No pictures in the points column.

The Maple Leafs won ugly over the Panthers, leaning on Joseph Woll and the unlikely goal-scoring heroics of Noah Gregor en route to a 2-1 shootout win.

Your game in 10:

1.   If you were looking for the Leafs — coming off of two losses on the road and hosting the division rival that knocked them out of the playoffs for the first time at the SBA since Game 5 OT last spring — to come out with some juice, you were left disappointed tonight. The first period was controlled by Florida, who attempted 32 shots to the Leafs’ 10. The Panthers decidedly tilted the ice in the second half of the first period, but the whole 20 minutes were pretty flat and lacking in any discernible spirit from the Leafs.

The team’s numbers in first periods in general indicate a real problem (outscored 24-18), but a slow start from the Leafs seems especially reliable in these more meaningful matchups that should be circled on the team’s calendar. At some point, Sheldon Keefe has to do something different on these occasions to try to spark the team and energize the building a little bit. Maybe it’s as simple as starting the fourth line and demanding to hear the glass rattle multiple times on the first shift.

It just felt like there was no emotional investment in the game from the Leafs in the first period.

2.   A big part of the slow start fell on the team’s inability to break out successfully against the aggressive Florida forecheck. There would’ve been no surprises here given the familiarity between the teams, and it obviously would’ve been covered ad nauseam in Sheldon Keefe’s points of emphasis entering the night. The Panthers hound on the forecheck with the best of them and activate their D down the walls as aggressively as any team in the league.

For too much of the five-on-five play during the early parts of the game especially, the Leafs could not execute quickly or cleanly enough on their breakouts.  Part of it was an issue with the connectivity between their forwards and defense, but between Brodie (who is getting by on most nights but is definitely fighting the puck at times), McCabe, Giordano, Benoit, and Timmins (who can help here, but he is not fully up to speed yet in terms of executing as smoothly as he can with the puck), it’s not a collective of defensemen that particularly excels at breaking pucks out cleanly and efficiently outside of Morgan Rielly.

3.   John Klingberg was meant to assist in this regard but was too hurt to really contribute and now seems to be out of the picture. Timothy Liljegren should be able to help out some in this area once he’s back. But the need for an additional Chris Tanev type — while the offensive upside isn’t huge with him, it’s a righty who can win battles in the trenches, take tough matchups, and regularly execute a clean first pass — is definitely a real and obvious one. The Leafs were stalling out and playing slowly, especially early in the game, which didn’t help their offensive game thrive.

Also, many of the goals against (think about some of the recent goals against in Chicago and Pittsburgh) and grade-A scoring chances the Leafs are giving up have come directly off of those breakout misfires rather than breakdowns in their set defensive-zone coverage/structure.

The Leafs are currently below 50% in five-on-five shot attempts, shots, scoring chances, goals, and expected goals. It’s certainly the least a Sheldon Keefe-coached Leafs team has possessed the puck, and just five regulation wins in 20 games has a lot to do with the reduction in their control over games at five-on-five.

4.  On the Florida 1-0 goal, it was hard to figure out what William Nylander was thinking. He was tired late in his shift, but he easily had the inside track to go retrieve the puck and decided to try to bump shoulder-to-shoulder with Ryan Lomberg instead of simply winning the race. Lomberg went around him and Nylander fell over, creating the chaos as the Leafs forwards scrambled back into the zone after a line change.

It wasn’t like Florida hadn’t earned a lead at this point in the game, but the goal itself was entirely avoidable/in large part self-inflicted. The goal against was a double whammy for the Leafs as the initial shot attempt by Kevin Stenlund struck Mark Giordano in the hand/arm and appears to have done some damage.

The depth on the blue line, which has already been stressed, is about to face an even bigger test with all of Conor Timmins, William Lagesson, and Simon Benoit likely in the lineup for the foreseeable future (those were their 7-8-9 defensemen entering the year).

5.  Ironically, that Florida goal came at the end of one of very few good Leafs shifts in the first period courtesy of a reunited Tyler BertuzziJohn TavaresWilliam Nylander line. Keefe was desperate for a spark and reunited his previous top-six combinations for a brief spell in the first period.

It was a tough game in which to judge the rejigged top-six duos. The Leafs generated very little sustained offensive-zone time when there were lengthy sequences of five-on-five play in the first period, and while the final 40 minutes were a little better for the Leafs, the flow of the second and third was disrupted regularly by penalties. All of the underlying possession and scoring chances numbers for the Leafs’ four lines were quite poor tonight at five-on-five, in large part due to the lopsided first period.

Mitch Marner (who missed some time and was banged up/wearing a cage for the rest of the night) and Auston Matthews didn’t show any obvious signs of roaring back to life tonight. Especially given the nature of this game, though, it’s worth sticking with it and affording it some more runway vs. Seattle on Thursday.

6.   If this wasn’t the single best Leaf goalie start of the season by either netminder, Joseph Woll‘s 38-save performance was certainly up there. Especially after the way the first period played out, once the Max Domi double minor elapsed with a successful kill for the Leafs in the second period, you were sitting there thinking it was pretty fortunate it wasn’t 3-0 Florida at this point. The Leafs wouldn’t have made it past regulation without the excellence of Woll, and they certainly wouldn’t have picked up the extra point in OT or the shootout without him.

Woll makes a lot of tough saves look easy when he’s on his game, and it can provide a real calming effect on a team that is going to need its goaltending to be good — better than it has been in the aggregate through 20 games — as the blue line continues to thin out due to injuries. This seems like the right time to let Woll get into the rhythm of playing every other night for the next stretch of three games, barring any sort of major meltdown along the way.

7.   If the first star was Woll, Noah Gregor was a close second as he scored the 1-1 goal in regulation and the shootout winner with a pair of excellent finishes (the third star goes to Rielly, who I will get to in a second).

Gregor sits fourth on the team in individual scoring chances per 60 at five-on-five (ahead of Marner) this season while playing primarily with David Kampf and Ryan Reaves. Entering tonight, it felt like his three points in 19 games were an unfair reflection on his overall impact with his work rate, speed, breakaway/rush threat offensively, and physicality (he even buried Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh). But he also struggles to finish plays at the same time, so it’s hard to know what part of it is bad luck and what part is a lack of scoring talent (he does own a powerful release — his wrist shot has some zip on it).

This finish on the 1-1 goal was of the finest quality, though. When flying down the wing, sometimes Gregor has been content to fire it at the goalie’s crest from the faceoff dot rather than taking the extra few strides, taking the defender on/sticking a leg out, and attacking the net more directly. This time, he had more of a gap on the defender, to be fair, but he also did a good job of cutting into the middle to open up more of the net and force the goalie to go down/begin to shift laterally. He roofed it bar down from there.

8.    It’s also noteworthy that Noah Gregor has settled into a reliable penalty-killing role. He isn’t overly experienced on the PK over his career — and you could tell earlier in the season — but he’s started to figure it out. The Leafs lost some of their speedier secondary PK forward options from recent seasons; when they killed penalties at over 82% efficiency back in 2021-22, it was Ilya Mikheyev, Alex Kerfoot, and Pierre Engvall who were filling out the rotation behind Kampf and Marner. Gregor helps provide that kind of presence with the ability to close down space really quickly.

At five-on-five, there was a moment in the third period when Florida was sustaining an offensive-zone possession and kicked it back to the point; Gregor’s ability to close quickly in just a few strides rushed a play and the defender tossed it away in a panic. Opposing defenders really have to respect his wheels, which are not just elite in terms of his top speed (as Kulikov and OEL learned tonight) but also explosive in his first few strides.

9.   Keefe did mix Gregor into the second power-play unit at one point (the first unit generated very little in this game and was particularly disappointing on the late-game four-minute opportunity that ended with — you guessed it — a dubious too-many-men call on the Leafs). After the Leafs were given a second life with the double-tap call on Evan Rodrigues’ apparent shootout winner, Keefe went with Gregor as the fourth shooter in the shootout to much success.

Still, the gap between Gregor’s 11:29 and Matthews’ 24+ seemed too big given the performances, and while special teams time plus OT plays a notable role here, Gregor played just eight minutes and change at five-on-five, which was only more than Reaves, Kampf, and Robertson. You’d like to see him reward a player who is really going in a game like this with a more notable uptick in ice time including a decent run of shifts on a top line.

10.   With the Leafs down to five defensemen, Morgan Rielly played a whopping 30:30 and made a number of critically important plays, especially in the third period. He cut out a 2-on-1 chance for Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk with the game at 1-1 early in the final frame. He then chased down Nick Cousins on a breakaway and disrupted him enough so that it wasn’t a clean scoring chance.

A few times in the last stretch of games, we’ve seen Rielly make a good sweep check on an odd-man situation where he hit the ice, sealed it off, and took away the pass while angling off the shooter. This has definitely been a weakness of his defensively (defending odd-man rushes against), and while it’s too small of a sample to declare he suddenly excels at it, it’s been good to see and deserves a mention.

The Leafs are currently leaning on Rielly more than they ever have before in his career at 25:05/game, and on a team that has been out-scored 45-42 at five-on-five, the Leafs have outscored the opposition 24-16 with Rielly on the ice. Playing against top competition, he has put up 16 points in 20 games, with only five coming on the power play. He’s not gotten enough mention alongside William Nylander as a strong team MVP candidate through 20 games.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Maple Leafs 2 vs. Panthers 1 (SO)