LAS VEGAS — Unlike a lot of folks, the Maple Leafs managed to get out of Vegas with a win.
William Nylander, with the shootout winner after opening the scoring in the game, made sure of that.
But the Maple Leafs weren’t happy about their 4-3 win over the Golden Knights. They were flat and mistake prone. Their special teams were atrocious. They took too many penalties. They blew a two-goal lead in the third period, their second blown lead in two games.
And that thing about what happens in Vegas staying in Vegas? Well, it’s not true. Their taking the fervour they worked themselves up talking about blowing the lead in Vegas as they had in Colorado, and bringing it with them to Arizona to complete this back-to-back set.
“We should be a little aggravated about how we’ve let these leads slip away here in these two games and take that aggravation and turn it into motivation in terms of just playing a good sound team game (Wednesday) night,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “It’s a very good sign for our team, the fact you can take three out of four points and learn some very valuable lessons that as a group here we have to be better.
“If you look at us before Christmas, we had been quite good in third periods. Just this week, these last couple of games, it obviously hasn’t gone our way. That has our attention. We have to clean that up.”
Nylander scored on a breakaway — set up by Morgan Rielly — early in the first, and of course beat Robin Lehner — the only player on either side to score in the shootout. But even he wasn’t happy with his game or that of his line. With John Tavares and Alex Kerfoot, the three were hemmed in their own zone too many times, and ended up with longer shifts than ideal.
“Our line, we weren’t good tonight. We struggled,” said Nylander. “I mean, they had heavy offensive zone pressure on us. We made a couple of sloppy plays. We were able to get the win, which was big, but we’ve got to bear down in those areas.”
But that pass from Rielly?
“It was a bullet and the saucer pass at the same time, right over the guy’s stick landed flat on my tape,” said Nylander. “It was an unbelievable pass.”
So pity the poor Arizona Coyotes, with 17 points in 33 games — just seven wins — going up against the Maple Leafs, with 49 points.
The Coyotes have 11 players — including top defenceman Jakob Chychrun (upper body) — on the injured list, four on COVID protocols. They have not practised for two days, out of caution for the virus.
Meanwhile, the Leafs are on a 25-4-2 heater and if they weren’t motivated enough to “bear down,” they’re coming to town extra motivated with two players celebrating a homecoming.
Not only is it Auston Matthews’ return to his home town, but Michael Bunting is heading back to play the team that drafted and developed him.
Bunting set up Matthews for the Leafs second goal, and the two seemed to enjoy bantering with each other after the game about the trip to Arizona.
“We’re expecting big things,” said Matthews. “He’s been talking about this game for a long time and there should be a pretty big video tribute for him and all that stuff. So, you know, I think he’s excited.”
A video tribute for Bunting would be a bit much for a player who played 26 games over two seasons after being drafted in the fourth round in 2014.
“I don’t think there’ll be a video tribute,” said Bunting. “That’s pretty funny that he said that. I played my first NHL game for that organization, and that was definitely a memory I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. They treated me great there, and it’s definitely going to be a bittersweet moment going back there because I’ve made a lot of friendships along the way.”
Between the Coyotes and their AHL team in Tuscon, Bunting feels like Arizona is a home away from home.
“I spent a long time in that organization, mostly in the minors with the Tucson Roadrunners. I’m sure there’s going to be some fans from Tucson coming to support. I saw a couple of here (in Vegas). So that was pretty cool.”
For Matthews, though, Arizona is his actual home.
“It’s always fun going back there and playing and having my family and friends in the building,” said Matthews. “It’s always an exciting one and a game that I look forward to every year.”
Petr Mrazek is expected to start in Arizona. It will be Mrazek’s first game since Dec. 11. So it will be a good test — almost a fresh start — for Mrazek to prove he can carry a bit more of the load when the schedule heats up and there are fewer days off between games.
“I think it is a good way to look at it with Mrazek, that is sort of like a new season for him,” said Keefe. “It’s been so long since he’s played. We had a significant gap. We had somewhat of a pre-season type of feel before coming out on this road trip, and he very much should be looking at it as a fresh start here.”
• With a goal in the second period, Ilya Mikheyev has now recorded four in his first five games back from a broken thumb.
• The Leafs were without Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall, who both remain out on COVID protocols.
• The Leafs went 0-for-2 on the power play, generating few chances.
• The Leafs took five minors in a row — including a too-many-men while killing a penalty — and surrendered two goals.
• Matthews has eight goals in seven games against Vegas.
• The Leafs are 6-2-0 all time against the Golden Knights, 2-2-0 at T-Mobile Arena.
• This is the sixth of 14 back-to-back series. The Leafs are 3-2-1 in the first game, 2-3-0 in the second.
• Nylander is one point from 300 on his career.
• Jack Campbell stopped 31 of 34 shots for his 18th win of the season, a career high.
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