More than a win. More than the shutout it could and should have been.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs were initially hindered by the list of challenges Sheldon Keefe would later detail Saturday night versus the Detroit Red Wings, beleaguered backup netminder Michael Hutchinson rose to the occasion and proved, if only for a night, that he can provide sufficient support for starter Frederik Andersen.
Beaten only on the final shot he faced in the game, Hutchinson counted 29 saves including a handful on breakaways and high-danger opportunities early, buying the Leafs more than enough time to finally initiate a sagging attack in a 4-1 victory over the league’s last-place team.
Eventually the reunited Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews each scored twice for the Maple Leafs, who now have had four different players register multi-goal games over the course of two nights.
Toronto has one last game before the holiday break and will welcome Jake Gardiner and the Carolina Hurricanes to town Monday afternoon.
Until then, three points:
Absolutely his win
With the Maple Leafs winning 69 percent of their contests coming in, things to this point had been beyond nice under Sheldon Keefe. Which is why the prevailing thought heading into a game that was much more important than ever advertised was that Hutchinson could simply win it by default, as the Maple Leafs would be too much for what’s not much more than a minor-league opponent.
Flummoxed by the Red Wings’ chip and chase through neutral ice while mostly unable to mount meaningful moments of offence for the first half of the game, it became obvious that this wasn’t going to be the breeze most assumed it would be.
And it became worth asking those questions about Hutchinson’s future.
Yes, there was a significant rest discrepancy as the Red Wings had most of the week to prepare for the Saturday night showcase while the Maple Leafs had flown back from New York late Friday night.
But even so, how could the organization reconcile running Hutchinson out again had the worst team in the league pushed his record to 0-6-1?
They can delay that consideration entirely because of his performance, and his performance only.
Hutchinson had made 21 saves before Hyman finally delivered the game its icebreaker with under three minutes remaining in the second period. His brilliant stretch began 38 seconds into the game, when he got the slightest touch on a Dylan Larkin breakaway chance that stopped dead on the post.
Turns out Larkin just hit the post, still, GO HUTCH! pic.twitter.com/TGoOdKZCKV— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) December 22, 2019
There seemed to be no shortage of tenuous moments in a game that the Leafs skaters needed way too much time to finally engage in, and Hutchinson was there for all of them.
He deserves full marks for the win, the chants from the crowd and the praise he received in the dressing room following the game.
“Definitely the first star of the game,” said Hyman. “It’s huge for us, and for him. It’s a huge confidence boost.”
“He was great all night,” Mitch Marner echoed. “Without him, it could have been a two- or three-nothing game there in the first.”
“Everybody here is extremely happy for him,” Matthews said. “Hearing the crowd chanting his name was an awesome moment for him, and an awesome moment for everybody.”
For the first time in his tenure, Keefe cracked the whip.
First-line wingers William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen were noticeably absent from proceedings in the second period, sitting on the bench for nearly the final 13 minutes of the frame — taking only a pair of shifts each.
While it seemed that they were being punished for lax defensive efforts early on — or at least it seemed that way certainly in the case of Nylander — Keefe was reluctant to admit it was a disciplinary measure, instead pointing to the fact that he just had to shake things up to try and get the Leafs’ attack kick-started.
“That line I just thought they didn’t get much going offensively,” Keefe said. “They were getting stalled in the neutral zone a lot. Also, I just didn’t really like the other lines and how things were moving so I just wanted to mix things up. I thought we got some really good shifts in that second period from the [Frederik] Gauthier line.
“I just kind of shortened things up and some guys didn’t play as much as others.”
Both Nylander and Kapanen weren’t stapled to the bench in the third period, but they were largely deprived of the right to play with Matthews. The Maple Leafs’ leading goal scorer wound up having some immense success on a new-look unit with Marner and Hyman.
If there was a moment that encapsulated the fact that the Leafs weren’t necessarily dialed in Saturday night, but that it really didn’t matter against an inferior opponent, this was it.
After Filip Zadina was called for tripping less than two minutes into the third, members of the No. 1 power play settled into their active stances around the faceoff circle with one notable absentee.
After a delay, and some shouts, Matthews finally realized that he was missing in action and hopped over the boards.
Then as casual as can be 30 seconds later, he swept one through the legs of Calvin Pickard, giving the Maple Leafs a two-goal lead.
Even if there was legitimate confusion in the moment, it seemed to fit.
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