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Maple Leafs begin crucial stretch drive with impressive win in Nashville

Rasmus Sandin led the Maple Leafs offensively in a win over the Nashville Predators. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

You want maturity? You got it.

After Sheldon Keefe was highly critical of an amateur-like performance from his team leading into the bye week and All-Star break, the Toronto Maple Leafs delivered a professional, grown-up performance to begin the stretch run, defeating the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Monday night.

Frederik Andersen bounced back with a 34-save effort to earn his 23rd win of the season, while Rasmus Sandin was a catalyst offensively with two points, which included his first career NHL goal. Meanwhile, Auston Matthews snuck in an empty-net marker and only trails David Pastrnak by two goals in the Rocket Richard race.

Toronto will complete its mini two-game roadtrip inside the Central Division on Wednesday with a clash against the Dallas Stars.

Until then, three points:

Here to stay

He says he’s been able to compartmentalize it all, and in his two stints, avoid considering how a poor game or sour string of shifts could affect his immediate playing future. Even so, for the first time this season, Rasmus Sandin could perform with a mind truly at ease.

Traversing the 10-game mark and officially starting the clock on his entry-level contract tonight, Sandin cemented his status for the remainder of the season the moment Sheldon Keefe included him in his lineup sheet. But the rookie delivered the statement performance anyway.

His maiden league goal overshadowed only by his alley-oop feed to teammate and travel companion William Nylander for a breakaway icebreaker, Sandin was pretty clearly the best and most impressive Maple Leafs defenceman on the ice in Nashville.

He showed incredible composure and spatial intelligence at both ends of the rink, leading exits of the defensive zone with perfect first passes and extending possessions in the attacking third with his work inside the blue line. Sandin earned more and more shifts as the game continued and as Toronto endeavoured to protect its lead, with Nashville engineering virtually nothing of quality in terms of scoring chances with No. 38 on the ice.

If there is a single positive to take from the string of injuries that have impacted Toronto’s blue line, and the fact that the team will have to survive eight weeks without Morgan Rielly, it’s that it forced Sandin into the lineup for now, and for good.

Most valuable

In the NHL, there are two ways to offer tremendous value on a contract. You can either be severely underpaid by virtue of entry-level status, or you can take advantage of an optimal situation that wasn’t necessarily ever promised, often while clinging to what’s left of your earning potential.

This is why you’ll find all the dominant young players tearing up the league listed, with a few misfits mixed in, when examining those delivering what every executive is looking for: cheap production. (CapFriendly, by the way, has a brilliant resource for that).

Jason Spezza is one of the those players. In fact, only four working on standard contracts — Tony DeAngelo, Conor Garland, Lucas Wallmark and Tyler Ennis — have provided more while raking in less compared to “Vintage,” who provided another flashback with his gorgeous seventh goal of the season.

Spezza’s rocket improved his point total to 19 on the year, while pushing his per-game points rate to an even 0.5. While the mark trails the likes of DeAngelo and Garland, the argument could be made in favour of Spezza providing the greatest value on these random, low-cost contracts, given his superior 2.79 points/60 rate.

While it doesn’t mean Spezza should be given considerably more ice time to chase more production based on rate alone, because the Leafs have clearly found a profitable balance, but it does mean that Mike Babcock was way wrong with his assessment of the talented veteran forward.

All-Star return

Despite allowing a soft goal almost immediately after Nylander opened the scoring, it was the suddenly-maligned Andersen that prevented the Leafs from falling right back into a familiar pattern, and potentially showing immaturity while chasing another game.

Nashville chalked up 15 shots on 27 attempts and created 10 scoring chances as part of a high-event opening period, and Andersen made three brilliant stops — on Viktor Arvidsson, Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi — to ensure the Leafs headed into the intermission with the lead.

He remained rock-solid down the stretch, silencing many ready leaning over their keyboards, ready to continue criticizing his game.

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