Rasmus Sandin alleviates the sting in triumphant return to Maple Leafs

It turns out losing Morgan Rielly isn’t a death sentence.

It was only the New Jersey Devils, but the alarmingly undermanned Toronto Maple Leafs returned to their winning and mostly-dominant ways with a 7-4 victory on home ice Tuesday night. In a game in which the scoreline largely flattered the losing side, Auston Matthews registered the first three-goal game of his career and first hat trick since his four-goal NHL debut, while New Jersey’s Blake Coleman enjoyed a three-goal outburst as well.

Frederik Andersen survived a start for just the second time in four outings and made 25 saves for the victory, while Louis Domingue was pulled from the New Jersey net early in the second period after allowing five goals on 19 shots.

Mathew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames will visit the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

Until then, four points.

Seamless transition

On the lineup sheet, Rasmus Sandin was pegged for low-stress, high-sheltered duties with Cody Ceci on the Maple Leafs’ third pair. But after only a handful of shifts following his emergency mid-season recall, the question went from, “can he paper over some of the very real concerns on the back end?” to “can he cover for the loss of Rielly by himself entirely?”

Sandin seemed to assume a larger role than promised from the get-go as the Leafs endeavoured to avoid chasing another game, taking a spin in the offensive zone with Tyson Barrie, and at four aside, as well, while also owning the second-unit power-play minutes that previously belonged to the Leafs’ top defender.

Rasmus Sandin had two assists in his return to the Leafs lineup. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

And, by twice accomplishing something that Rielly has often struggled with this season in each of the aforementioned scenarios, which is to create scoring chances with shots from the point, Sandin’s impact was immediate.

With poise to slide across the blue line to open a shooting lane and accuracy with his release, Sandin registered two first-period assists on tips from John Tavares and Zach Hyman. His work to open up the shooting lane on the captain’s goal was particularly impressive.

Sandin didn’t have the strongest night from a possession standpoint and was weaponized less and less as the Leafs transitioned to a safer, more shutdown style with the comfortable advantage, but the 19-year-old earned huge praise from both teammates and coach Sheldon Keefe for his performance.

Matthews said playing with Sandin was “a blast,” and that he couldn’t wait for the next game, while Mitch Marner summed it up perfectly, saying “his game matches ours.”

This is an important thing to remember — even if Sandin has only worked directly under the Leafs head coach for parts of two seasons. Because those who have experience under his system — the Justin Holls and Pierre Engvalls — seem most comfortable, and in turn the most consistent.

Heightened awareness

While Sandin will dominate the headlines and discussion, there were 43-plus minutes that needed loggin’ with him on the bench, and the remaining five defenseman stepped up to do the job. In fact, the coach mostly absolved the entire unit from criticism when pointing out the fact that he was no fan of the Maple Leafs’ second period.

Promoted to the top unit with Barrie, Martin Marincin certainly had the most to take on in the absence of Rielly and Jake Muzzin, and came through with 17 minutes of solid, unspectacular defending.

It will be interesting to see if Sandin eats up more of his minutes moving forward, especially in tighter games. But for at least one night, against one bad team, Marincin delivered on the coach’s expectation of heightened awareness of the details of the game.

Right along with the rest of them.

Same brain

You probably don’t need another example of Keefe and Kyle Dubas sharing a brain, but here’s another anyway.

In the lead-up to the game, when the discussion centred around the broken bone Rielly suffered in Florida and how it would test the limits of Leafs’ defense, Keefe suggested that it was an opportunity for the team to prove themselves from both the individual and team level.

He also said that it’s an opportunity to prove that they’re an elite team, because “elite teams in the league don’t get fazed by these types of situations.”

More than four months ago, essentially unprompted at his opening press conference at media day, Dubas shared a similar hope for his club, suggesting that a difference between themselves and the top teams in the Atlantic Division had been their inability to demonstrate resilience and to overcome obstacles that were unforeseen.

“Things are going to happen that we didn’t expect,” Dubas said back in September. “And if we want to continue to take the right steps, we have to weather those (situations) and keep the train rolling on the tracks. Because the rest of the league doesn’t stop.”

While the Devils weren’t the tallest challenge, this, over the next few nights, is the moment to demonstrate that trait.

Whoa now

Contrary to popular belief, the Rielly news does not have to force the Leafs into doing something drastic. In fact, there’s a strong likelihood that they won’t even have to concede anything — even contractual control of Sandin.

Sent back down after six games at the start of the season, Sandin burned the seventh start on his free trial run with his impressive performance versus the Devils. That leaves him with two more games — or precisely what remains on the Leafs’ schedule before heading off to a seven-day bye week.

With Muzzin expected to resume skating Wednesday, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the veteran left-shot defender will be fit for the two-game road trip through Dallas and Nashville which immediately follows the All-Star break.

With one win from the two remaining games versus Calgary and Chicago, the Leafs will have survived the worst of it and could preserve Sandin’s entry-level salary for another three seasons if they so choose.

But after tonight, that seems counterproductive, doesn’t it?  

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