Facing a 2-0 deficit in a tired situation on the road against a top opponent, the Maple Leafs didn’t go away, hanging around long enough to make this game interesting right to the very end.

Your game in 10:

1.   Sheldon Keefe started the game with the five-man unit of McMann – Tavares – Nylander / Edmundson – Liljegren for a decent opening shift that ended with Bobby McMann rushing down the wing for a shot he fired wide. On the next shift, early disaster struck with the Brodie-McCabe pairing and the Matthews line on the ice.

On Jake McCabe‘s initial stretch pass up the wall, the gap between forwards and the D was big and Auston Matthews let the defenseman slip by him uncontested to intercept the pass and stuff it back down into the Leafs‘ end. After TJ Brodie went D-to-D, McCabe tried a blind backhand slip pass into the middle to Matthews, who was already swinging toward the wall for a simple rim along the boards. McCabe’s pass landed on the tape of a Canes forechecker, creating a scramble in front that ended in a Brady Skjei goal just over a minute into the game.

The shot beat Joseph Woll under his glove hand, and while Skjei had the time to get his head up and measure the shot from the middle of the ice (never good), he was a foot outside the top of the circles and you’d like to see Woll come up with this one.

Woll also got away with one where a routine shot by Martin Necas went through him, hit the post, and somehow stayed out of the net. But he shook off the wobbly start and bounced back with a big penalty-shot save on Jake Guentzel as well as a huge backdoor glove save with three minutes left in the first period to prevent a deeper hole for the team. He never looked back from there, keeping the team in the fight the rest of the way with a fantastic final 45 minutes.

2.   Just past the midway point of the period, after a strong drive off the wing by Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson had one of several rough moments in this game on a neutral-zone regroup play where he circled back for a pass and immediately turned it over for a partially-broken odd-man opportunity for the Canes. During the ensuing scramble, Holmberg took a slashing penalty, leading to the second Carolina goal.

The goal itself was a terrible, flukey bounce off of Jake McCabe amid a forgettable period/game for him (gave it away for the 1-0 goal, got hit from behind by Andrei Svechnikov, one deflected off of him into his own net, and he later gave up a breakaway on a terrible gamble in the third period). But the initial sequence leading to the penalty was a self-inflicted wound.

This was a really adverse set of circumstances for the Leafs with the schedule situation, and the last thing they needed was to hand the Canes anything easy, which they did too often in the first period. With a minute left in the period, Timothy Liljegren pinched despite clearly having no forward support in place, leading to a 2v1 against (there was also the breakaway to Guentzel in behind Liljegren earlier in the period).

To be fair, schedule-related fatigue doesn’t apply only physically but mentally as well, but still, in these circumstances, the emphasis on taking care of the puck and keeping numbers above the puck — “not beating yourself,” so to speak — has to be there. It wasn’t there often enough in the first period for the Leafs.

3.    The Leafs had two opportunities to get themselves going in the game on the power play in the first period. Giving up a 2-on-1 against within five seconds of the first opportunity of the night was an ominous sign (they later gave up a breakaway on the PP at the start of the third).

It wasn’t easy sledding moving pucks off the perimeter and into the inner slot against the Hurricanes’ aggressive/elite penalty kill, although they did almost cash in a rebound goal off of a Timothy Liljegren point shot at the start of the second period; the puck skipped over Nylander’s stick with an empty net staring at him. Similarly, on their late second-period power play, a Liljegren point shot was tipped in front by Tavares straight into the glove of Frederik Andersen. Auston Matthews went on a nice power-play rush right near the second-period buzzer and set up Nylander in the slot, but Andersen was there.

Overall, in a schedule-loss situation against one of the top defensive teams in the league, you probably aren’t losing the special teams battle and coming out with a good result. The margins between winning and losing that special teams battle were minuscule tonight, though, and it ultimately hinged on a bad bounce on the PK and some missed opportunities for the Leafs‘ PP (I also thought the Leafs were about to bag a shorthanded goal in the first period on a nice play by Connor Dewar to hold up and pick out Matthews coming off the bench, but Matthews uncharacteristically bobbled it when he would’ve been one-on-one with the goalie).

I will note that if Domi is going to play top unit in Marner’s absence, he can’t take shots and miss the net from suboptimal shooting positions, and if Liljegren is going to play top unit (where I’ve liked what I’ve seen from his shot up top), he can’t let forwards in behind him for breakaways.

4.   I was curious to see how the Leafs would come out for the second period down 2-0 — pack it up and call it a schedule loss, or dig in and make it interesting? — and was really encouraged by their first 10 minutes of the period, in particular.

The top line should’ve cashed in on a 2-on-1 for Matthews and Domi where Domi nearly skated into Frederik Andersen such was his commitment to forcing the pass over to Matthews. Somehow the puck didn’t cross the line when Noah Gregor crashed the net following a David Kampf tip on a Morgan Rielly point shot. After a long Knies-Holmberg-Robertson offensive-zone shift, Matthews came over the boards and swatted down an Andersen clearance, got robbed, and then jammed it off the post. Shortly afterward, a good forecheck by Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi set up Matthews for another point-blank chance in front where he tried to flip it into the far side of the net from between his legs to no avail. On his next shift, Matthews nearly escaped behind the defense but the puck bounced on him.

It was an impressive 8-9 minute push of total control over the game by the Leafs that should’ve at least halved the Carolina lead. In the circumstances, not coming away with a goal here felt like it might’ve been the nail in the coffin, but the Leafs weren’t going away yet.

5.   The Leafs’ big push was disrupted by a somewhat momentum-turning own-zone shift by the Knies – Holmberg – Robertson line as Nick Robertson struggled to get a puck out on the half wall for a turnover and then iced it on his next touch.

Against a top team whose forecheck can get on top of the opposition with their active defense, it was natural to worry about how this line would fare on the breakout. Pontus Holmberg generally played a strong game protecting pucks and driving play north (he later earned a look on the top line again) and the line had a few nice offensive moments, but there were definitely some rough sequences throughout the night (and deploying Robertson on his off-wing remains a head-scratcher for me).

They were playing in the offensive zone for a shift in the second half of the second period when Robertson took a foolish high-sticking penalty swatting at a puck. The Canes generated a ton of good looks on that power play that they fanned on or didn’t convert, and Woll came up with a big post-to-post save to keep the Leafs in it.

6.  Speaking of Joseph Woll, he was now really dialed in and was keeping the Leafs in striking distance as the second period wore on. He made nine saves in eight minutes, including on a 2-on-1 for the Hurricanes after a Nylander turnover in the offensive zone. He then opened the third period with a breakaway save on Jordan Staal. After the Leafs made it 2-1 in the third and were pushing for offense in the subsequent shifts, McCabe made a bad gamble up ice, but Woll came up with a huge breakaway save on Jordan Martinook to keep the comeback hopes alive.

What started inauspiciously turned into Woll’s best performance since his long injury layoff with 41 saves on 43 shots. It seemed to click back in place once he made a couple of big saves late in the first period. Amid a forgettable 2-1 Sunday night loss in a tired situation, it’s a quietly reassuring development as Woll was coming off three straight starts below a .860 (and let in two on his first 13 shots tonight). Notably, he’s now a .934 on the road this season compared to Samsonov’s .884 mark away from home.

7.   Shots were 7-0 Carolina through the opening eight minutes and change of the third period (despite a hilarious 2-on-0 for Brodie and McMann that encapsulated why Brodie hasn’t scored in 100 games), but Woll was keeping the Leafs alive. Sheldon Keefe mixed up his lines in the third, shifting Holmberg up with Matthews and Domi, Bertuzzi with Tavares and Nylander, Dewar with Robertson and Knies, and McMann with Kampf and Gregor.

Toward the end of a Knies – Dewar – Robertson shift near the midway mark, the Leafs broke through and kept their shutout-less streak alive (now 233 games, seventh longest in NHL history and the longest since the Penguins of the early 90s). A nice wraparound attempt down low by Knies was followed up by a dump-in and forecheck by Robertson/Knies, forcing a hard rim that was kept in the zone by a good pinch from Joel Edmundson. Coming off the bench, Matthews jumped on the loose puck in the slot and put it on a tee for Robertson to one-time home.

Robertson (fully justifiably) finished at just 10:44 in ice time tonight given his dodgy puck management throughout the game (plus a bad penalty), but he’s undoubtedly a hard worker who doesn’t quit, and the shooting talent is the reason you keep him in the rotation when chasing a two-goal deficit.

After this goal, Edmundson moved to 6-1 in five-on-five on-ice goals in his seven games since joining the Leafs.

8.   Anecdotally (from memory over the years), William Nylander has often been a good bet to bring his skating legs in these tired situations vs. tough opponents; conditioning-wise, he’s a beast, and when the Leafs are playing a little slower (especially against a team with good structure), his pace with the puck and ability to slice through the neutral zone and get the team onto offense is particularly valuable.

I’m recalling the game-winning goal in Carolina during the 2022-23 season in a tired situation where the Leafs turned their bad start to the season around with wins over the Bruins and Hurricanes back-to-back. He scored a big tying goal earlier this year against Vancouver in a back-to-back to get the Leafs going en route to a 5-2 win, and he set up two Matthews goals in a tired situation at Madison Square Garden.

In any event, he was good tonight, and he jumped on a loose puck in the final minutes of the third period before driving across the crease and drawing a penalty off of Brent Burns. The Leafs now had their golden opportunity to tie the game.

9.   After Jordan Staal won the first draw on the Leafs’ power play clean and the Hurricanes instantly cleared it, you were worried the Leafs weren’t going to be able to get a faceoff win against him in the final stages (Staal was cruising at around 70% on the night), but Tavares won two against him and Matthews won one against Aho, so the Leafs were able to set up for 6-on-4 and 6-on-5 opportunities.

A series of pucks forced into the middle of the ice into persistent Hurricanes sticks by Matthews and Nylander led to clearances. With an exhausted Leafs group now without a timeout, they generated their best chance to tie it with Bertuzzi, McMann, Robertson, Holmberg, and a tired Matthews on the ice. After Jarvis hit the post of the Leafs’ empty net, McMann simply threw one toward the net off the ensuing draw and the Leafs jammed away at it, with Bertuzzi getting the best whack at the loose puck.

The Leafs put in a respectable effort to empty whatever remained in the tank, but Andersen was really solid in this game for Carolina.

10.   This reminded me of the Leafs’ trip to Boston a few weeks ago where they were playing a rested and elite opponent at home after traveling late the previous night — only this time, for kicks, the schedule makers also made it a 6 p.m. start. It’s as clear-cut of a schedule loss as you’ll find throughout an 82-game season.

On the one hand, the Leafs gave up enough breakaways for it to be worse than it was and they definitely leaned on Joseph Woll at times, but it’s also rare to see Auston Matthews leave a game with seven shots on goal, 12 shot attempts, and five scoring chances without a goal. The team’s effort in the final 40 minutes to get themselves one shot away showed encouraging pushback given the circumstances. Onto the next one.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts