Big exhale, Leafs Nation.

With the upcoming three-games-in-four-nights stretch against Boston, Carolina, and Vegas — literally the top three teams in the league at the moment by points percentage — the Leafs badly needed to take care of business and get some good vibes going tonight against a tired Flyers team missing half of its top six and resting its best player this season in goaltender Carter Hart.

A lot of puck possession, 40+ shots on net on a rookie backup, four-plus goals scored, a point night for the big four, and ideally, a little bit of depth scoring — maybe even a fight or two! — would’ve been how you’d draw this one up from a Toronto perspective. While it wasn’t plain sailing all the way through, the Leafs pretty much got all of those boxes checked in the end.

Your game in 10:

1.    An early-ish goal against in their return to home ice is certainly not how you’d draw it up for a low-morale Leafs team, but the response to the 1-0 Joel Farabee goal was encouraging. The Leafs got right back to work on offense for the most part, dominating puck possession and drawing multiple power plays.

The first two of three first-period power plays were pedestrian — static and predictable, with not enough directed at the net — but the Leafs found their breakthrough late in the period on the man advantage via a good play from John Tavares down below the goal line to find Auston Matthews, who put in his own rebound to make it 1-1.

Tavares followed it up with a beastly shift at 5v5 where he won multiple battles down low, held off a defender, and rotated up high before blasting a one-time shot off of a William Nylander feed bar down — it took a slight deflection — to make it 2-1.

That was a big-time first-period from Tavares at a time when the Leafs — down 1-0 in the game and reeling off of four-straight defeats — really needed it from their captain. And Tavares was just getting started for the night.

2.    The second period was nearly impossible to find any 5v5 rhythm in for the Maple Leafs, who spent eight of the 20 minutes on the penalty kill due to four separate penalties. When they were able to string a couple of 5v5 shifts together, they continued to double the Flyers up in shot attempts and scoring chances just as they did in the first period.

The PK has been off to a rough start to the year, but the shots were just 3-2 Flyers over those eight minutes in the second frame. You could debate what part of that was the Leafs’ PK and what part was a miserable-looking Flyers power play, but the Leafs were effective at preventing clean entries and were certain on their clearances/didn’t mess around with the puck in dangerous areas of the ice while shorthanded, which was a problem for them on the road trip.

The Flyers power play that came off of the Mark Giordano penalty caused by a Rasmus Sandin turnover was the closest Philly came to tying the game on those power plays, but Ilya Samsonov came up huge on Travis Konecny alone on the doorstep. There was also a critical Justin Holl shot block at the back post to prevent a Konecny goal on that penalty kill as well as a partial breakaway on a slow change from the Leafs that the Flyers fired high and wide on.

3.   Ilya Samsonov’s best and most critical save of the game came inside the first 10 seconds of the third period when the Flyers were still on a power play carrying over from the second period. Philly got the jump off of the opening faceoff — and got away with a hook on Justin Holl — and TJ Brodie was beaten for a 2v0 backdoor play that Samsonov came up huge on to deny Tony DeAngelo. Needless to say, a goal there changes the complexion of the period and the game entirely.

Samsonov should’ve stopped the 3-2 short-side goal on the power play from Owen Tippett later in the third period, but he played a big role in keeping it at 2-1 for so long in the second and third periods before Zach Aston-Reese added the insurance goal.

4.   Speaking of the Zach-Aston Reese 3-1 insurance goal, it’s one game and it’s even harder to judge it confidently against a tired, banged-up opponent without much quality depth to speak of, but the Leafs’ new bottom six lines both put together positive nights.

All four lines were in the black possession-wise in this game, but the fourth line of Aston-Reese – David KampfDenis Malgin led the Leafs with 12 shot attempts for / two against, six shots for / zero against, and one goal for / zero against at 5v5 (Aston-Reese also should’ve scored in the second period on a 2v1 with Pierre Engvall). Malgin helped them out on offense with his ability to hold onto pucks and make some plays. I am not sure if this mix makes any sense long term, but it gave the Leafs good minutes tonight.

5.   Pontus Holmberg‘s debut NHL game included just over 10 minutes of time on ice, 5 for 11 on draws, two shots on goal, one additional shot attempt (fired high on a half-chance from the circle), and a fairly low-event night for his line a 5v5 (expected goals were 0.05 to 0.01 for his line at 5v5).

Not much of an indication of anything, but I do think he can play NHL minutes as a natural center who is kind of a Kampf-lite (always in the right spot, decent enough on draws, competent enough with the puck to generally make the right play and continue sequences offensively).

Holmberg could prove to be a quietly important depth piece given the Leafs need more natural Cs capable of competent NHL minutes on their depth chart. They have three natural Cs in Matthews, Tavares, and Kampf and two who can play center but are better wingers in Kerfoot and Jarnkrok. Among the forwards at the top of the callup list are Joey Anderson, Adam Gaudette, Alex Steeves, and Nick Abruzzese; they’re all natural wingers and only Gaduette has professional experience at C in the past.

