The Leafs dug out of an early hole to play some of the most dominant hockey they’ve played all year, but they were unable to finish off the Carolina Hurricanes in a tough 5-3 road loss on Saturday night. 

Auston Matthews continued his hot streak with two more goals as the Leafs peppered Pyotr Kochetkov with 44 shots, but a decisive goal from Sebastian Aho with under three minutes to go broke the tie and gave Carolina the two points. Calle Järnkrok also added a goal while Matt Murray stopped 23 of 27 shots.

Your game in 10:

1.    The game was off and running in a hurry after the Leafs were shorthanded just 40 seconds in. Carolina flipped a puck down the ice that Jake McCabe tried to play out of the air, accidentally smacking Martin Necas in the face with his stick in the process. As te Leafs went on the PK, 49 seconds in, Noel Acciari was called for one of the most marginal hooking calls you can imagine:

I don’t know what to say other than a referee cannot make that call barely more than a minute into a game when the offending team is shorthanded. If you want to call it in the second period when one team has had three PPs and the other has had none and you’re looking to dole out another PP, I guess, but not in this situation. Not when it gives the other team 1:11 of 5v3 time. But that’s what happened here.

Carolina took advantage of their lopsided edge, and Brent Burns ripped a shot off the post and in. Burns, now 38 years old, can still shoot the puck as well as ever, and it was a snipe that was challenging for Matt Murray.

2.     The 5v3 goal still left Carolina with some time on the PP in which the Leafs actually generated some quality looks shorthanded, including a rush with Sam Lafferty and Justin Holl that was not cashed in. Once the game returned to 5v5, the Hurricanes continued to drive play.

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner had one give-and-go look that was Toronto’s only notable opportunity as Carolina continued to pile up the shots. The Canes’ shoot-and-retrieve system was putting shot after shot on Murray, and eventually, they got another one by him.

Another flip pass down the ice was corralled and whistled wide of the cage by Jordan Martinook, leading to a helter-skelter sequence of pinball hockey, with the puck bouncing around near the Leaf net. Jordan Staal got to it in the slot, where he whacked the puck on a hop over the shoulder of Murray to give the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead.

With 11:08 remaining in the first period, the shots were decisively in favor of Carolina at this juncture, and it looked like it could be a long Saturday night for the Toronto side.

3.     Then things started to turn. For the remainder of the first period, the Maple Leafs began to dictate play and put more shots toward Pyotr Kochetkov. It all began with a power play when Michael Bunting goaded Brent Burns into an interference call.

The Leaf PP collected six shots on goal during the two-minute advantage, and although they couldn’t get one to find the back of the net, it was a productive offensive sequence that got their engine going when play got back to 5v5.

Interestingly, Carolina was very passive in defending the goal line and around the net, creating several great looks in tight for the likes of John Tavares and Auston Matthews. I wasn’t quite sure why the Hurricanes were giving the Leafs so much space in tight to the goalie, but they got bailed out by strong play from their goaltender.

The final four minutes of the first period saw the Leafs continue the flow they got into on the PP. It was all at even strength, but they continued to put shots on net and had pulled even in the SOG counter by the end of the period after being way down midway through.

Toronto was playing with energy and getting looks on most shifts, including a good rush chance created by Jake McCabe, with a loose puck rebound opportunity for Sam Lafferty just being blocked by Jalen Chatfield of Carolina.

Toronto went into the intermission down 2-0, but it felt like they were building something that could result in a strong second period.

4.    The Leafs started the second period strongly and got a gift from Brett Pesce, who put a puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. Toronto’s second power play was not as successful as the first in terms of shot quality, but I did find it interesting that Sheldon Keefe rode his first unit hard in this game, swapping out only defensemen but leaving the forwards unchanged for close to the full two minutes. Perhaps it’s a template for how they plan to manage the PP units for the postseason.

The PP didn’t bring about a goal, but the Leafs got on the board shortly after its expiration at 5v5. The top line of Auston MatthewsMitch Marner, and Calle Järnkrok was cycling in the offensive zone, creating shots and offensive opportunities, when the star forwards headed off the ice. Järnkrok stayed out there and eventually found himself with the puck at the top of the circle, opting to drag it and rip it by Kochetkov.

