The Toronto Maple Leafs won their third straight with yet another five-plus goal effort against the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

For anyone who grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada each Saturday, an indispensable part of the tradition was the sound of Bob Cole’s voice calling the game.

Over the past few years, Cole had been calling fewer and fewer Leafs games, which felt a little disheartening for many Leafs fans, even if it is in part an inevitable byproduct of the passage of time for the now 85-year-old.

Which is why hearing him call tonight’s game was such a treat. When Sportsnet announced that Cole would be calling three more Leafs games in the 2018-19 season, many Leafs fans had this one circled on the calendar.

His final game on the 2018-19 season will no doubt be an emotional send-off to a Canadian legend. Until that time comes, enjoy Cole calling hockey games while you can.

First Period

The Rangers gave the Leafs a bit of trouble in the first five or so minutes, with the Leafs struggling to get through their neutral zone cleanly. Frankly, the Rangers looked the likelier team to open the scoring in the initial stages.

But the Leafs, through a tip by Patrick Marleau, scored the first of the game somewhat against the run of play.

Credit to the Ron Hainsey defensive play moments prior to prevent the Rangers from advancing up ice; from there, the Leafs were able to establish the zone, eventually leading to a Morgan Rielly’s shot from the point for his 41st point (with the 42nd soon to follow) of the season.

Marleau’s tally was also a historic one as it was his 545th career goal, which nudges him ahead of Maurice Richard for 30th all time. Next up is Michel Goulet with 548, who Marleau will certainly pass with his current pace and ironman streak.

The Leafs dominated the remainder of the period after taking the early lead. The John Tavares line, with Andreas Johnsson in the Zach Hyman spot, was really effective in the opening 20 minutes.

This was pretty much the story of the opening period from that point on. While the Leafs were getting into a good rhythm rolling four lines over the boards and the Marleau – Matthews – Kapanen line had some fantastic o-zone shifts, the new-look Tavares line was the best of the period, as exemplified by this particular sequence here:

At the end of the first period, the score remained 1-0 in favour of Toronto. While the shot count wasn’t all that lopsided at 15-10 Leafs, it could’ve been 3-0 or 4-0 based on the scoring chances as the Rangers just couldn’t hang with the Leafs’ relentless four-line attack and ability to push the pace.

Second Period

In the opening seconds of the second, the Leafs were forced to kill a penalty as Marleau was sent to the box. Given the unit’s recent run of inconsistency down a man, there was reason to worry, but the Leafs did an effective job of holding their structure and killing it off.

After a few minutes of 50-50 shifts with minimal highlights to speak of, the Leafs got a power play of their own after tempers flared in front of the Rangers net.

This resulted in the Leafs going to a four-minute power play, a prime chance to do some more damage on the scoreboard and put this one all but out of the Rangers’ reach. While there were a few good looks from the top unit in the second half of the power play, it didn’t result in much, as the Leafs got pretty handily outworked on most of the puck battles and never really set the zone for very long.

As is often the way in hockey, a major missed opportunity led to a momentum switch in the form of a goal at the other end. 15 minutes into the period, the Rangers evened things up through a point shot from Neal Pionk that deflected in off of Martin Marincin in front. The deflection wasn’t initially highlighted on the broadcast, but it all made sense with another view later as Frederik Andersen was square on his angle to stop the puck and it was originally going wide.

Moments later, the Leafs were back to the penalty kill after a holding call on Tavares, as the Leafs were reactive and flat-footed for a succession of shifts; when the game was 1-1, they took on serious water for the first time in the game with some extended offensive-zone cycle shifts for New York.

For a second time, though, the Leafs’ penalty killers stepped up and were able to limit the Rangers to some half looks from the outside of the faceoff dots.

In the dying moments of the middle frame, the Rangers came close to pulling ahead, but Ryan Strome just barely missed the open cage.

When the horn sounded, the score was 1-1 and shots were even at 10-10, but Mike Babcock left the bench shaking his head for the intermission; the Leafs let this one become a game with missed opportunities on the power play and a let-off at 5v5 to close out the period.

Third Period

Just before the period began, the Leafs made another ankle injury-related announcement (on the heels of the Zach Hyman injury). Tyler Ennis was out for the remainder of the game and, as it turns out, will be for quite a while due to a broken ankle.

While the Leafs needed to juggle the rotation a little bit following the news, with Kasperi Kapanen taking some double shifts, the Leafs got off to the start they needed to the final frame.

