We can sit here and debate who should be the Leafs’ sixth defenseman or who should play on their fourth line, but let’s never lose sight of who this team will ride or die with: its core.

Tonight, the core delivered.

Auston Matthews: Game-winning goal

Mitch Marner: Set up the game-winning goal

William Nylander: Three points

John Tavares: Two points

Morgan Rielly: Goal

Jack Campbell: Excellent

With the series tied, down two, and the next game to be played in Tampa Bay, they knew the situation, and they delivered. It means very little if they don’t go on to win the series, but on this night, with seemingly so much already on the line, the core delivered. They should be applauded for doing so.

That includes Sheldon Keefe, who is obviously under the microscope, but in this one, his adjustments worked out.

Your game in 10:

1.   Contrary to popular belief, I thought the initial start for the Leafs was generally fine, if not good. If I had told you before the game that Mitch Marner would go on a breakaway and the Leafs would go to a power play in the first three minutes of the game, you would’ve signed on the dotted line.

The issue was not only that they didn’t score on either (the breakaway or the power play), but also that the best chance on the power play went to Tampa Bay on a 2v1 that was the result of a Morgan Rielly shot that hit William Nylander.

It was kind of a tone-setter for the first two periods of the game for Rielly, who struggled until the third. In the second period, he gave up a breakaway, he got beat by Nikita Kucherov 1v1 off the rush, and the power play improved when Mark Giordano was used there instead of him.

The penalty kill kind of went to Tampa’s legs instead of Toronto’s.

2.    Tampa started sustaining a bit more pressure after their penalty kill. On a bit of a broken play, the puck found Stamkos, who ripped a quick snapshot past Jack Campbell. Jake Muzzin stepped up at center, which was fine – he had the support to do so. Kucherov had TJ Brodie and David Kampf on him, he won the battle, poked the puck over to center, Ondrej Palat won a quick play on the puck against Alex Kerfoot, and Stamkos buried it.

Campbell settled down and had a great game, but he could have had that one. It’s not a bad goal, but it’s in that category of, “wish he saved it,” which is fairly similar to the goal he gave up against Palat in Game 3: similar spot, similar wrister, and a similar location.

3.   One of the big storylines of this series has been either team having a few bad minutes turn into a big deficit. For the Leafs, things quickly went from bad to worse in the first.

After TJ Brodie took a hooking penalty, Victor Hedman scored almost immediately. It was interesting that Hedman simply shot it – Tampa usually loves to set up cross-ice passes between Kucherov and Stamkos, but with the Leafs sagging off a bit, Hedman ripped a puck and scored himself.

Look at how tightly the Leafs penalty killers are packed down below. You have to pick your poison with Tampa, and Hedman made them pay with a great shot (and a great screen by Alex Killorn).

4.    This game was insanely close to going off the rails. Another penalty, then a penalty while killing that penalty, gave Tampa Bay a lengthy 5v3, which the Leafs successfully killed off. As much as I didn’t love the Stamkos goal to open the game, Jack Campbell was excellent here to keep the Leafs in it (and for basically the rest of the game).

For whatever it’s worth, this is the second game in a row that Corey Perry has gone down extremely easily and the Leafs have been called for a penalty. But the Leafs were able to kill it off and keep the deficit manageable.

In Game 4, the Leafs didn’t take the timeout down two, but this game didn’t have the same feel, especially with the home crowd. Maybe going down early in the last game helped react a little better this time around? William Nylander even went on a breakaway coming out of the box, which would have been huge had he scored.

5.   The Leafs needed a break, and they finally got one on the power play in the second period. Morgan Rielly was sitting on the bench — he was still recovering from his last shift — but it looked better with Mark Giordano manning the point; he has a better shot than Rielly, and he isn’t as shot happy. He just makes simple plays.

On the breakout, Giordano made a simple pass to Auston Matthews to get the puck up ice and help the Leafs gain the zone. He then made a quick play to hit William Nylander on the half-wall. We’ve talked about Nylander on the half-wall a lot lately, and it’s something that has to be incorporated. He has such a good shot.

It wasn’t even a shot on this one, though. Nylander fed a pass with some heat on it looking for a deflection, and the Leafs got a fortunate bounce. Now it was game on. The crowd was into it, and the goal went straight to the Leafs’ legs.

In particular, Matthews started flying after the 2-1 goal. In the first period, he passed on a shot opportunity in the middle of the ice to try to set up Mitch Marner for a one-timer. He is the best goal scorer in the world; that is not what he needs to do there. In the second, though, he just started firing away.

By the end of the game, Matthews recorded 13 shot attempts. There was a slap shot he tried winding up that got blocked, but it didn’t matter – I just wanted to see him start getting more aggressive and challenging Andrei Vasilevskiy in every possible way.

And then he added in some physicality. In particular, he crushed Mikhail Sergachev — which, if I’m being honest, was from behind and a little dirty, but file it away in the little thing but a big thing category.

I also wanted to quickly note that in the first period, Patrick Maroon gave Matthews a little hook after the whistle, and Matthews gave him a shot back. Last year, he got rag-dolled a bit by Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber and showed zero pushback. This year, it was nice to see him stand up for himself, and as the game went on, he started doing the hitting himself and he started hunting for his shots.

I hope it’s the type of game we look back on and say this is when Matthews fully started asserting himself all over the ice in the playoffs.

6.   The second period was one of the best periods of hockey I’ve seen the Leafs play in a long time, all things considered. They were down 2-0, in Game 5, against an elite opponent, and they just dominated the period.

It’s amazing how it went to their legs.  Natural Stat Trick listed the shot attempts at 20 – 12, but it felt way more lopsided than that in the Leafs’ favour. Toronto tilted the ice.

Auston Matthews had a one-timer attempt on the power play blocked that you really thought was going in, Michael Bunting started getting involved on rebounds in front of the net, and William Nylander drove the net hard and just missed his chance.

Last game, the clip of Nylander not taking a hit went viral — and understandably so — but in this one, he dropped his shoulder and drove the net hard knowing he was going to get blown up (and he did). There was more urgency and assertiveness to his game. It was easily his best game of this series.

We should also note that Jack Campbell made a huge save on a Nick Paul breakaway to keep it a 2-1 game going into the third.

7.    John Tavares and William Nylander have not been great at 5v5, but at 4v4, they have been fantastic pretty well all season. They even combined for a goal there late in Game 4 before repeating the trick at a much more meaningful time in this game.

Tavares, with a little more space to protect the puck and make plays, is still deadly, and he made a great play down low to spin off the check and find a wide-open Morgan Rielly, who made no mistake.

Rielly has scored a few big playoff goals, but they’re rarely remembered because the Leafs haven’t won a series with him. Add this one to the list (but hopefully with a better end result).

Right after, Nylander scored off the rush with what was partially a great shot and partially one we’d probably expect Vasilevskiy to save. If you think of that goal and the Stamkos one to start the game as canceling each other out, that basically leaves the rest of the game as Campbell going toe-to-toe with Vasilevskiy and more than holding his own.

8.    Tampa Bay pushed back and tied the game on a Ryan McDonagh bomb. The point of discussion for me on the goal: When games are tight in the third period, the Leafs need to get the puck out at all costs. This was not the time to regroup and try to break out cleanly with possession and move nicely up the ice. Sometimes the puck simply needs to go out, and the team can clog the neutral zone and defend with structure afterward.

The Leafs have been doing this in the playoffs for a few years now and have been burned various times when attempting to regroup instead of just flipping the puck out. It cost them a goal, but ultimately, not the game.

9.      There are so many things to discuss on the Auston Matthews game-winning goal. In Game 4, Ilya Mikheyev and Colin Blackwell lost a battle at center that resulted in a rush chance for Russ Colton, who buried it. In this game, Jake Muzzin stepped up at center on Colton, McDonagh was there, and Michael Bunting came up with the puck to spring a 2v1.

It always comes back to who wins the battles. The Leafs won a huge battle there, they went on a 2v1, and Mitch Marner made a great play to pass it off the pad to Matthews, which was 100 percent Marner’s intention on the play.

We’ve talked about this play in this space for years. A well-executed pass off the pad leaves a goalie with nothing he can do. Put it around the ankle, a little bit off the ice with some heat, and the goalie has to kick it out in the middle on the save. It’s their only choice in order to save the original shot, and it leaves them completely helpless on the second opportunity.

From there, the Leafs closed the door. The Mark GiordanoJustin Holl and Jake MuzzinTJ Brodie pairings closed the game in the final few minutes. The Leafs got the puck out and made it difficult for Tampa Bay.

10.    There were some subtle adjustments in this game. Again, the lines were jumbled quickly. The forwards Auston Matthews played the most against were Nick Paul, Steven Stamkos, and Brandon Hagel. Among the Lightning defense corps, Matthews played more against Ryan McDonagh than Victor Hedman.

Tampa Bay eventually reunited Point – Kucherov in this one, in part because the Leafs finally started getting multiple lines rolling. As we’ve said all along, this needs to happen to force Tampa’s hand so that they need to adjust. It’s too easy for them if simply load up Point – Cirelli and go full out against the Matthews – Marner unit.

Brayden Point saw most of his time against Kerfoot – Kampf – Mikheyev. So, the Leafs definitely used the last change to their advantage and were able to move the matchups around.

Also of note is that Matthews spent more time on the ice with TJ Brodie than Ilya Lyubushkin, which helped his game. Matthews needs the puck movement from the back to help kickstart his game.

The matchups really shuffled in this one, but in Game 6, I expect Jon Cooper will go back to what he was doing at home, which is giving Point and Cirelli a steady diet of Matthews and Marner and forcing the rest of the Leafs forwards to make them pay.

See you Thursday.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts