Rumours of the Maple Leafs’ demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Four out of four points against the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes (in a back-to-back situation) without a single goal conceded at five-on-five and their third-string goalie in net for four of the six periods is no mean feat.

Bringing their best against top competition — with frustrating games mixed in where they play down to weaker competition — remains the hallmark of this Leafs team through the first dozen games of the 2022-23 season.

Your game in 10:

1.   Sheldon Keefe went with the fourth line to start the game (and each subsequent period), which is noteworthy for a few reasons beyond the fact that the line has given the Leafs really solid minutes, a goal, and a few drawn penalties during this three-game winning streak.

The Leafs have struggled to find consistent traction with a fourth-line combination over the past couple of years. Part of it has been the awkward mix of personnel they’ve deployed down there, and another factor might be the ice-time distribution on a team with Matthews and Marner top five league-wide in ice time among forwards under Keefe, leaving them with fewer minutes and making it difficult to gain a foothold in games consistently. Sometimes it’s not even just about the actual total TOI, though, but also making them feel important and involved in the game/period early, which Keefe is making a concerted effort to do at the moment.

This fourth line gave the Leafs their first good shift of the game 15 minutes in when they owned the puck for a spell in the o-zone and attacked the net thanks to a nice cut inside by Denis Malgin down low. That led to an icing, after which the Auston Matthews line came out — it led to nothing, but it’s exactly the kind of momentum-shifting, win-your-matchup, set-the-table-for-the-top-lines kind of shift you’re looking for out of a fourth line.

2.    Sometimes, in a back-to-back versus a rested opponent, the team that played the night before can jump on the opponent early, but the Canes are such a prepared, structured, and hard-working team under Rod Brind’Amour, it’s probably not going to happen. It was not the case in the first period as the ice was tilted in the Canes’ favour.

There were just two shots on goal from the Leafs through the first 15 minutes. However, they avoided the multi-goal deficit scenario by maintaining good structure and attention to detail defensively. There were not too many grade-A chances conceded, and it gave the Leafs — and goaltender Erik Kallgren after a bad first goal against — an opportunity to find their way into the game.

Especially in a back-to-back that is something of a schedule loss — or at least “a point would be nice” scenario — a good team sometimes needs to survive a greasy first period on the road without taking themselves out of the contest, and the Leafs did that by defending well and staying patient in this game.

3.   The 1-0 Carolina power-play goal came off of a Justin Holl cross-checking penalty that the referee closest to the infraction did not flag — it was the center-ice official who made the call. TSN colour commentator Mike Johnson dropped a good line that summed it up perfectly: “It is a cross-check, but if you called every one of those cross-checks, you’d have a lot of penalties in the game.”

Ultimately, it was just a weak goal on Erik Kallgren that has to be stopped on his near post. To his credit, Kallgren really settled in nicely after a rough first goal against, outplaying Frederik Andersen at the other end by the end of the 60 minutes.

4.   With still nothing much doing around the halfway point of the game but the team remaining within striking distance, Sheldon Keefe made a good call (some may say long overdue, but better later than never) by shaking the lines up and moving Auston Matthews away from Mitch Marner. He ran Kerfoot – Matthews – Nylander / Robertson – Tavares – Marner / Bunting – Engvall – Jarnkrok while keeping the effective fourth line together.

The spark helped the Leafs generate their late push in the second period, leading to the tying goal by Calle Jarnkrok after they generated successive offensive-zone shifts for the first time in the game.

5.   Speaking of the Calle Jarnkrok goal, we saw him score two in the same game just like that against Ottawa back in the preseason — quickly on and off the stick into the far side of the net (left side as a right-hand shot) from a standstill in the slot. You can see why he’s consistently managed to put himself in the 15+ goal range year after year despite lacking dynamism offensively.

6.   Justin Holl deserves a lot of credit for how resilient of a player he’s proven to be over the years. We all know the unlikely story of his rise from the ECHL, his success with the Marlies (including playing a massive role in the Calder Cup win), and the entire season of healthy scratches he endured under Mike Babcock. After he served as one half of a really effective shutdown pair with Jake Muzzin in 2020-21, some up and down play — particularly early in the schedule over the last two seasons — has seemingly entrenched him as the resident Leafs Nation whipping boy on defense (there always has to be one!).

Holl became the target of scattered booing from the home crowd on Wednesday vs. Philadelphia, but he continues to compete for the team, playing over 20 minutes a game against good competition (including big PK responsibilities), battling hard, blocking shots, and finding a way to come out of this tough weekend as a plus-three. He played a direct role in the Leafs’ 1-1 goal, jumping up into the offense and then taking a big hit to keep the play alive along the boards before Pierre Engvall set up Calle Jarnkrok in the slot. Holl still has the only goal by a Leafs defenseman through 12 games.

Holl’s play has settled down since Keefe and Dean Chynoweth made a good adjustment moving him next to TJ Brodie, a move that’s helped by Timothy Liljegren returning so that the other two pairings can also click into place around it.

7.   Encouragingly, it was the team’s depth lines that really got the team going in this one — with offensive-zone shifts, chances, and the 1-1 goal.

On a line with a center and winger (David Kampf & Zach Aston-Reese) who can grind, play good defense, forecheck, and are decent enough in transition, the fourth line is putting the puck on Denis Malgin’s stick in the offensive zone in matchups against checking lines, and it just might be a nice sweet spot the Leafs coaching staff has carved out him. That’s not to take credit away from some of the hunger Malgin has shown chasing down pucks, either — he had a great forecheck to recover a puck and then draw a penalty in the second period.  His five shots on goal through two periods were three more than the big five (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Rielly) combined.

The Leafs’ ZAR – Kampf – Malgin line led the team with over 70% of the expected goals and outshot the opposition 9-2 at 5v5.

8.   Following 40 minutes of offensive silence from the Leafs’ best players, their difference makers put them over the top after solid team defense, goaltending, and depth scoring kept them in the game.

After the Leafs started the third period without a shot on goal for nearly nine minutes, Mitch Marner made a Mitch Marner play to set up John Tavares’ game-winning 2-1 goal. Tavares did a great job corralling the puck in the neutral zone to kickstart the sequence (TJ Brodie also nicely denied an entry just prior). It was the fourth line that preceded that goal with a strong, grinding o-zone shift.

This was a tight-checking game just like against Boston, and when Carolina would finally work their way into half an opening offensively, they simply could not find the telling touch or finish around the net. The Leafs stuck around all night and were more opportunistic when it mattered.

9.   It should also be mentioned that while they were up to basically nothing offensively for the vast majority of the game, the Leafs’ top players were battling and attending to their details defensively.  Auston Matthews made a critical defensive play in the crease to prevent a 2-2 tying goal. Mitch Marner’s backcheck early in the game prevented a clear break at a time when the Leafs could’ve found themselves in a deeper early hole. William Nylander’s second and third efforts on the insurance goal put the game away, and he also made a good stick lift to prevent a scoring chance a little bit earlier.

That level of commitment from the top players, even on a night when they don’t really have it offensively, is how you put yourself in a position to steal a couple of points in an adverse situation against a good team on the road.

10.   More credit to Keefe’s bench management in this game in a tough back-to-back situation: Despite chasing the game for around 30 minutes between the mid-first and late second period, he kept the minutes really balanced across his four lines and three defense pairs. In a game light on special teams time, all 12 forwards were between 11:01 and 18:53. He rewarded his depth lines for giving the team the best minutes in the opening two periods, sparked the top-six a little bit with a line shakeup, and then the stars had enough gas in the tank to find a push in the third to take the team over the top.

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts