KANATA, Ont. — Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe turned heads on the first day of training camp when he made it known that 41-year-old forward Joe Thornton would play on a top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Keefe’s vision of their potential came to fruition in a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday Night at Canadian Tire Centre.
“I just thought those guys were way more involved,” Keefe said. “I thought they were all over the puck, getting second and third opportunities in the offensive zone.”
With no training camp and just two NHL games under their belt, perhaps there was fear that the experiment may not work. Or maybe Matthews’ knack for putting up goals early in the season had set those expectations.
Matthews scored at 2:42 of the second period for Toronto’s third goal of the game and the winning tally. It also represented the latest the star forward had scored in a season.
His third game.
It also took Thornton three games to score his first goal, but that marked a substantial improvement over the 39 games it took to get his first tally of 2019-20.
“I actually wanted to give it over to Matty (Matthews) but they kind of took him away,” Thornton said of the two-on-one sequence. “I saw the goalie cheating, so I just shot it,”
Thornton became the second-oldest player to score a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the oldest forward to score for the club.
Perhaps the best player on the line was Mitch Marner, who created the chance for Thornton and was aggressive on the forecheck for the entire 60 minutes.
“It was a better game by us three,” Marner said. “We were physically engaged and winning puck battles down low in the o-zone.”
Marner scored Toronto’s second goal of the game at 1:10 of the second period.
Following lessons learned from a night earlier, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t take their foot off the gas pedal.
It turned out that they needed every inch of the throttle against a tight, defensive Senators team.
Toronto fired 73 shots toward the net in all situations compared to just 36 from Ottawa. Every player in the Maple Leafs lineup finished above 50 percent in possession in five-on-five situations except for Nicholas Robertson. The 19-year-old was making his regular-season NHL debut but left the game after the first period after suffering a knee injury. During his 2:19 of ice time, Robertson had a 50 per cent possession rating.
Despite Toronto’s control of the puck, the Senators kept the game within reach and cut the deficit to 3-2 after German rookie Tim Stutzle scored his first NHL goal at 11:44 of the third period.
“We really didn’t spend much time in our own end at all tonight,” Keefe said. “That a big part of it. Credit for Ottawa with how they play.”
Toronto’s roster played well beyond their top-line forwards. Defenseman T.J. Brodie looked comfortable and bounced back from a challenging game on Friday. The other forward lines stayed aggressive on the forecheck, including Alex Kerfoot, who has found his stride alongside Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman.
Jack Campbell was steady in goal for the Maple Leafs. He made just 17 saves on 19 shots.
Campbell made his first start since Mar. 6 in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. He picked up his first win since defeating the Senators 4-2 on Feb. 15.
“It’s been a little bit so I gotta get the rust off,” Campbell said. ” I know I can play a lot better, but thankfully the boys were amazing tonight.”
Campbell made a pair of difficult saves, including a shot from the point by Senators defenceman Josh Brown that deflected toward the goal. Having gone the other way, Campbell had to change direction and just got his toe out in time to stop the puck.
Aaron Dell served has Campbell’s back up. With the team set for a day off on Sunday, Andersen put in his work on Saturday morning. Keefe mentioned this will likely be the strategy while the team continues to carry three goalies on their active roster.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the Leafs through three games is they are playing better.
Fewer mistakes and an aggressive forecheck carried the day.