As the Maple Leafs haven’t developed a No. 1 home-grown goalie since James Reimer, it makes the roll that Joe Woll and the team are on these past few days all the more tantalizing.
But just as many critics in past Octobers were too quick with doom-and-gloom forecasts when Toronto stumbled from the gate (before two straight 50-win seasons), maybe dial back the enthusiasm just a bit before it’s even Halloween.
If the Leafs win in Dallas on Thursday, it would be their first three-game streak in October since 2018 (excluding the COVID-19 schedule of all-Canadian opponents).
The Stars have not yet lost in regulation (4-0-1) and have allowed a Western Conference-low 11 goals thanks in large part to their stopper, Jake Oettinger.
The match will be a far cry for the Leafs from facing the Washington Capitals, who came into Tuesday already squeezing their sticks in frustration from poor scoring and just one win. Playing the role of the autumn Leafs, the Caps sunk to the bottom of their division after Woll made 36 saves, 13 of them on Alex Ovechkin.
With a day off, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe has the option of coming back with Woll or providing Ilya Samsonov a chance to atone for his two Florida flubs — five goals in 27 shots that included a brutal opening period against Tampa Bay that gave Woll his chance.
Used almost exclusively on the road in his short Leafs career, Woll needs one more quality start, either Thursday or the five-game trip’s finale in Nashville, to set himself up for a loud home reception against Los Angeles.
He’d also have a break before an assignment he’d surely covet — a week Thursday in Boston, where he spent three years at Boston College. Woll embraced that city — other than during the 2019 Cup final, when his home-state St. Louis Blues beat the Bruins for the Stanley Cup.
But the Leafs have flirted with danger throughout this trip (1-1-1). Whether it was a lack of finish in the loss to Florida to kick it off, the tepid start in Tampa or being on their heels early in D.C., they needed Woll’s poise and athleticism — and another perfectly executed challenge from their video virtuosos to wipe out Washington’s first goal.
Keefe was being truthful after Tuesday’s 4-1 final when he observed “we didn’t play a good game here tonight, but did enough good things to put ourselves in position to win. There were a lot of good things in the third period that we can take away in terms of managing a game like this, where we do control (the lead).
“Our quick-strike ability with our elite players puts us in positions to win when we’re not at our best.”
The Core Four accounted for three goals, with John Tavares and William Nylander every bit as productive this month as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (who had one assist Tuesday).
But there is a disconnect at times with new forwards Tyler Bertuzzi, who has been removed from the first line for Calle Jarnkrok, and Max Domi, now adjusting to third-line right wing with Matthew Knies and David Kampf.
Defenceman John Klingberg, about to return to Dallas with his third different team after a contract stalemate in the summer of ‘22, is playing a few minutes less since he and Jake McCabe were broken up a few games ago.
The difference the past two games has been Woll. He was the fourth player the Leafs chose at the 2016 draft, a third-rounder after first-overall Matthews, 31st-overall pick Yegor Korshkov (who played just one NHL game) and the now-traded Carl Grundstrom.
It had to be disappointing for Woll to see the Blues take a goalie one round before him — Evan Fitzpatrick, who is now drifting around the AHL — but he worked diligently at his game and made a huge impression as a spring call-up last year, replacing the injured Samsonov in the second round of playoffs.
“I’m happy (Keefe) has faith in me,” said Woll, who is getting better at most things than Samsonov, other than jazzing up his quotes with a few expletives.
A major challenge awaits him and the Leafs in Dallas. Oettinger, the Stars’ 6-foot-6, league-leading stopper (1.44 goals-against average, highest among those with at least five games), is a fellow Mid-Westerner and was Woll’s mate on the U.S. National Development team and his foil at rival Boston University.
A year younger than Woll, Oettinger graduated faster from the AHL, been in the league since 2020, where Woll won 16 of 24 starts with last year’s Marlies before his NHL debut. Woll and Samsonov have made people here forget about the expensive experiment with Matt Murray.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play with (Oettinger), against him, at about every level,” Woll said. “I’ll probably grab dinner with him. I’m happy to see the success he’s had.”
At least until Thursday.
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PLENTY OF CONNECTIONS BETWEEN LEAFS AND STARS
Deep in the heart of Texas won’t feel like a road game for the Maple Leafs.
Especially for defenceman John Klingberg, who played eight years there.
But in the summer of 2022, a long and fruitless contract negotiation ended when the Stars committed big money to relative newcomers and let the popular Klingberg walk. Klingberg probably hadn’t endeared himself to management for criticizing the slow process of talks, but while getting good money, the grass wasn’t exactly greener on the other side.
He signed with playoff-challenged Anaheim and ended the year with four post-season points in as many games with the Minnesota Wild.
Klingberg has five assists in six games as a Leaf, trying to get comfortable with Toronto’s system and as the No. 1 power play’s blueline cannon.
Dallas was also winger Max Domi’s previous team before he signed with the Leafs, while burly former Leaf/Marlie Mason Marchment begins his second full season with the Stars, an echo of previous Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas’ deal for the long-gone Denis Malgin.
The Dallas coaching staff has ex-Leafs draft pick Peter DeBoer as head coach and assistants Steve Spott and Jeff Reese.