Maple Leafs trounce Senators in return to action

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Published January 1, 2022 at 9:48 pm

TORONTO — Justin Holl and Ilya Mikheyev scored shorthanded on the same penalty kill for their first goals of the season Saturday as the Toronto Maple Leafs thumped the Ottawa Senators 6-0 in both teams’ return to action inside a fan-less Scotiabank Arena because of new provincial COVID-19 regulations.

Jack Campbell made 23 saves for Toronto (21-8-2) to register his fourth shutout of the campaign to double his career total.

William Nylander added two goals of his own, Mikheyev scored his second in the third period, and T.J. Brodie had a goal and two assists. Alexander Kerfoot also added three assists.

Leafs captain John Tavares played his 900th regular-season game, and 231st with Toronto since signing in unrestricted free agency in July 2018.

Matt Murray stopped 34 shots for undermanned Ottawa (9-18-2) – the Senators currently have six players in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol – in the struggling goaltender’s first appearance with the big club since being demoted to the American Hockey League for a month to work on his game.

The Leafs and Senators returned to action for the first time since the NHL’s expanded schedule pause over the holidays in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s fourth wave fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Toronto, which last suited up Dec. 14 in a 5-1 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton, had a high-water mark of 14 players and seven staff members, including head coach Sheldon Keefe, in coronavirus protocol following an outbreak last month.

Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin didn’t dress after practising Friday for the first time since leaving isolation, while fellow blue-liner Timothy Liljegren is the only Toronto player still in protocol.

Ottawa was shut down earlier this season because of its own outbreak, resulting in three postponements, and currently has those six players in protocol, including five announced since Friday – No. 1 centre Josh Norris, wingers Tyler Ennis and Nick Paul, and defencemen Dillon Heatherington and Jacob Bernard-Docker.

Senators head coach D.J. Smith and an assistant were also recently in protocol, but exited and rejoined the group earlier this week. Ottawa’s last game before the NHL’s break was Dec. 18, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Saturday’s contest was played without fans after the Ontario government announced Thursday attendance at indoor events, including arenas, would be capped at 1,000 spectators or 50 per cent – whichever is less.

The province previously cut capacity limits to 50 per cent, but Toronto’s home games Dec. 23 and Wednesday were postponed due to the team’s COVID-19 outbreak. 

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which also owns the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, subsequently said it would operate without sold tickets for games, save for league and team requirements, for the next three weeks.

Blue tarps used throughout the 2020-21 season when fans were barred from Canadian arenas until the playoffs, were back over a portion of the lower bowl behind the benches to provide a more esthetically pleasing backdrop for TV viewers.

Canned crowd noise returned and anthem singer Martina Ortiz Luis sang ‘O Canada’ at ice level before puck drop, while music boomed from Scotiabank Arena’s speakers in hopes of creating some semblance of atmosphere.

But there wasn’t much of it as the first day of 2022 felt a lot like the winter and spring of 2021.

Murray and his teammates weathered two early Toronto power plays, including a couple nice stops on Jason Spezza, as the Leafs led 8-0 on the shot clock.

The Senators got a man advantage of their own later in a first period where they barely touched the puck, but the home side scored twice while shorthanded.

Brodie made a nice play to intercept a Drake Batherson pass as the Senators threatened Campbell to send Toronto the other way on a 2-on-1 rush. David Kampf fed Holl with Thomas Chabot back defending for his first goal of the campaign, and first since March 25, 2021.

That breakthrough had yet to be announced inside the cavernous building when Mikheyev, who made his season debut Dec. 14 due to a thumb injury suffered in Toronto’s final exhibition game, took a pass from Kerfoot before blowing past rookie defenceman Lassi Thomson and firing his first.

The goals matched a franchise record for the fastest while shorthanded, a mark set by Borje Salming and Greg Terrion on Nov. 16, 1986.

Campbell didn’t have a lot to do at the other end, but stopped Alex Formenton on a nice rush in the second period before Murray denied Tavares and Auston Matthews on Toronto’s fourth power play.

Brodie made it 3-0 at 7:18 on a nice wraparound effort after Murray made the initial save.

The Toronto defenceman then helped out his goalie by tying up Formenton on Campbell’s doorstep and a puck loose in the crease to keep the lead at 3-0 heading to the intermission.

Nylander buried his 14th on a breakaway with 6:19 left in regulation before Mikheyev added his second of the night on a power play just 1:01 later.

Nylander then rounded out the scoring with 2:46 remaining on the clock.

Notes: Toronto’s home game Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes has been postponed because of attendance restrictions, but the Leafs are still set to host the Oilers in another nationally televised game Wednesday before kicking off a four-game road trip. … The Senators are scheduled to visit the Seattle Kraken on Thursday before games in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2022.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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