The Detroit Red Wings patched their lineup and played their best goalie, but the Toronto Maple Leafs proved why they’re headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Led by Alex Nedeljkovic in net, the Wings held Tuesday’s game at Scotiabank Arena scoreless past the halfway point, but Auston Matthews cemented his place in Leafs history when he became the first player in franchise history to record 60 goals in a season, sending the Wings onto their next stop with a 3-0 loss.
“We’re missing pieces, and some really big pieces.” Wings forward Sam Gagner said. “I thought the group that was playing did a really good job early on. We were trying to press and create some chances and had a few looks. Ultimately they broke through.
“There were some things to like, but when you fall short, it never feels good.”
Matthews netted his 60th during a power play when he fired from the slot, sending the puck over Nedeljkovic’s glove. Matthews broke Nedeljkovic’s shutout bid late in the second period, and John Tavares took advantage of a defensive breakdown to double the lead early in the third.
“You’re playing a team that’s a real good hockey team so you want to check great,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “You want to stay in the game. You want to make the game kind of boring in a situation like this. We were able to keep the game 0-0 for a long time. We had some chances to be able to go up. So I thought in a lot of ways we put ourselves in position going into the third to win a hockey game. We just weren’t able to make the play to score the next goal and unfortunately they got it.”
Jack Campbell (Port Huron) made 20 saves for the Leafs, whose 3.80 goals-per-game average ranks second in the NHL. Nedeljkovic made 33 saves.
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The Wings (31-40-10) play their season finale Friday at the New Jersey Devils.
The Wings brought in minor-league call-ups Turner Elson and Kyle Criscuolo to flesh out a roster that was missing Dylan Larkin, Robby Fabbri, Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Zadina and Adam Erne. Jonatan Berggren, the No. 33 pick in 2018, was not on the call-up list, even as the Grand Rapids Griffins have been eliminated from playoff contention. Berggren just became the new leader on the Griffins rookie single-season scoring list when he earned his 60th point over the weekend.
“He’s had a good year,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “The decision on Jonatan Berggren is a decision made on what’s best for his individual development. That’s a decision Steve Yzerman makes.”
In addition to missing multiple guys up front, defenseman Marc Staal was placed in COVID protocol earlier in the day, prompting the Wings to go with seven defensemen.
Given the Wings were missing significant players and the Leafs were trying to lock up second place in the Atlantic Division, the Wings acquitted themselves well in the first period. Nedeljkovic deserved a share of the credit, but Lucas Raymond had a nice chance around the net early on, and Michael Rasmussen attempted a wraparound in the waning minutes. Pius Suter was called for tripping with 2:04 to play, but Nedeljkovic stopped one attempt by Matthews and Danny DeKeyser blocked another.
A case for the offense
Joe Veleno had a shot from the slot during a Wings power play in the second period, but the Leafs continued to generate the majority of quality chances. It took them 23 shots and more than 35 minutes to beat Nedeljkovic. The puck was loose behind Detroit’s net, and recovered by Colin Blackwell. He got it to Jason Spezza at the net, who tapped it out front for a waiting Matthews to guide into the net for his 59th goal.
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.