In the final game of a five-game road trip, the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled off one of their gutsiest wins of the season with a 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils thanks to two late third-period goals. 

Playing their fifth game in nine nights coming off of a cross-continent flight, the Leafs seemed to be facing down a so-called schedule loss, but they beat the odds against one of the NHL’s best teams tonight.  The Leafs‘ resilient defensive play at 5v5, timely goaltending early, clutch plays from their healthy stars, and a shockingly skillful primary assist from David Kämpf toppled the Devils in Jersey.

Your game in 10:

1.   The first period was a rough one for the Maple Leafs, who came out with no legs underneath them at all. The first couple of minutes were exceedingly sloppy.

Sam Lafferty turned the puck over in the neutral zone, leading to an abbreviated 2v1 attack for the Devils with TJ Brodie caught near center ice. Ilya Samsonov rose to the occasion with two huge stops in a first frame that was one of his best periods of the season.

The Devils tilted the ice throughout the opening 20 minutes, a period played mostly at 5v5. Shots were 14-4 for New Jersey per Natural Stat Trick, and the expected goals were 1.28 to 0.48. The Leafs were lethargic, looking every bit the part of a tired team at the end of a road trip that was down two top-six forwards.

Toronto did begin to limit the damage in terms of chances against as the period wore on, even if NJD continued to generate extended zone time. Still, Samsonov’s sharp opening to the night helped set a tone — this game was going to be competitive — as he allowed his team the time to find their mojo.

2.    The Leafs found their feet in the second period, which was another 20 minutes played mostly at 5v5. The Leafs had jump right out of the dressing room to start the second period, racking up the first shots on goal and growing into the game confidence-wise.

The Devils found themselves hemmed inside their zone much more often, and Calle Järnkrok rang one off the iron. Thankfully for him, it wouldn’t be too long until he found the actual twine on a play that was largely the creation of William Nylander.

Sam Lafferty used his speed to gain entry to the zone and then left it behind for Nylander, who was driving the net after the pass, slid down the wall, drew in pressure, and uncorked a filthy pass to the back door, where Järnkrok was waiting for a tap-in.

This was Järnkrok’s 14th goal of the season and his second in three games. He’s starting to heat back up after a long drought in which he tallied just one goal in the month of February.

Järnkrok has a legitimate claim to remain mostly in the top six given that his complementary finishing ability and positional sense allow him to be a credible goal-scoring threat when he plays with great players who can create but not so much when he’s playing in the bottom six.

3.     The second period continued along with the Leafs generally matching the Devils in most aspects of the game. In the middle frame, the shots on goal/shot attempts at 5v5 ended up basically even, although Devils did own scoring chances/expected goals in Natural Stat Trick’s data.

One chance became an actual goal on what amounted to a tough luck play toward the back half of the second frame. Jesper Boqvist came down the wing and snapped a shot that Ilya Samsonov stopped with perhaps a slightly juicier rebound than he’d have liked. Justin Holl did the right thing trying to sweep the puck away at the first opportunity, but the sweep bounced right off Mark Giordano and to the front of the net, where Mitch Marner was parked. The bouncing puck hopped over Marner’s stick and right to a crashing Erik Haula for a tap-in.

Various fans on the internet were trying to blame various players for this goal (mostly everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Holl), but I don’t really think there’s an obvious “culprit” here, and it certainly isn’t Holl. This was more a puck luck goal than anything else — multiple players had the right intent, but a weird pinball off of Giordano and the puck hopping on Marner were unfortunate. It happens.

4.     The Leafs called up Alex Steeves and Pontus Holmberg this week with the injury to Ryan O’Reilly and the illness that held John Tavares out of this game.

Neither player’s game was terribly eventful; Steeves landed a big hit on Jonas Siegenthaler in the first period, while Holmberg’s most noteworthy moment wasn’t a positive one: a four-minute double minor high-sticking penalty near the end of the second after the Devils tied it up.

This gave NJD extended PP time and put the Leafs’ PKers in a bind. Despite how great of an offensive team the Devils are at 5v5, they haven’t been terribly potent on the PP this season, largely because so much of their offense comes off of the rush, an area of the game that is less prevalent on the man advantage. Still, with the weapons they have, you never want to give them that much time to work with.

The penalty kill went well for the Leafs, who limited chances against and killed it off in a workmanlike fashion. Just 32 seconds after Toronto was back to 5v5, though, William Nylander committed a pretty obvious slash in the center ice area and the Leafs went right back to the kill.

Killing ~six minutes of PP in a six-and-a-half minute span of game time eventually broke Toronto down, but it first brought about a memorable shorthanded goal from Mitch Marner.

Dougie Hamilton’s pass squibbed out past the blue line as Marner aggressively pressured Tomáš Tatar, forcing a turnover and creating a breakaway for himself. From there, Marner displayed his slick hands in tight, undressing Vitek Vanecek for the 2-1 goal.

That was Marner’s 23rd goal of the season and his third shorthanded tally, tying last year’s career-high. He’s got 18 games left to set a new personal record.

5.    Unfortunately, the positive momentum from the shorthanded goal didn’t last too long. The Leafs were so close to killing off the entirety of the minor on Nylander and thus the penalty-palooza that consumed the late second/early third period, but in the dying seconds of the kill, a sweet pass from Dawson Mercer got in behind Justin Holl, setting up Ondrej Palat all alone on Ilya Samsonov.

The Leafs’ netminder made the first save, but the rebound kicked right back to Palat, who potted the goal to tie it. It was a bummer of a goal to concede right after the Maple Leafs took the lead, but at the same time, coming out even on that extended stretch of penalty-killing time felt like a pretty solid outcome on the whole.

Moral of the story: stay out of the box, particularly with those avoidable stick infractions.

6.    Once the game returned to 5v5, not a ton happened over the next three minutes until Ilya Samsonov allowed a goal that he simply cannot give up, one that harkens back to the playoff howlers that Frederik Andersen would give up in untimely, backbreaking fashion in deciding games.

Palat threw a puck on net right before taking a hit from Justin Holl while Erik Haula, streaking towards the net and uncovered between a stationary Mark Giordano and Pontus Holmberg headed behind the net, got a piece of it. From there, the deflection burrowed through Samsonov and slipped into the net.

Giordano needs to be more alert there and pick up a guy in front of the net, but no one remembers that play if the puck glances off Samsonov and deflects to the corner as it should.

I thought Samsonov was good as a whole tonight, and he graded out favorably in the numbers (.909 SV% is just fine). He kept the lights on in the first period and was a notable contributor to the winning effort, but this goal was a tough and untimely one with 11 minutes left in a tied game.

Thankfully, the Leafs were mentally strong enough to shake it off.

7.     Who’d have picked David Kämpf to turn the tide with a head-turning offensive play?

With Holmberg and Steeves in the midst of iffy nights, Sheldon Keefe shortened his bench and created a third line with Kämpf, Michael Bunting, and Noel Acciari. Toronto was breaking up ice and Justin Holl patiently picked out a beautiful stretch pass to Kämpf as he broke the New Jersey zone, splitting the defenders.

Kämpf saw Damon Severson coming towards him, and rather than going hard to the net, he veered to the side. In the process, he got Vitek Vanecek to bite too hard towards him and then dished a sweet saucer pass in Marner-like fashion to Bunting at the backdoor, where #58 had an empty net.

Again, this is a Marner/Nylander calibre of pass coming from the team’s offensively-challenged bottom-six center. Factor in it was Holl making the initial outlet pass, and it was an unsung heroes goal on a night when the Leafs needed it given the injuries to key players higher in their lineup.

8.   Safely navigating the game to overtime felt like a reasonable approach given the tough scheduling/health/opponent constraints. However, an opportunity presented itself when the referees handed Toronto their second PP off an obvious high stick by Timo Meier.

Typically, we don’t see a penalty called late in a tied game like that, but the call was obvious, and with New Jersey having eight minutes of PP time to Toronto’s two at that point, it felt overdue.

Presented with the chance to win the game in regulation, the Leafs took full advantage. William Nylander came down the wall off the entry, curled into the corner, saw a perfect passing lane to Auston Matthews camped out in the slot, and zinged the pass to #34, who snapped it by Vanecek for the go-ahead goal with 2:53 remaining in the contest.

It was another quiet-ish performance from Matthews up to this point, who is still not quite himself. I am not sure if it’s an injury ailment or something else at play, but the Leafs need to find a way to get him into a groove again, and feeding him pucks in high-danger areas like that is certainly the best way to do it.

Let’s see if his sixth game-winner of the season is the spark #34 needed ahead of a rematch opportunity against the Oilers after McDavid stole the spotlight last time out.

9.     It was now time to shut the game down, which the Leafs did a splendid job of, with one hero rising above them all in the closing moments: Jake McCabe.

On the ice with TJ Brodie for a long stretch to close out the game, McCabe shone in his positional defense and toughness. In the final minute of the Leafs’ win, I counted three excellent defensive plays from him blocking shots and passes, disrupting the cycle, and ending offensive possessions for the Devils.

McCabe also looked very sharp recovering dump-ins, although it helps that the Devils are less of a threat in those sorts of situations than Tampa or Boston with their heavier forechecks. Still, it was a strong game from McCabe with his new club.

As Kevin Papetti tweeted after the game, the former Blackhawk has now played in four games for the Leafs all in top defensive assignments against some high-powered offensive clubs on this road trip, and he has yet to be on the ice for a goal against.

It is still early returns at this stage, but right now, McCabe-Brodie looks like a very viable option as a so-called “shutdown pairing” to replace Jake Muzzin and Brodie from last playoff. With Mark Giordano anchoring a different pair, the Leafs will need to find someone who works with Morgan Rielly to bring the full picture together.

On that note, I thought Rielly and Timothy Liljegren were solid together tonight. One of the questions for the remainder of the regular season is which RHD (Lilijegren/Holl/Luke Schenn) are best paired with Giordano and Rielly to complete the playoff lineup if the Leafs want to run with McCabe and Brodie together.

10.     In all, the Maple Leafs downed the Devils 4-3 tonight to complete a winning (3-2) road trip with four games in the Pacific Northwest/Alberta and then the oddly-scheduled game tonight in Jersey.

It was not an easy swing, with as many as four of the opponents potentially playoff bound (depending on the Flames). Six of 10 points rates as just fine in the circumstances, even if you’d have liked a win over Vancouver on Saturday. The gutsy win tonight over an elite Devils team certainly helps make up for it.

The deck was stacked against Sheldon Keefe’s squad tonight, but they dug deep and pulled it out thanks to competent goaltending, one goal created/scored from each of their three high-salary forwards in the lineup, one depth goal, and timely defense to finish it off.

There was a lot of heart shown by the Leafs tonight. Their reward is a long recovery period with three days back at home to rest before a Saturday night matchup against the Edmonton Oilers on Hockey Night In Canada with a five-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning for home-ice advantage in the first round in tow.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts