Monday evening’s Chicago Blackhawks-Toronto Maple Leafs tilt, for me, is not just another game against an Eastern Conference team
You see, I grew up in Toronto where hockey is more a religion than just a sport. As a Chicago Blackhawks fan in a hockey hotbed, I was constantly asked why I didn’t cheer for the hometown Leafs. I dreaded the Blackhawks losing to them and knowing the Leafs faithful, who were everywhere, would not let me forget it.
Prior to 2010 when Blackhawks finally broke through after 49 years of waiting for the Stanley Cup, Leafs and Blackhawks fans shared the frustration of not winning a silver chalice since the 1960s.
That drought lives on for the Leafs, but an influx of youth, led by the highly-touted 2016 first-round draft pick Auston Matthews, has captured the imagination of the Canadian city.
Both of these Original Six teams began the 2017 campaign like a house on fire. Toronto decimated the Winnipeg Jets in the season opener and followed up by teasing the New York Rangers before pulling ahead for an 8-5 victory.
As we all know, Chicago humiliated the defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a home opener by a score of 10-1, then won convincingly with a 5-1 victory over Columbus Blue Jackets.
The following players may hold the key to victory for their respective teams in Monday’s game between the two red-hot clubs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
A young team is bound to make mistakes, hence stellar goaltending is essential to realize success. It took Toronto coach Mike Babcock a while, but it seems he has found his goaltender in Toronto.
Da Windy City
The Leafs’ offense received most of the accolades in the opener, but it was Andersen who efficiently and quietly stonewalled the Winnipeg Jets in the first period before the Toronto club found its legs. Since establishing No. 1 status in Leafs net, the Danish netminder has been solid. He will want a bounce back game after giving up five goals in the team’s second game.
The 2016 Calder Trophy winner is quickly showing he is the franchise player he was touted to be. He does everything well. Babcock raves that he is far better now than he was as a rookie and that should get everyone’s attention.
With four points in the first two games, Matthews is the leader of an excellent young crop that includes forwards Marner and William Nylander and rear guard Morgan Reilly.
While Matthews and company get most of the press, Kadri flies under the radar somewhat in Toronto.
He’s a pest who gets under the skin of opposition players, plays a physical game and draws more than his share of penalties. The 27-year-old agitator, with two powerplay markers to date, has a penchant for scoring big goals.
After a two-year absence, the 24-year-old winger has returned to the Chicago fold and looks to have taken his game to another level.
Saad scored a hat trick in the season opener, just as he had done in his first exhibition game back in September. Playing alongside Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik, Saad’s north-south game has transformed the Blackhawks’ first line into a force to be reckoned with.
Right out of the gate, the talented, often-spectacular winger looks to be in midseason form. Is it possible that the magician with the puck has found yet another level in his play? Seems so.
The gritty sophomore forward, promoted to the second line to begin the season, has turned heads with his play. When second-line line center Nick Schmaltz went down to injury early in Saturday’s game, Hartman switched from wing to the center position. He didn’t miss a beat. He and linemate Kane sit second in NHL scoring with six points each.
Monday’s game in Toronto promises to be a thriller between two teams running on all cylinders offensively, both with plenty of youth and with speed to burn. A must-see for hockey fans, in my opinion.