6.   As for the John Tavares 4-2 insurance goal in the third period (wow!), I wrote this after the win in Winnipeg:

This is about as good as I’ve seen Tavares look over a five or six-game stretch arguably since his debut Leafs season in 2018-19. In that 47-goal year, he was obviously as good as anybody in the league at scoring goals in tight to the net, and he could also mix in goals where he would flat-out beat a defender one-on-one. Coming off of an offseason impacted by his head injury in the Montreal series, his feet looked so heavy at points last season that it was like he’d have to beat his man once and then beat him again to try to open some space for himself. His feet look lighter so far this year, and he’s looking really confident with the puck on his stick at the moment.

It’s a sure sign Tavares is feeling confident again — and has regained half a step — when he is taking on defenders 1v1 like that and roasting them. This performance was another flashback to 2018-19 JT.  There is a lot of doom and gloom around this team at the moment (some of it warranted), but their $11 million captain looking like he’s gearing up for a big-time season is a massive development for the Leafs in the early going.

7.    The Leafs were able to own the puck inside the offensive zone so much tonight that there was not a ton of demand on their defense to execute under forechecking pressure (a lot of dumping and changing from the Flyers), but it was a cleaner night on the breakouts overall, which allowed the Leafs to come through the neutral zone with speed and establish their game offensively.

That said, there are multiple times a game when it’s clear that this team is going to be better off when Timothy Liljegren is back and up to speed on the right (set to return on Saturday) and TJ Brodie is also back on his familiar right/off-side.

Using two of Victor Mete, Rasmus Sandin, and Filip Kral on their offside, as the Leafs have done at times during this recent stretch, is clearly not a viable long-term solution (not suggesting here that the Leafs coaching staff believes it is or planned for it to be, either).

Here is an example where the Leafs are doing everything right structurally — in terms of moving up the ice as a unit, and the connection between the forwards and defense supporting the puck — but Mete ends up firing the puck into the bench.

We’ve seen some awkward moments from Sandin on the right as well leading to some turnovers and some jerkiness when breaking out or transitioning the puck. It’s far from ideal to be shifting relatively inexperienced defensemen over onto their off-side for a baptism by fire.

While it’s certainly not as simple as solely blaming the defensemen or the number of righties on the left for the team’s issues with exiting the zone efficiently in the first 10 games, it’s not helping. If Liljegren can settle in reasonably quickly, Rielly-Brodie / Gio-Liljegren / Sandin (or Benn) – Holl likely clicks together much more naturally.

8.   Great to see Mark Giordano filling the Jason Spezza vacuum as the team’s locally-born elder statesman who is willing to step up and answer the bell when the opponent takes liberties on one of the young stars as Travis Konecny did late in the game on Auston Matthews.

After a similarly solid win over Winnipeg included some rough stuff and Morgan Rielly jumping in to defend Nick Robertson, it felt like a coming-together moment for the team that was going to help set the stage for a successful road trip ahead. It didn’t play out that way, but coming off of a dismal 1-2-2 stretch, a convincing win on home ice capped by rallying around some shenanigans is not a bad way to change the vibes and turn the page on the first 10 games.

On a night that almost certainly would’ve ended in choruses of boos if the result wasn’t positive, the home fans left the rink buzzing from the hat trick and a late brawl in which the Leafs stepped up and showed they cared. It was a much-needed release of the tension that was building in this market.

9.   With the crowd fired up, Auston Matthews was also flying on a late shift after the John Tavares hat trick and the dustup with Konecny; he came in on a rush and nearly went between the legs -> far post for a goal. That play underscored to me how strangely rare it’s been to see Matthews break the zone with the puck on his stick and attack the net so far this season compared to last. Hopefully, we start to see more of it going forward.

10.   There have been legitimate reasons for concern in the opening 10 games of the season, but if you told me before the year I could pick two things to go well that would be harbingers of good things to come for this Leafs team this season, it would likely be John Tavares looking refreshed and getting off to a big start to the year — making the Leafs a more formidable two-line monster again inside their top six — as well as one of the goalies grabbing the crease with consistently above-average play (my third would’ve been a healthy and positive start for Jake Muzzin, and well…).

There is another gear we’re going to see from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — Matthews basically fanned on two empty nets tonight, one on a one-timer and one on his backhand in tight to the net. While Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn are no saviours, some help is coming on defense that should improve the overall mix and fits on the backend.

All of that said, the next three games are going to be a significant indication as to whether this was just a slow start the Leafs are turning the page on or if there is a much bigger issue on the Leafs’ hands this regular season.

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts