Nothing is easy with these Maple Leafs.
The Leafs have demonstrated early in the 2023-24 regular season that they can’t get out of their own way, and the Hall of Fame game on Friday night against the Calgary Flames was no different.
Yes, the Leafs won 5-4 in a shootout at Scotiabank Arena, but it was an adventure to get there.
Along the way, the Leafs blew a three-goal lead. They’ve allowed at least four goals in all eight home games this season, a trend that is bad no matter how it’s dissected. It’s the first time the Leafs have given up at least four goals in eight consecutive home games to start a season.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe went down a positive path afterward.
“I like that we didn’t get rattled,” Keefe said. “After they made it 4-4, it might have been the best we played all game.
“A lot of good things for us. It’s the least amount of scoring chances we have given up all season at five-on-five.”
Max Domi, the fifth Toronto shooter, got the deciding goal when he beat Flames goalie Dan Vladar to the glove side. The next Flames shooter, Dillon Dube, was stopped by Joseph Woll.
It was the first goal of any kind that Domi has scored with Toronto.
“Huge win for our group and heading in the right direction,” Domi said.
The Leafs’ five-game home stand ends on Saturday against the hot Vancouver Canucks before they head to Sweden on Monday night.
The constant on offence — other than Auston Matthews’ filling of opposing nets — has been the play of William Nylander.
It’s 14 games and counting that Nylander has recorded at least one point, extending his franchise record to start a season. The only other active player to record a point in 14 games to start a season is Connor McDavid, who had a point in 17 games to begin 2021-22.
Somewhere, someone with the TTC has to be thinking there’s a marketing campaign with the subway-riding Nylander as a spokesperson.
Nylander had two goals and one assist, with the three points putting him at 21 in 14 games to start the season. When the Leafs game ended, that was enough to have Nylander fourth in NHL scoring.
The question has been whether Leafs will be able to afford to re-sign the pending free agent. He’s giving Toronto every reason to ensure that it happens, even if the cost is a little steep.
What can Keefe say about Nylander that he hasn’t already said?
“What I would say, that I haven’t said yet, is he was excellent defensively tonight,” Keefe said. “Excellent. As good as he was on offence, he was as good defensively. There was a couple of shifts in the third period, he was in perfect spots, puck came right to him, he got us going the other way.
“His commitment defensively was the best it has been all season.”
Nylander got it going early, taking the puck past a couple of Flames and deking to his backhand to fool Vladar at 3:01 of the first period on a Leafs power play.
At 1:06 of the second, Nylander gave the Leafs a 3-1 lead when he took the puck from Calgary defenceman Noah Hanifin in the neutral zone and kept the puck on an odd-man rush to score. It was the first shorthanded goal of Nylander’s career.
Nylander’s assist on a goal by captain John Tavares was another indication of the diligence that No. 88 has been playing with from the opening game. He took a hit behind the Flames net and sent a pass with his backhand to Tavares, who popped the puck past Vladar.
BEAT GOES ON
We’re not sure if a 4-1 lead is the most dangerous in hockey, because when the Leafs are involved, no lead is cemented.
It just so happened that the Flames, who went into the game averaging 2.67 goals a game (25th in the NHL), managed to erase a 4-1 Toronto advantage.
The comeback was completed when a Flame named Martin Pospisil was able to jam the puck past Woll at 3:22 of the third period, trying the game 4-4. Jake McCabe, who didn’t look great in his first game after missing six games with a groin injury, and partner Mark Giordano were no help to each other on the goal. Giordano lost the puck behind the net to Pospisil, and neither Giordano nor McCabe thought to check Pospisil in front of the net.
In the second period, a Nikita Zadorov shot was too much for Woll’s glove side, and A.J. Greer got the Flames to within one when he tipped a MacKenzie Weegar shot past Woll. McCabe was there, but didn’t properly disrupt Greer.
The Flames’ first goal by Connor Zary came after Woll kicked a rebound onto Zary’s tape. Morgan Rielly was just as surprised as Zary and didn’t deter the Flame.
The Leafs carried the play for large chunks at five-on-five, but the combination of Woll, who had some shaky moments early in the game but was better as it progressed, and some defensive-zone breakdowns resulted in the goals against.
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THIRD’S THE CHARM
The Leafs have found their third line.
Domi is able to use his creativity to a greater degree playing centre than he was able to do on the wing, and in Nick Robertson and Calle Jarnkrok, he has a couple of industrious linemates who have a touch.
In their third game together, the trio produced another goal, this one midway through the first period when Domi found Jarnkrok, who went to his backhand to score. Robertson made the initial pass on the sequence.
For whatever reason, Jarnkrok couldn’t make an offensive dent playing with Matthews and Mitch Marner. A third-line role suits him best, and he is now riding a five-game point streak.
As for Robertson, we knew what he would provide when he was recalled from the Toronto Marlies: Energy and a lethal shot. True to form, that’s what has happened.
“Since Robbie has been up, he has been buzzing every shift, he has been making lots of plays,” Domi said. “He’s given us a chance to play in the O zone quite a bit. And Calle’s play speaks for itself.”
Now to do something about the fourth line, if possible. And by that we mean Ryan Reaves, who had seven shifts for four minutes 33 seconds of ice time and was on the ice for two Flames goals.
The Leafs can’t keep putting Reaves, who did not see the ice in the third period, in the lineup, though Keefe defended Reaves after the game. Never mind that Reaves is minus-11.
“He’s having some bad luck right now,” Keefe said. “I’ve combed through it, I’ve looked at every single goal against that he has been on for, and I still can’t find one that I can pin on him in terms of making a mistake. The puck just keeps going in our net.”