That’s now 18 goals this season for Järnkrok, who already has hit a career-high and continues to have a legitimate chance for 20 playing with #34 and #16 on the top line. As this shot showcased, the finishing talent is real.

5.     The Järnkrok goal made the score 2-1, but the Maple Leafs kept their foot on the gas and continued to put the Hurricanes on blast.

There was a stretch lasting over 14 minutes — from the late first period into the second period — in which Carolina did not put a single shot on goal. Toronto took 17 consecutive SOGs and were spending the entire time in Carolina’s zone, dominating play and throttling an elite team that normally does this to the opposition.

Auston Matthews was buzzing in particular, generating a couple of great looks in tight on Kochetkov, one that the Russian snuffed out with his glove and the other with his midsection on an awkward flopping save. Before the Leafs had even tied the game, you would have been justified in saying that the period unfolding before us was one of the very best of the season for Toronto.

Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas got a few looks for Carolina off the rush to finally break up the stagnant Hurricane offensive play dating back to the Staal goal, but Toronto went right back at it.

The Leafs came in on a 3v2 off the counter, William Nylander flipped a pass to the slot that took an odd bounce to Matthews, who was a trailer to the play. AM34 picked the puck up, skated in a few paces, and then blasted the shot by Kochetkov to tie it:

That tied it at 2-2 with 7:19 remaining in the second. Not a ton happened the rest of the way other than another pivotal save by Kochetkov — this time on Järnkrok after brilliant passing from Matthews and Marner to set it up.

The Leafs owned the second period, controlling the shot attempts 25-8 at 5v5, scoring chances 15-4, high-danger chances 9-1, and expected goals 1.45-0.3 per Natural Stat Trick. Dominance.

6.    Before we get into the crunch time part of the game, I want to shout out the offensive contributions of Jake McCabe tonight. When Kyle Dubas traded for McCabe from the Blackhawks at the end of February, the scouting report on McCabe basically read “don’t expect much offense,” and while I think that is mostly true, his performance in a Leaf sweater suggests there’s more here to be untapped.

McCabe has been much more inclined to join the rush and assist in the cycle offense in the offensive zone than I had anticipated when he arrived and that was on display tonight. He jumped up on the play several times in this game to create chances for the Leafs — the first being a solo rush right off a neutral zone faceoff that I mentioned earlier, which generated the rebound look for Lafferty.

McCabe joined the rush a couple of other times and then walked into the slot for a chance on net in the third period with a clear look at the net, but his shot rocketed high and over top.

McCabe has only two points in 12 games since coming to the Leafs, but as he gets more accustomed to the team, the system, and his teammates, his inclinations and aptitude for offense suggest there’s more here than I think most would’ve expected at the time of the trade.

7.    The first five minutes of the third period were pretty similar to the second period. The Leafs generally tilted the ice on Carolina and put more shots toward the cage.

Toronto got another power play opportunity in the early third when William Nylander was tripped, but it was not the most productive PP opportunity for the team, and it proved to be the final PP chance for either squad the rest of the way. Toronto controlled the first eight minutes of the third period when finally Carolina went the other way to get a chance and what would turn out to be their first shot on goal of the period found the back of the net.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi had the puck on the wing and he fired it through the slot, finding ex-Leaf (for one game) Stefan Noesen on the far side in stride. Noesen wheeled around the net and got Matt Murray to bite far too hard on the initial approach of the wrap-around, exposing the far post when Noesen came around.

Noesen’s attempt to tuck the puck in actually got stuck on the goal line and it put Noel Acciari in a tough spot. Retrieving a puck off the goal line when it’s tucked next to the post without knocking it in your own net is not easy. Acciari tried to figure out how to scoop it out for a split second too long, and it allowed Noesen to poke his stick in between Acciari’s legs and nudge the puck across the line.

Allowing a goal there was a brutal swing of momentum after the Leafs had controlled the game continuously for over 30 minutes at that point. It was not the most threatening chance at face value, and it was the second time in a couple of weeks we’ve seen Murray struggle with the high-speed wrap-around, with a similar goal going in against the Oilers where Murray got caught overcommitting too far on the initial approach.

It’s something for Murray to clean up in practice, but for now, the Hurricanes held a 3-2 lead.

8.     After that Noesen goal, the Leafs were put behind the eight ball. Carolina is an excellent defensive team with the finest structure you’ll see anywhere in the NHL. They protect leads well, and even better when the goalie is balling out the way Kochetkov was tonight.

As the clock ticked down in the third, Toronto found it harder to puncture the neutral zone and tilt the ice, but they did get opportunities. Alex Kerfoot set up William Nylander for a Grade-A chance that Kochetkov shut down. Finally, with under four minutes to go, Toronto found the equalizer.

The Leafs established possession in the offensive zone and got Morgan Rielly to take a shot on net that squibbed out in front of Kochetkov. Michael Bunting was parked on the doorstep and went to work digging away, jarring it free, and sliding it to Auston Matthews, who fired it into the net:

There was one problem at the time: the whistle had blown prematurely. The referee behind the net couldn’t see it and blew the whistle when the puck was definitely not covered. The referees convened, and as it was explained to us by the CBC/Sportsnet crew, under current NHL rules, they can ignore an erroneous whistle if there was a continuation of a play that led directly to a goal going on (which there was here). They reversed the call, and then got replay confirmation to deem it a goal, tying the game at 3.

9.     I would’ve been satisfied just taking the foot off the gas and trying to get to OT with the aim of nabbing at least one point, but they needed to cover three minutes of game time to get that point. As it would turn out, the Leafs were unable to do so tonight.

John Tavares lost an offensive zone faceoff, and yet again, Carolina went to a flip pass down the ice. Timothy Liljegren struggled with the puck battle after it plopped down out of the air, and Carolina established possession.

Sebastian Aho picked up the puck, walked in, and shot a puck off Morgan Rielly, who went down to block it. The puck ricocheted to the corner and eventually reached Jaccob Slavin at the point, where he wound up for a one-time slapper. Matt Murray kicked out a juicy rebound that went straight to Aho — who had a step on Rielly — and Aho put Carolina back in front with just 2:26 to play.

The disappointing nature of the goal inevitably engendered ravenous public debate on social media and the easiest thing to say is it was a tough puck luck goal where multiple parties are marginally to blame. You can say Liljegren should have won the loose puck that began the play, that Murray should’ve controlled the rebound slightly better, and that Rielly could’ve done a better job flanking Aho. But none of those three “errors” are remotely egregious and all three unfolding exactly the way they did was necessary to lead to that goal.

Like the bouncing puck goal that Staal netted earlier, it was more puck luck than anything else, and tonight that (+ the refereeing on the first goal) was not in Toronto’s favor.

10.     The Leafs pulled Murray to go 6v5, but they didn’t get many looks before a turnover in the neutral zone allowed Teuvo Teravainen was able to hit the empty net from just across center to seal it 5-3 for the Hurricanes.

While the Leafs cleared 60% at 5v5 in all the relevant metrics (and nearly 70% in expected goals!), they were unable to come away with any points on the road in Carolina. It was disappointing not to get anything for the standings, but in terms of all the losses in regulation that the Leafs have sustained, this was one of the least aggravating. As I noted in the previous point, the breaks were not going in the Leafs’ favor throughout the night, and sometimes that’s the way it goes.

More important to me, the Leafs’ process is starting to look better. After a couple of weeks of getting decent results (point collection was fine) with a woeful process (brutal underlying numbers), they have stitched together back-to-back strong games where chances and shots are more solidly in their favor. That’s a promising sign, and you’d like to see it continue over the final games of the season.

The standings are now almost completely irrelevant. Tampa’s prolonged run of middling play has shown no signs of ceasing after they lost again today to Boston. The Leafs are still five points up with two games in hand, and the Lightning now have just eight games remaining.

At this point, it’s a more interesting question if Tampa will even hit 100 points than it is if they will pass Toronto in the standings. Home ice is in a very secure position, and from that lens, the remainder of the regular season is getting the process right, keeping both goalies sharp, and figuring out the playoff lineup. Tonight was still a solid step forward in getting the process back on track.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts