By DAVID SHOALTS
Thursday, November 9, 2017
TORONTO -- All that was missing was the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack: Where have you gone Auston Matthews? Leafs Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
The only encouraging thing about Wednesday's game was the result - a 4-2 win by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If they had been playing one of the NHL's elite teams without Matthews in the lineup rather than the so-so Minnesota Wild, the evening at the Air Canada Centre would not have ended so happily for the 19,049 fans.
Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Matt Martin and Connor Brown scored for the Leafs, but the star of the game was goaltender Frederik Andersen. He allowed Jason Zucker two goals, one late in the first period and one five minutes to go in the third, and then held off the Wild for the last few minutes.
In the day leading up to the game, once it became probable Matthews would miss his first game as a Maple Leaf, there was a lot of talk about stepping up and the depth on the roster.
"Our depth is a proud point with this team," Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said at the game-day skate. "We'll be okay."
"That's one thing we been talking about all year is the depth of the forward group," Kadri said. "That's one thing that does favour us. No matter who's in or out I think we've got guys that fill the void. Certain guys are going to have to step up."
Not so fast, fellas.
The only Leaf to step up for the longest time was Andersen, who was fighting to quell the doubters of late, as were his teammates. Thanks to his work, especially in the second period when the Leafs pretty much stood around and watched the Wild fire 14 shots at him, there is no way they could have taken a 2-1 lead into the third period.
All that forward depth the Leafs were talking about could not get the puck out of its own end. The Wild easily broke up the Leafs' breakout attempts time after time and if it had not been for a few big saves by Andersen, they would have entered the third period in a big hole.
The other discouraging part was that the Leafs' attack was not being smothered before it could start by one of the NHL's elite teams. The Wild, with a 5-6-2 record going into the game, was one of the league's better teams last season but merely a shadow of that this year.
All the Leafs did was prove head coach Mike Babcock's assertion at the morning skate about Matthews: "No one is moving into his spot.
Someone is going to play there."
If anyone wasn't sure Matthews, who had 19 points in 16 games before an undisclosed injury ("Upper body," Babcock said.) forced him out of the lineup on Wednesday, was not the Leafs' most valuable player, then the Wild game settled the issue. The group looked lost without him for the most part, aside from a few minutes of activity and some good work by Andersen.
Nevertheless, the Leafs managed the first goal of the game, although it was a stroke of good luck, or more properly, a stroke of really bad luck for Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
Rielly fired a shot from the point that hit the end boards and bounced into the crease where it hit the back of Dubnyk's skate and bounced into the net at 12:56.
Dubnyk is in the same boat as Andersen - getting a healthy share of the blame for his team's struggles - and this was a cruel turn of events.
It was the second time in as many nights the goaltender had a puck bounce off his skate and into the net.
Late in the period, the Leafs' inability to get the puck out of their end allowed the Wild to tie the score. Rielly and his defence partner Ron Hainsey could not get the puck moving under the Wild's fore-checking. Then Leafs forward Zach Hyman lost his man, Wild winger Zucker, who pounced on a rebound from linemate Eric Staal to make it 1-1.
The evening's theme - bad hockey from two struggling teams trying not to mess things up rather than create something - continued in the second period.
But a big pad save by Andersen on Wild forward Matt Cullen from point-blank range started a decent sequence by the Leafs. Hyman carried the puck into the Wild zone, went down to the slot and froze the defence by spinning around and firing the puck to Marleau, who was in the high slot.
Marleau's shot through a crowd beat Dubnyk to give the Leafs the lead at 3:47. It was the 514th goal of Marleau's career, which moved him past Jeremy Roenick and into 39th place on the NHL's career scoring list.
The Leafs needed Andersen one more time in the second period, this time on a giveaway in their own zone near the halfway point. He robbed Tyler Ennis to keep the hosts in front. At that point, the Wild had an 18-9 edge in shots on goal.
Martin gave the Leafs some breathing room early in the third period when he scored his second of the season at 3:40 on a deflection.
Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs and Kyle Quincey of the Wild battle for position in Wednesday's matchup in Toronto.
JOHN E. SOKOLOWSKI/USA TODAY SPORTS