There’s a lot to like about this goal: First, that was a smart play from Jake Gardiner to shoot the puck down low into a playable area. From there, it was an intelligent redirect from Tavares to the net-front, where Marner “timed his run” well at the back post. Meanwhile, Andreas Johnsson was drawing the attention of two Rangers parked in front of the net. All in all, this was a great workmanlike goal for the Leafs from a line that has established quick chemistry in Hyman’s absence.

That goal was later switched, with Johnsson getting credit (keep that in mind for later).

The goal seemed to give the Leafs some life as minutes later they were right back at it in the offensive zone to extend their lead by two.

While this wasn’t as complete of a performance as the Florida and New Jersey wins were, the Leafs are tilting the ice and dominating zone time for extended spells more often in this recent stretch, which is the progression the Leafs need to make against mediocre opposition — don’t play down to them and trade chances; play fast, generate cycle time, and exert dominance.

This goal came off a good Leaf cycle, with Rielly showing his instincts again to jump up and receive the pass from Johnsson followed by a confident man’s release in tight.

Minutes later, Rielly found himself on the highlight reel again — this time for the wrong reasons.

While that move from Filip Chytil was pretty to watch, Rielly should have played this better and he owned the goal afterward (none of the Leafs tracking back covered themselves in glory, either).

The response from the Leafs was perfect.

This may be the leading candidate for Leaf goal of the year so far and there have been many worthy candidates. After a trademark long pass to stretch the ice out of the Leaf zone courtesy of Rielly, a brilliant pass from Tavares behind his back with a defender on him sprung Marner free, and Marner tucked it home beautifully with his dangle in tight followed by a celebration that conveyed clearly where Marner’s confidence level is at currently. This game’s pretty easy and a ton fun for him right now.

The Rangers, to their credit, refused to go away in this game.

The Rangers then manufactured a press in the dying moments in search of an equalizer, but a bobble at the blue line was gobbled up by Marner, who was never getting caught after that.

Ignore the caption of the tweet; that was Marner’s second goal of the game. After getting rained with hats during Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers, this is now the second straight game in which Marner was mistaken for scoring a hat trick. That’s probably not something you’ll ever see again in your hockey-watching lives.

Clip of the Night

Notable Stats

Post-Game Notes

  • The Leafs definitely played well enough to win with a dominant final 15 minutes to the first period and enough strong sequences throughout, but Mike Babcock’s post-game assessment was short and to the point: “I liked our first.” The bar’s high, as it should be.
  • Tyler Ennis‘ injury is a blow to the forward depth on the left side, where the Leafs are already missing Zach Hyman. Ennis was piecing together a really nice comeback season, embracing the fourth-line role, playing 200 feet, and contributing offensively from down the lineup (the Leafs had found a potential 15-20 goal scorer off of the fourth-line + second PP).  It was another good night for the fourth line, particularly in the first half of the game.
    While there were always injury concerns coming in knowing his history, this one was just rotten luck (he took a puck to the ankle). Hopefully, he can fight his way back to this kind of form again once he returns.  Tough break for a guy who showed great character battling through a lot of these kinds of situations in the past.
  • You have to figure there’s a chance Trevor Moore will be recalled in time for tomorrow’s contest against the Detroit Red Wings. Good opportunity for a player who has earned it, if so. Moore hasn’t played a game in NHL but his AHL time suggests he can play a fast and responsible 200-foot game that could endear him to Babcock; he certainly has a big fan in Sheldon Keefe, who trusts him in any situation (even turning to him as a defense fill-in in a recent game).
  • With another multi-point night, Mitch Marner is now in the top five in league scoring with 50 points in 36 games. Word during the Headlines segment is that his agent, Darren Ferris, and Kyle Dubas sat down together in New Jersey this past week to catch up on the status of contract negotiations, but Chris Johnston is reporting that the sense is the Marner camp still rather wait until the summer. A 100-point season is not beyond reason at this point, so that’s probably not surprising.
  • Things are fantastic heading into the holiday break (after tomorrow’s game) for the Leafs, so the natural tendency for some will be to find the negative and wonder when William Nylander scores his first goal. Worth noting is that one of his nicer rushes since returning to action resulted in a point-blank chance in front for Connor Brown, who shot it right into the goalie’s pads (may be a different outcome and perception of his game if that’s Matthews vs. Brown).  There isn’t much sense in analyzing his game until a week or two into the New Year, anyway.

Post-Game: Mike Babcock