John Tavares calls for net-off challenge after desperate finish

The Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t find the tying goal after they had rallied for 4 straight as they fell to the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4.

TORONTO – The goalie’s stick was lost, the puck went in, but the net was off.

Had the cage stayed in place and the referee not blown the play dead with 19.8 seconds remaining in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ wild near-comeback against the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday, John Tavares might just have registered the first 40-goal campaign of his career.

And a roof that had ricocheted boos from the fed-up locals would have blown clear off.

Heck, it’s not every day you see a team sleep in through the first 35 minutes of a hockey game, dig itself a 5-0 hole, then explode with vengeance and tie the thing up.

But had under-siege Chicago backup Collin Delia not pushed his — pre-loosened? — net off its moorings after he’d already lost his stick during the Leafs’ desperate 6-on-5 attack, Tavares could well have completed the turnaround.

“We probably should have tied it with the amount of shots, amount of chances we had,” Tavares said, post-loss.

“I didn’t see what happened there with the net coming off and whatnot but, you know, if that’s on purpose by them, especially in the last couple minutes in big situations, I would love to see that being a challenge at some point.

“You got that kind of pressure, that’s kind of a free out if that’s what happened.”

Here’s what happened:

What the above highlight doesn’t catch is Maple Leafs forward Trevor Moore tumbling into the net in a tussle for position earlier in the sequence.

Perhaps Moore loosened Delia’s right post enough that the goalie was able to nudge it off with much of a push-off. There’s certainly an argument.

Perhaps if you’re not cheatin’, you’re not tryin’. And a stick-less goalie relieving pressure by any means possible and giving his windblown defence a breather as his club claws for a wild-card berth? Well, that’s a savvy move for an undrafted kid with all of 18 NHL appearances.

“The net was already off when I slid into it. That’s why it came off so easily. I don’t know how it got that way,” Delia said.

After the whistle, the officials deliberated. Morgan Rielly argued. Coach Jeremy Colliton wasn’t worried a delay-of-game penalty was coming.

“Not really, no. I didn’t see anything where they would call one,” Colliton said.

The net was dislodged at the 24-second mark. The clock was reset with 19.8 seconds left.

In an every-millisecond-matters full-court press, Delia hung on to win, weathering a third-period storm of 29(!) shots, 50 attempts, three goals allowed, and a sudden tidal wave of hope.

“That’s a playoff game right there,” said Delia, who was forced into the game when starter Corey Crawford left ill after two periods, entrusting the backup with a 5-1 lead.

“It felt like an eternity, y’know? Those final seconds feel like half an hour, especially with the chances they had in front of the net, and then they go to deliberate about whatever they saw in front of the net. It just took a lot longer than 19 seconds.

“I was sweating pretty heavily after the game. After skating heavily this morning, it definitely felt like a full game.”

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This, when the Maple Leafs are hungry and swarming and Auston Matthews’ face looks like Hulk Hogan’s right before he tears his tanktop off, is how they can make their opponents quake.

“It felt like they were coming and coming, and we couldn’t stop them in the neutral zone,” said Marcus Kruger. “They had a lot of possession down low and a lot of speed.”

The Leafs’ four (almost five) unanswered goals in a 20-minute frenzy were all driven by the big guns: Matthews, Tavares, Rielly, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.

It’s a crystallization of what makes the group simultaneously so infuriating and so exhilarating to a fanbase driven to a state of manic-depression, that can boo their local heroes off the ice and give them a standing ovation over the course of the same night.

We’re certainly not saying the Maple Leafs were robbed of a win Wednesday because a net popped off, or that narrowing the gap on the scoreboard is some form of moral victory.

They weren’t. It isn’t.

Chicago was better. Toronto’s defence had a worse day than Facebook, and Leafs coach Mike Babcock pulled a suddenly leaky Frederik Andersen for the second consecutive outing.

We are saying that these flashes of desperation, these periods of focused pressure, this crash-the-net-and-stuff-it-in-at-all-costs mentality show us what these Maple Leafs can be when they choose to engage fully.

And what they better do for more than just 20 minutes a night starting exactly four weeks from today so they don’t need a challenge or a controversial bounce to squeak by.

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