On the second night of a back-to-back on the road against a rested and elite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs stitched together one of their best wins of the season given the circumstances.

In a tired situation — and with Matthew Knies the latest victim of a flu bug going around the room — the Leafs‘ 7-3 win over the Rangers at MSG was a satisfying albeit unlikely victory.

Four first-period goals put them in the lead and key third-period goals from Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews helped put it away in Martin Jones’ first start of the season for Toronto. The second period was a bit sketchy at times, but all in all, the Leafs picked up a convincing win on the road against a team at the top of the league standings. Hard to top that.

Your game in 10:

1.    The game started fast, with three goals scored before the first TV timeout. The Leafs started the game with a jump in their stride and leaned on their stars to break the ice.

After the Rangers took a penalty, with the referee’s hand in the air and the goalie pulled, William Nylander pranced and danced right around three Rangers as he entered the offensive zone. Auston Matthews was breaking up ice with him on the far side, which meant that Nylander’s nifty moves created a 2v1 deep in the zone for Toronto. Nylander whipped the puck across to Matthews, who wired it by Igor Shesterkin to make it 1-0 — another quick strike goal off the rush by this pair similar to their 2-0 goal versus Nashville last Saturday.

The Leafs were off and running. They’d grab a second goal pretty soon after as a seeing-eye shot from the point by Conor Timmins found its way through traffic.

The team was feeling good and playing well, up 2-0 with the Rangers yet to put a shot on goal. The momentum wouldn’t last too long, however, as the Rangers put together a very good response.

New York’s 2-1 goal came off a seemingly harmless defensive-zone draw in the Toronto end. After the Rangers secured possession of the loose puck and went low-to-high, Adam Fox came down the wall and found Vincent Trocheck in front, who fired on Martin Jones. Jones made the first save, but it kicked out to Blake Wheeler, whose shot deflected in, with Jones caught sliding too far out of his net to contest the Wheeler shot.

2.    After a frenetic start, the game slowed down for a spell at 2-1, with the Leafs killing off the first Ranger power play of the game without much trouble.

Noah Gregor set up Matthews for a good look, and then it was time to go to work for a line of John Tavares centering Calle Järnkrok and Tyler Bertuzzi. Tavares won a faceoff in the New York end and then the line engaged in a masterclass of offensive-zone cycle work.

Bertuzzi put a puck on net, Shesterkin kicked out the rebound, Tavares jumped on it and fired a shot, and Shesterkin made the save. Tavares jumped on his own rebound and fired another shot, and this time, Järnkrok was on the doorstep for a tap-in goal.

The Leafs were hungrier than the Rangers on this shift and aggressive about attacking the net, outworking the defenders for every loose puck and hounding the New York netminder, who was kicking out some juicy rebounds in this game.

Now up 3-1, Sheldon Keefe started the ensuing shift with a super line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The big three looked like the Harlem Globetrotters against the Rangers on this sequence; Nylander saucered a pass up ice for Marner, who lifted the stick of Jacob Trouba and entered the offensive zone with possession. Marner fed Matthews, who showed the shot and drew in pressure before sliding the pass down to Marner, who tapped it into an open net.

Two goals in 21 seconds gave the Leafs a 4-1 lead.

3.    The Leafs went into the intermission up 4-1, but the early second period was not how they would’ve drawn it up. They didn’t end up surrendering a goal, but it was sloppy and flirted with disaster.

The Leafs generated the first chance of the period — John Tavares from Mitch Marner — but was a rollercoaster afterward, including a long stretch of threatening play from the Rangers. New York nearly went on a breakaway but were denied the opportunity when Conor Timmins dove and cut out the stretch pass. Soon after, the Rangers did break in alone as Nick Bonino got in behind Maxime Lajoie. Lajoie, skating as Toronto’s seventh defenseman, provided some back pressure, but Martin Jones made a massive save.

Jones wasn’t done saving Toronto’s bacon. He made a great stop when Tyler Pitlick was in alone and then another big one on a rush chance before the period was over. Jones, after the rough first goal, was very sharp and came up huge for the Leafs in allowing them to escape this section of the second period with their three-goal lead intact.

After the two teams played some 4v4 without a ton of chances either way, the Leafs carried their 4-1 edge into the later stages of the second period.

4.     The Maple Leafs were starting to look comfortably in control of this game at five-on-five by the late second, but then the one thing that couldn’t happen happened: a Toronto penalty.

Conor Timmins was called for a hooking penalty when Vincent Trocheck entered the zone, giving one of the NHL’s best PPs its second chance of the night. The top PK unit looked pretty good for the Leafs early on, denying entries a few times and generally keeping the Rangers to the outside. Unfortunately, they were never able to get off the ice in the period of the long change, and New York simply wore them down.

The Rangers puck movement on the goal was terrific; after Adam Fox moved down the wall and delivered a low-to-high pass, Artemi Panarin showed the shot at the top of the zone, which turned TJ Brodie just enough so that when Panarin slid it over to Mika Zibanejad, the Swede was shooting into an open net behind Jones.

If the Leafs had a bit more juice left in their legs, Brodie may have gotten over in time to block the lane/shot, but this time he could only slump to the ice as Zibanejad cut the lead to two.

5.     The PPG gave the Rangers the shot in the arm they needed as they found their stride back at 5v5. There were only three minutes to play in the second period, but they started taking it to the Leafs, who were now hanging on and hoping to make it to intermission with a two-goal lead still intact.

The Leafs were hemmed in for a while, but they finally freed the puck up as Nylander led a counterattack the other way. #88 entered the zone and slipped a superb pass through to Bobby McMann on the doorstep, but McMann couldn’t elevate it over the pad of Shesterkin for what would’ve been his first NHL goal.

The big save created a rush the other way, a sort of 3v2 for the Rangers with some back pressure from the Leafs. Zibanejad sent the pass across to Blake Wheeler coming down the wing, where the veteran was afforded an astonishing amount of space by Maxime Lajoie, whose rush defense on this play was an eyesore. Against Wheeler all alone 1v1, Jones was beaten high over the shoulder by a snipe from the veteran.

It was now game on, and a tired Leafs team was going to need to manufacture a response to blunt the Rangers’ momentum.

6.     If the start of the second was problematic, give the Leafs tons of credit for the way they started the third. John Tavares and Mitch Marner went on a 2v1 rush just over a minute into the period, with Tavares making a great pass to Marner. After Shesterkin stopped Marner point-blank, Tyler Bertuzzi followed it up with an empty-net chance that was heroically blocked by a sliding Jacob Trouba. The puck went behind the net, and on the ensuing scramble, Erik Gustafsson was called for an interference penalty.

Given an early power-play opportunity to restore a multi-goal lead, the Leafs took full advantage with a timely goal. Tavares won the faceoff and Auston Matthews passed to Morgan Rielly, whose point shot was deflected in by Marner.

It’s difficult to understate the importance of this 5-3 tally. After heading into the intermission with their tail between their legs, the Leafs were able to completely flip the momentum of the third period within just two minutes.

7.     The effort from the Leafs to salt away the game for much of the third period was excellent. They limited the Rangers’ looks and did well to match their high-end chances blow-for-blow. Max Domi and Nick Robertson had a rush chance that tested Shesterkin, and the Marner/Tavares/Bertuzzi line had one notable shift as well.

There were some issues — TJ Brodie getting walked by Alexis Lafreniere wasn’t great, nor was one shift where the Rangers had what felt like a full minute of zone time thanks to multiple Leafs turnovers — but Martin Jones stood his ground.

The Leafs also announced their physical presence when Jake McCabe laid a booming hit on Ryan Lindgren just inside the Toronto blue line. The hit knocked Lindgren off both skates such that his body was lying horizontally in mid-air. The impact was so shocking that Zibanejad went after McCabe in retaliation, and the referees ended up giving Zibanejad four minutes for roughing and two to McCabe.

While the first unit mostly just ran out the clock, the second unit looked hungry to score and created two fabulous looks. Max Domi was denied by Shesterkin on a grade-A chance.

8.     With a 5-3 lead and under three minutes to go, the Leafs found an insurance marker before the Rangers could even pull their goalie. Martin Jones made a big save on Erik Gustafsson a couple of minutes earlier to keep it a two-goal lead, and then the top line cashed in the goal to seal the game.

On a 3v2 rush, Auston Matthews took a shot that was blocked by Jacob Trouba, but the puck bounced right back to Matthews, who caught Shesterkin off guard:

That was Matthews’ second of the night and 21st on the season. He’s scored five in his last three games and seven in his last five, a recent surge that’s placed him back on top of the NHL goals leaderboard and put him on pace for 66 goals. That one-goal-in-nine-game stretch feels like a long time ago now.

The 6-3 goal wrapped it up with under three minutes to play, but Peter Laviolette opted to pull the goalie for some reason. The Leafs took advantage of it; TJ Brodie shot the puck down the ice, and David Kämpf raced down to collect the goal — his third in four games — to put the cherry on top.

9.     A few assorted notes on tonight’s game:

It is not clear to me why Keefe opted to dress Maxime Lajoie and go 11/7. It was a late decision when Matthew Knies was scratched due to the flu going around the locker room, but I would’ve dressed Ryan Reaves. Reaves isn’t a reliable player, but neither is Lajoie, and I think the damage to the team would’ve been mitigated by dressing Reaves instead. The constant shuffling of the defensive pairings makes less sense when it’s done to fit an AHL defender into the lineup. I’ve seen some good things from Simon Benoit and William Lagesson, but Lajoie has been a step down — he’s not an NHL player — and directly cost the Leafs a goal tonight.

Secondly, I thought Martin Jones was pretty good in his first start as a Leaf. That first goal wasn’t great and the third Ranger tally saw him beat 1v1 by a shot, but Wheeler did rip that one. Overall, he made a lot of tough stops at critical moments. His 28/31 line isn’t anything special on paper, but this is a Rangers team with several high-end shooters who don’t make it easy. More importantly, Jones made timely saves. When you’ve got a tired and partially sick team on the second night of a back-to-back, you’re going to need your goalie to come up with some key stops. Jones did just that, especially early in the second period.

Third, Calle Järnkrok deserves some praise in honour of his goal tonight. He scored a goal and an assist this evening, moving up to a 7-9-16 stat line for the season in 26 games (a 50-point pace), with a +11 that is by far the best on the team. He’s played all over the lineup and receives little PP time yet has continued to chip in for the Leafs at a very affordable cap hit. His consistency night in and night out warrants more recognition than it’s gotten.

10.    The Leafs are now 15-6-5 on the season, and despite plenty of concerned discourse about the team, they are in a good position. They sit only four points back of Boston for the lead in the Atlantic Division and one point back (with a game in hand) of Florida for second. The race for the Atlantic crown is pretty wide open, and the Leafs are firmly a part of that race.

It hasn’t been pretty — and some elements do need to improve for the team to control 5v5 play better — but it’s been remarkable how they’ve managed to find ways to keep collecting points despite not having their A-game as often as they have in past regular seasons.

There has been a lot of talk about the team’s regulation-win count, but they also have very few regulation losses. Toronto has lost one game in regulation since November 9 — a one-goal defeat at Pittsburgh — and are 9-1-3 in that time frame. They are now on pace for 110 points, which is remarkable considering the dialogue around the team in the first few months.

Upgrades will be needed at the deadline, but they have managed to persevere despite devastating injuries to an already-thin blue line. Tonight, the team skated seven defensemen and four of them are somewhere between marginal NHLers and true AHLers. Any other team in that situation putting up these kinds of results in the standings would be receiving more praise.

With a remaining December schedule featuring Columbus three times, Buffalo once, and Ottawa once, plus a home game against Pittsburgh on Saturday (Kyle Dubas’ return to Toronto), this is an opportunity for the Leafs to really make up ground on Boston to close out 2023. They’ve stacked two strong games together out of their last three (tonight alongside Saturday’s win over Nashville). Let’s see if they can keep it rolling.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts