Setting new standards
Matthews, Rielly, and the Leafs are rewriting their own record books to start the season
DALLAS — Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
That’s how you organize a march and four games into their schedule, the Maple Leafs are getting comfortable in their roles, which has led to three wins, 20 goals and a string of early season NHL scoring marks.
Of the victories, Tuesday night’s in Dallas was most significant for hard-to-please headmaster Mike Babcock.
“The more skill the player has, the more room he has to be creative,” Babcock said at Wednesday’s practice here. “You don’t have as much skill, you have to get in and forecheck. We’re fortunate to have enough skill people and good team speed. (Tuesday) was one of the first nights you actually saw it, the most engaged we’ve been.
“To be a good team you have to learn how to be engaged every night and that’s the process we’re in. We’ve done it once, we have to do it again.”
When the final numbers were tallied in the 7-4 win over the Stars, who were undefeated with just one goal against, Auston Matthews and John Tavares had combined to tie a century-old league record for points, Matthews had the thirdlongest multi-point scoring streak to start a Leaf season since the Second World War, and Morgan Rielly had more assists than any defencemen in the opening four games since the franchise began in 1917.
“That’s petty cool,” Rielly said. “There’s a lot of luck involved whenever that happens. You take it with a grain of salt. But you keep going. The team has done a good job of improving our game every night.”
So far on this four-game road trip, Tavares celebrated a hat trick in Chicago, Matthews scored a couple of beauties here and Mitch Marner had four points. “When those guys are leading the rest will follow suit,” Rielly said. “When they’re playing as well as they are, guys want to up the ante and their linemates want to keep up. That’s contagious and that’s what good teams do.”
Babcock picked up on that theme.
“Ideally, they’re all pushing each other to get better. That’s what having a lot of depth on your team is all about. You get a chance to get in, you want to play really well.”
Kasperi Kapanen made the most of joining Matthews’s line on right wing the past two games, which bumped Tyler Ennis to fourth line and Andreas Johnsson right off the chart for now. Defenceman Igor Ozhiganov played well after Babcock benched him in Chicago for Marrtin Marincin.
Babcock also cited a player such as Zach Hyman, who plays with Marner and Tavares, for doing the grunt work that’s led to their success. On Wednesday morning, the NHL eventully gave Hyman a point on Tavares’s wraparound goal the night before after he beat out an icing to keep play alive.
“He was directly involved in two goals, he made them happen,” insisted Babcock. “Whether or not you get the point or not it doesn’t matter. Are you doing what you can to help your linemates?”
Babcock lauded Matthews for a strong summer fitness schedule that made his skating even better and tinkering to get his shot and release more lethal.
“At the start of last year, he was really going, too.” Babcock reminded. “Then he got injured and wasn’t able to skate.
“He’s done a good job, worked with Barb Underhill (holding a session with the club skating coach as recently as last week). He’s done a lot of things, that’s what good players do they spend the off-season trying to get better. Confidence is a big part of that as well and good linemates. You add it all together and he’s doing a good job.”
With the plethora of offence, Babcock is a point man himself, though of a different definition.
“It’s exciting for our players, they want to score. In the end you really have to defend well and give up as few chances as you possibly can. We have to learn to do both. But the goal each night is to get points and set yourself up so you have a chance to be in the playoffs.”
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews celebrates scoring against the Chicago Blackhawks with teammate Morgan Rielly, during the third period of an NHL hockey game, on Sunday, in Chicago.