Despite taking a 5-1 lead into the third period, Maple Leafs fans needed to hold their breath until the final buzzer as Toronto narrowly avoided a blown lead to the Panthers in a 6-4 victory. The strength of their first 40 minutes was enough in the end, and the push for home-ice advantage is very much on.

Your game in 10: 

1.   With the playoffs drawing near and a potential first-round matchup with the Panthers looming large, there was some level of expectation that this game would have a playoff feel to it. While the game wasn’t played at postseason intensity per se, there was some physical investment early on. William Nylander got after it on the forecheck and won a puck battle with pure energy, Ryan Reaves landed a big hit, and Jake McCabe took a big hit in the defensive zone (drawing a penalty). 

Coming into this game, I was interested to see whether or not the Leafs would not just be willing to match the physicality of the Panthers but actually be the initiator on some of it. At the end of the first period, Matthew Knies took exception to a hit by Niko Mikkola on Pontus Holmberg. Knies took the only penalty on the play — Mikkola should have gotten one for interference on the hit in the first place — but there aren’t many associated with the blue and white who will find any issue with Knies taking the two minutes there as a tone-setter.

2.   For most of the period, it didn’t look like we were heading for a 6-4 final by any means. Both teams struggled to penetrate and create offensive opportunities in the dangerous areas of the ice. That was until the Leafs‘ third line created a spark and the Leafs opened up a 2-0 lead inside 40 seconds.

Battling on the wall in the defensive zone, Nick Robertson couldn’t get the initial clearing attempt out of the zone. But thanks to some quick feet and good instincts, Robertson disrupted the subsequent D-to-D pass and the puck deflected to Knies, who sprung Robertson as he shot out of a cannon for a breakaway.

It was a supremely confident finish at full speed; Robertson knew exactly what he was going to do 1v1 with the goalie, and the finish almost felt automatic. That’s now three goals in his last five for Robertson despite playing less than 11 minutes a night in those games.

3.   TJ Brodie hasn’t had the easiest season in Toronto, and it feels like every time he attempts any offensive play in a game, the broadcast immediately mentions his 100+ games without a goal. This goal didn’t end that infamous drought, but he did swing around the net for a good primary assist on the 2-0 tally. A wide-open Auston Matthews tapped home his 61st of the year, a new career-high, at the backdoor.

This goal came off a clean offensive zone faceoff win by Matthews vs. Barkov. In what looked a little bit of an “accidental on purpose” situation, Tyler Bertuzzi took a little piece of Barkov on Barkov’s way out to pressure Brodie, which allowed Brodie to step around him to start the play. As Brodie wrapped around the net, Bertuzzi had the left-side defenseman fully occupied/tied up in front, helping create the open lane across the crease. There was no point for Bertuzzi on the play, but his off-the-puck work inside traffic played a big role in the goal.

Generating playoff offense against good defensive teams often comes down to those underappreciated little pick/bump plays and net-front battles.

4.    The aforementioned Knies penalty was the third one the Leafs took in the first period, but fortunately, the penalty kill was up to the test.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. As expected, there were a couple of anxious moments against the Florida PP, including a play in which Ilya Samsonov pulled a puck off the goal line. However, they succeeded in killing off all three penalties to start the game and all four in the game, showcasing their ratcheted-up pressure on the half-walls and making life hard on one of the best power plays in the league.

At the very least, the Toronto PK is now forcing opposition power plays to execute quickly under duress and make a difficult play to beat them versus the general passivity that seeped into the shorthanded units’ approach for a long time this season, leading to goals where other teams worked pucks around fairly comfortably until the PK eventually sprung a leak. Individually, a shout-out to TJ Brodie for a number of good sticks and clearances.

All of that said, early in the second period, Brandon Montour did score seconds after the Knies penalty ended on a bit of a weird play. It’s not often you see a puck go in from such a distance with essentially no reaction from the goaltender, but Samsonov simply didn’t see the wounded duck of a shot. It’s a bit of a sh*t happens goal, although David Kampf did mishandle a chance to clear on the wall shortly beforehand.

5.   In a big swing moment in the game, the Leafs pushed back immediately to get the goal right back and make it 3-1.

The Leafs did a good job of playing a direct game of getting pucks in and establishing a presence right at the top of Sergei Bobrovsky’s crease in this game. It was no surprise to see the red-hot Tyler Bertuzzi finding paydirt from the blue paint on this goal. He snuck in behind Aaron Ekblad and established positioning in front, and Matthews read the developing situation perfectly by throwing a pass into a productive area.

Matthews stripped a puck free in the defensive zone half-wall to start the breakout and then also stripped the puck on the forecheck after the dump-in in what was largely a goal of #34’s creation.

6.   Small sample alert, but the Connor DewarDavid KampfRyan Reaves line is winning its minutes at 61% xGF and outscoring the opposition 2-0 so far at five-on-five. The 4-1 goal was an illustration of the effective simplicity Reaves is bringing to this line so far.

First, Reaves went to the net for a redirect chance, and on the puck recovery behind the wall, he threw Lundell into the glass and pressured Dmitri Kulikov into rushing a play that turned it over to Kampf directly in front for the 4-1 goal.

That marked four goals from three different Leafs lines before the game’s midway point. Even despite the absence of Mitch Marner (and Jarnkrok), balanced even-strength offense has been a really encouraging theme of late. In Marner’s absence, the Maple Leafs lead the NHL in goals per game at 4.27/game in their last 11, and that’s despite a 8.6% power play.

They have scored a remarkable 41 5v5 goals in those 11 Marner-less games, which is far and away the most in the league, nine more than the next-best Rangers (32), who have played two more games than the Leafs since Mar. 8.

7.   The Leafs continued to pour it on, with the Holmberg line’s second of the night coming just a few minutes later.

Nick Robertson hopped on a turnover in the offensive zone and found Holmberg, who wrapped around the net and found Matthew Knies open in front for the 5-1 goal. The Leafs did a good job throughout the opening 40 minutes of beating Florida’s D to their spots in front of the net and timing pucks into that area, giving Sergei Bobrovsky little chance on most of the goals.

Some of it is certainly due to Florida’s off night defensively — they usually take away that area of the ice more effectively — but full marks to the Leafs for really earning the difficult real estate throughout the opening 40 minutes.

8.   Score effects are one thing, but letting this game reach 5-4 is quite another. There were a lot of similarities to the win over the Oilers in that Toronto did not play on offense enough with the lead against a good team that doesn’t need many invitations back into a game. During the timeout at 5-3, you could see Keefe imploring the team to start completing passes again with the puck instead of dumping it, falling back, and inviting more and more pressure.

The comeback attempt started early in the third on a shift for the Holmberg line plus the makeshift Mark GiordanoConor Timmins pairing, which (probably unsurprisingly) was not a trustworthy five-man unit in this game (shot attempts were 6-0 in their ~3.5 minutes together at five-on-five). We saw in plain view the high-event nature of this all-kid line, as — despite Knies playing fewer than seven minutes total and Robertson finishing at 9:09 TOI — they were on for two goals for and two against at five-on-five.

They could not break the Panthers’ prolonged cycle before Timmins afforded Tarasenko too much space in front of the net to redirect the puck past Samsonov.

9.   The same line was out there again for the 5-3 goal against, as the Leafs were caught with the Holmberg group out there against Reinhart and Barkov. In the video room, Matthew Knies will receive a learning-moment reminder from the coaching staff about not puck-watching and keeping his head on a swivel; he was transfixed by the puck carrier below the goal line on this play as Reinhart slipped in unmarked beside him. Against elite competition, switching off for even a moment instead of playing defense proactively often turns deadly.

With extended 6-on-5 time due to the goalie pull, Keefe tried to spot in a fourth-line shift with around two minutes left in the game, and it did not go well. The Leafs lost the draw and never recovered the puck before Sam Bennett ripped it far side on Samsonov, with Brodie unable to flex out into the lane and Kampf making the decision to drop down to the ice to block a passing option that wasn’t really where he thought it was (he might’ve been able to close and get his stick on that puck if not).

Thankfully, Auston Matthews — after a brief scare when he turned it over at the defensive zone blue line trying to slip a pass out of the zone — showed off his small-area skill to settle the chaos down and fire it into the empty net for #62.

10.   Speaking of Matthews, he now has eight goals in 11 games since Marner’s injury and is shooting the puck over five times per game (58). He’s also led the NHL in individual 5v5 shot attempts per 60 at 24.77 during that time.

Not that we should’ve needed it, but it is as clear evidence as possible that he does not need an elite playmaking winger on his line to drive a ton of his own offense, and there is something to be said for the benefits of the more direct approach we’re seeing from him offensively. Marner’s return brings tons of benefits in all situations, and the two can clearly make lots of magic together, but it should be opening Keefe’s eyes to the possibilities at his disposal with them apart as well.

with notes from Alec Brownscombe

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Joe Bowen & Jim Ralph Game Highlights