”
The most compelling case in point would be Matthews, who arrives back in Toronto on a three-game goal-scoring streak, his first such multi-game run of the season. In scoring against each of the Kings, Sharks and Ducks, Matthews never unloaded his masterful, world-class wrister. Instead, he potted all three goals in tight to the net.
With Matthews shooting a career-low 11.8 per cent this season — well off the 18.5 per cent he shot last year en route to leading the league in goal scoring — he acknowledged an adjustment in his approach.
“A lot of times when it’s not going in from outside you’ve just got to get to the net,” Matthews said. “I was fortunate to get a couple of good bounces, a couple of good tips and able to cash in some plays … I like to think I can score from different areas. Just try to get to the net. Obviously that’s usually where goals are scored a big percentage of the time.”
Matthews has made his name, of course, as one of the few NHL players with a shot that’s powerful and accurate enough to beat goaltenders from considerable distance. But in a slow-starting season in which he missed training camp recovering from off-season wrist surgery, he’s been continuing his climb back into the Rocket Richard Trophy race by showing the diversity of his ability.
“He’s a complete goal scorer, you know that; we all know that,” Alex Kerfoot, the Leafs winger, said of Matthews. “He can score just about any way you can put the puck in the net. He’s got great hands. He gets a stick on a lot of pucks. He battles hard to get to those areas.
“He’s able to dig pucks out of the front of the net, which is key because there’s always loose pucks around there and he always seems to get the puck on his stick in those situations. He’s got great hands in front of the net. He can make people looks silly. There’s not many guys that can beat goalies from the outside and he’s one of them. There’s not much more you can ask for from a goal scorer.”
Not much more, except more goals. Matthews’s three-goal road trip gave him 10 on the season — tied for 14th on the NHL leaderboard heading into Monday. In the Rocket Richard race, Matthews has plenty of ground to make up. League leader Leon Draisaitl had 20, while Alex Ovechkin had 19.
Individual awards clearly aren’t the goal for the Leafs this season. Playoff readiness is the only relevant pursuit. So while Muzzin’s bullet feed to Marner reminded the hockey world that the Leafs are still a formidable threat on the stretch-pass quick strike, Toronto’s road-tripping display of a willingness and ability to score in close proximity to the blue paint, while far less spectacular, might have been more impressive.
“I think there’s lots of different ways to score goals, and that’s one. And when the time calls for that, you’ve got to be able to do it,” Keefe said. “We have looked fairly closely at the goals we’ve scored in the playoffs and I don’t think they’re entirely different than the regular season. There’s just less of them. They’re harder to come by.
“There’s still breakaways and two-on-ones and odd-man rushes, and mistakes and things like that happen quite often, just like the regular season. Sometimes you need a goal on the inside, and you’ve got to earn it that way. So it’s just another way to score. We feel we can score different ways. That’s one.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk