Anticipating a healthy scratch when he arrived at the rink in the morning, Bobby McMann was putting the finishing touches on his first career NHL hat trick just half a day later. 

McMann was one of many who stepped up in the absence of John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly in one of the Leafs‘ best team efforts of the season given the circumstances.

Game in 10 on a 4-1 win over St. Louis:

1.   The Leafs rolled up their sleeves and brought their lunchpails to work in the first period, starting from the opening shift with the makeshift Tyler BertuzziMax DomiNick Robertson line. The team’s urgency, pace, battle level on the walls, puck support in all three zones, and work rate away from the puck were all sharp early.

The team was rewarded accordingly with a 2-0 lead that could’ve been a couple more with better finishing from — you guessed it — Bertuzzi, who had two point-blank chances including a free-and-clear breakaway that he did not finish.

Defensively, the Leafs kept a clean sheet with just three total shots against in the first period, no slot shots against, no rush chances against, and no penalties taken, which is critical against a Blues team that is most dangerous on the rush/in transition and on the power play.

The Leafs‘ puck management was clean and simple; the one time they glaringly turned it over in a bad spot — Robertson’s soft pass back the point leading to a counterattack for the Blues — the effort to recover and break up the danger by Robertson was highly commendable.

2.   It was refreshing to see the team build off of committed team play, their forecheck, and their work ethic over 200 feet while getting all their lines involved rather than leaning on their stars and their skill to get them going in a game. The team’s play looked legitimately fast in the first period, which speaks to how they were rolling their lines, managing the puck in the critical areas of the ice, and applying puck pressure across three zones.

The goals themselves included an eight-game-slump-busting goal from Bobby McMann, who won a battle on the wall, protected the puck, beat Brayden Schenn out of the corner, drove out front, and jammed one in past Jordan Binnington.

The 2-0 goal was a fortunate deflection off of a defender on an intended pass by William Nylander, but it was no more than the Leafs deserved in a period where they carried a 9-2 edge in high-danger chances and over 80% of the expected goals.

3.   There were times in this game when it felt like it might follow a similar script to the Ottawa game — and more than a few others this season — in that the Leafs were letting the Blues hang around by not bearing down on their chances. A short-handed breakaway for Noah Gregor in the second period — which never really stressed Jordan Binnington — was the next example. The Blues halved the lead a couple of minutes later on a bit of a nothing play leading to a deflection goal on just their fifth shot of the game.

Shortly afterward, Tyler Bertuzzi continued to be snakebitten, this time ringing the iron off a great give-and-go passing movement on the rush between him and Max Domi. That was one of several nice linkup plays between the Bertuzzi – Domi – Robertson line in this game as they gelled quickly and were dangerous throughout the night, leading the team in five-on-five shots and expected goals.

4.   It was a much more even second period, with the Blues going on two power plays and very slightly edging the scoring chances and shots on goal at five-on-five. The Leafs were struggling to find a third goal but still didn’t give up much defensively — and the one goal against wasn’t even a scoring chance, technically — but there was one moment with two minutes left in the second period in a 2-1 game where I want to highlight a process error. It was the type of mistake that could’ve really come back to bite the team; the kind of error the Leafs have been making at inopportune times in games a little too often this season.

The Leafs were in the offensive zone applying forechecking pressure when the Blues sent a simple breakout pass up the middle, with McMann in deep and Domi and Gregor above their men coming back out of the offensive zone. This should’ve been a total nothing play where the Blues were closed down in the neutral zone. Instead, Timothy Liljegren took a bizarre route on the Blues’ puck carrier at the offensive blue line, got torched, fell over, and gave up a 2-on-1 against Mark Giordano out of absolutely nothing.

Giordano played the 2v1 really well to snuff out the danger — and then McMann drew a penalty shortly afterward — but given the time and place — late in the period with a 2-1 lead in a game where keeping it simple and avoiding transition opportunities against was the edict — it was the kind of decision-making that makes it hard to fully trust Liljegren at times even amid an otherwise decent game from him.

The Leafs also gave up a 2-on-1 inside the first minute of the third period on a play where they got caught with four on the wrong side of the puck (the Domi line plus Benoit) and McCabe defended it well to negate the danger. They got away with it, but giving up 2-on-1s to close the second period and open the third in a one-goal game is playing with fire.

5.   Speaking of Jake McCabe, despite taking another blow to his broken nose — he was gushing blood everywhere after his face was slammed into the glass — he played a team-leading 21:47 tonight, laid five hits, and there was a small moment I wanted to highlight in the second period, in particular. On McCabe’s first shift after getting repairs, Ryan Reaves took a big hit along the wall which drew a bit of a crowd after the whistle, and McCabe — with a blown-up nose — was instantly darting around the neutral zone trying to figure out who to grab.

McCabe is deservedly earning a lot of respect in the Toronto market with his honest, no-nonsense, tough-as-nails approach to the game.

6.  With John Tavares and Mitch Marner out sick plus the Morgan Rielly suspension, we got a look at all of Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and Jake McCabe on the top unit of the power play in this game. Within 30 seconds of its first opportunity of the game late in the second period, Domi should’ve scored.

A McCabe point shot was recovered behind the net by Matthews, who found Bertuzzi out front with a good pass that Bertuzzi then sent across to Domi at the back post with the goalie down and out. Domi kicked it up to his stick and then shot it back into the goalie (props to McCabe for charging in for a late dig at the loose puck).

On the third-period power play, the Leafs generated solid zone time — and one good chance for Nylander cutting across the net — but then Bertuzzi, with an open lane to drive into the crease and try to jam one in, walked around the back of the net and dished it off before Nylander turned it over high in the zone. Late in the power play, Domi set up Bertuzzi for a good look in the slot, but he fired wide.

As well as they played overall, with the additional opportunities, you’d love to see Domi and Bertuzzi, in particular, bury one or two and at least collect some points tonight; it was hard to believe they walked away empty-handed.

7.  As mentioned, the power play went to another opportunity five minutes into the third period with a chance to put the game in a safe spot but couldn’t convert. The shifts following a failed power play in a one-goal game in the third period are critically important. The David Kampf line manufactured a big shift to make it 3-1 Leafs via Bobby McMann‘s second of the night.

McMann won the initial loose-puck race behind the goal line to start the sequence, fired a shot wide, and then did a good job of fighting for space in the slot and locating the loose puck before firing a nice shot into the far top corner.

A hat trick for a journeyman player who had never scored twice in one game before is always a fun storyline, but it was nice to see how McMann generated the goals — winning a battle on the wall, winning a race as first in on the forecheck, driving the net hard, and fighting for space in front. The empty netter to clinch the hat trick and the 4-1 win was the byproduct of making the smart and safe play at that stage in the game to simply bank it out, resulting in a good outcome.

8.   The hat-trick performance (plus a drawn penalty) comes at an interesting time for McMann. Rewind it a month, he was sitting with six points in 18 games — reasonably respectable fourth-line production — while averaging a shade under 10 minutes per game and shooting the puck 28 times. In the eight games before tonight, he had just one assist and eight shots in eight games, was averaging just 7:59 in those games, missed two games due to a nagging injury, and was on course for a healthy scratch tonight before the illnesses happened.

With Pontus Holmberg earning trust with his utility and versatility, McMann is in a dogfight to play regularly in a relatively healthy Leafs forward lineup. He doesn’t kill penalties at this time or play multiple positions, so regular physicality and some supplementary offense have to be big parts of the equation for him to stay in the mix. We’ll see what this confidence boost can do for him.

9.   After a few shaky moments for #78 earlier in the night, a noteworthy takeaway in this game was how TJ Brodie settled in on his strong side on a pairing with Timothy Liljegren as the game progressed.

With eight minutes left in the third period and the Leafs under some pressure, Brodie settled the puck down, side-stepped a forechecker, and slipped a pass to Bertuzzi to get the team out of trouble. There was another breakout with just under five minutes to play where he evaded a forechecker and made a nice pass to start a 3-on-2 through the neutral zone before David Kampf, unfortunately, missed the mark with a pass and iced the puck.

Rewind to the second half of the second period, Brodie even made a nice play to continue an offensive-zone sequence on the left side, setting up Nylander for a one-timer, but Nylander’s stick shattered.

Given Brodie has lost a step and is struggling to consistently execute clean plays with the puck this season, it makes a lot of sense to give him every opportunity to find his rhythm and confidence with the puck on his strong side vs. leaving him to continue to fight it on the right. It’s noteworthy when thinking ahead to what beneficial knock-on effects a proper right-handed partner for Rielly could have on the rest of the unit in addition to elevating the Rielly pairing itself.

10.   Max Domi played a season-high 18:09, including over 15 minutes at even strength, and tallied a season-high four shots on goal (it was good to see him lean into a few even if the finishing eluded him). Between the Pittsburgh game where he played with Marner in Matthews’ absence, the shifts he’s occasionally (rarely) received up the lineup, and his play tonight, it’s apparent that when Domi is given the minutes and opportunities to feel and be important, it really energizes him and he finds another gear/is all over the ice.

McMann’s 13:30 was also a season (and career) high. Interestingly, Auston Matthews finished 11th on the team in five-on-five ice time tonight.

No one is arguing — or at least they shouldn’t be — that the team is better off without Rielly, Marner, and Tavares or that Sheldon Keefe should be regularly playing Matthews less than Kampf at five-on-five, but the big-picture takeaway concerns what might be possible from a team-depth perspective when the coach balances out the lines more and rewards those who are “going” in a game with more ice-time opportunity.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts