It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Toronto Maple Leafs came out with an important two points in their overtime win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.

Full credit to the Senators for playing hard on the second half of a back-to-back, as to be expected for this rebuilding Ottawa squad under D.J. Smith.  Ottawa put forth their best trapping efforts, leading to a choppy start to this game that would set the tone for the night as a whole.

Your game in ten:

1. One of Toronto’s best chances came very early in the game as William Nylander danced in all alone on Craig Anderson, but was unable to slide it in five-hole.

While Nylander’s goal-scoring streak ended at five games, he extended his point streak to seven and was Toronto’s most dangerous player up front.  He continues to assert himself as one of the premier net-front scorers in the NHL with two more spectacular chances in this game coming right at Anderson’s doorstep.

2. While the Senators opened the scoring with a Mark Borowiecki goal, the Leafs answered back shortly thereafter on the power play with a vintage Spezza slapper.

Spezza had noticeable jump from the onset, including a fantastic end-to-end rush in the first as he took advantage of Kasperi Kapanen’s late scratch (which was referenced in the post-game presser from Keefe as “internal accountability”) and made the most of an opportunity on the third line.  Spezza has been a good addition to this team’s bottom-six as both a mentor and a versatile vet that’s good for around 40 points.

It remains to be seen if he can be an asset in tight-checking playoff games with the ability to inject offense with limited minutes at even strength, but he should continue to help on the second power play unit. Spezza led the team with a 79% share of the shots in ten minutes of 5v5 ice time.  It was a strong showing in his overdue first game against the Senators as a Maple Leaf.  But hey, he probably could still use a few more reps on the penalty kill.

3. Trevor Moore is one player still struggling to find his stride after returning from a long absence due to injury. He has looked a bit slower and more tentative as he gets his legs under him, but he did show some jump against Ottawa, including a speedy odd-man rush with Timashov.

Before this season started, most armchair coaches would have told you he was a lock for a bottom-six role on this team.  However, with the emergence of Engvall and Mikheyev, his spot when everyone is healthy (if that ever happens) is slightly more precarious.  He was part of a rather ineffective fourth line against the Senators (with Gauthier and Timashov) that was the only trio to finish with under 50% CF.

Regardless, I would expect him to be in the lineup come playoffs and for him to also find his rhythm in the coming weeks.  He was one of Toronto’s most noticeable players in last season’s playoff tilt with the Bruins in terms of speed and tenacity and should again bring a valuable element to the fourth line.

4. Another night, another quality offensive performance by Tyson Barrie. He led the team in scoring chances on the night and has been exactly as advertised since Keefe took over. He’ll never be a defensive stalwart, but he is starting to be a net-positive on most nights.  The obvious puck skills, skating and offensive hockey sense are complemented by crafty plays that he makes on a pretty consistent basis, such as the one below to get his team a scoring chance on the power play:

5. On that note – what will the lineup look like when everyone is healthy? While there is some doubt as to whether Mikheyev will return at all, let’s assume he does and has enough time to get back up to speed. Despite some continued improvements, Frederik Gauthier will likely serve as a healthy scratch.  With current personnel, I’d look to give Ilya Mikheyev a run with Tavares and Nylander as his play has warranted a spot in the top six.  This would see Alex Kerfoot drop back into his role as a third-line center with Johnsson and Kapanen as his wingers, a trio the coaching staff has looked to deploy but one that has rarely been seen due to injuries.

As such, I think the Leafs would benefit most from a Moore-Engvall-Spezza fourth line.  As fantastic as Engvall has looked he is still the odd man out for a top-nine role with a healthy roster.  As Bill pointed out recently, he’s probably due for some regression in terms of scoring output.  His ability to drive offense is still a work in progress, although he had a few more good rushes against Ottawa using his deceptive speed.

However, he’s effective defensively and would have the ability with Spezza to tilt the ice against most opposing fourth lines while contributing offensively.  That fourth line would be a far cry from some of the others Toronto has trotted out against Boston in the playoffs over the years, as Babcock’s fourth lines regularly got crushed in terms of possession and meaningful contributions.

6. While it may be John Tavares’ fourth game in a row without a point, I’m not worried. There are normal ups and downs in a season for even the game’s best players.  He had a number of good looks tonight and it’s just a matter of time before they go in for him.  I found it laughable that mainstream media discourse about his “scoring slump” came out even before this game. The myopia required to consider this noteworthy is astounding when a slightly bigger picture shows the captain has still been a point-per-game player over his last 16.

7. It is a testament to the lack of analytical depth from the bigger news outlets that this is exactly the type of negative narrative that will be regurgitated incessantly as an attempt at meaningful discussion. All we can hope for in that respect is more analysts such as Mike Johnson, who is willing to call out the unsubstantiated narratives for exactly what they are.

His recent commentary on unrealistic expectations in this market touched on this very point (albeit with respect to William Nylander) as he noted that said variances in performance are normal over a long season.  Every minor slump doesn’t need to be a commentary on whether a player is struggling.  Thankfully, it appears that Keefe & co. are of a similar mindset as he shrugged off questions on this topic pre-game and referenced the so-obvious natural fluctuations of scoring production.

I think the reality is there is only one puck and we are scoring a lot. Focusing on who is scoring and how much guys are scoring, I think, is not productive for us…it is going to hit a point here where some of our other guys will maybe cool off and he will heat up. I think that’s just the way it will work.

8Auston Matthews has been getting some recognition for a noticeable jump in his two-way play this year. Safe to say it will probably take a Selke trophy win for the media-at-large to acknowledge it, but Matthews continues to shine defensively as he has blossomed into an elite two-way center this campaign.

Keefe has referenced on numerous occasions that Matthews skills defensively rely heavily on his ability so: trackback defensively, strip pucks from the opponent, and transition back onto offense.  This clear, positive reinforcement from the coaching staff has increased the frequency of takeaways for the Leafs star and it was also on display from his running-mate Mitch Marner against the Senators.

With Zach Hyman as their third piece, these three are quickly establishing themselves as one of the most dominant two-way lines in the game today.

9. Michael Hutchinson was undeniably one of the stars of the game as he continues a personal four-game winning streak with a near .950 save percentage. He was poised and sharp throughout, keeping the Leafs in it early before they found their legs. This is his third consecutive start that Sheldon Keefe has given him where he isn’t being thrown to the wolves in the second half of a back-to-back.

It’s amazing how foreign such a simple and relatively commonplace coaching decision is in this market after years under the reign of Babcock and his inflexible goalie deployment.  Hutchinson was instrumental in saving the Leafs during a horrendously unwarranted penalty kill in overtime and the team was clearly pumped for him after the win was secured.  The search for a backup goaltender certainly seems like a lower priority these days, doesn’t it?

10. Toronto then received their own (definitely warranted) power play to finish off the extra period. Keefe didn’t hesitate in putting out his four elite forwards all at once in an effort to close this one out before the shootout. The most expensive four-man powerplay unit to ever touch NHL ice set Marner up for a one-timer winner, his first in overtime as a Maple Leaf.

Keefe noted after the game that their intention was to draw defenders to the two likeliest shooters (Nylander and Matthews) to open up the middle lane for a Marner shot or pass to Tavares down low.  Things went exactly as planned and Leafs Nation let out a collective sigh of relief as no points were squandered against their lowly provincial rival.

With Florida and Columbus both losing earlier in the day, the Leafs made good on their opportunity to slide back into a playoff position.  Next on tap for Toronto is a rematch with the Panthers on Monday with monumental implications for the playoff race.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Extended Game Highlights: Maple Leafs 2 vs. Senators 1