Maple Leafs’ playoff chase ramps up as desperation on display in win

It took the Toronto Maple Leafs and Arizona Coyotes until overtime to decide this one, but Kasperi Kapanen scores the winner in a 3-2 victory

TORONTO — The Stanley Cup Playoffs elicit a feeling.

The chase to try and reach them can, too.

More than anything, that’s what stood out in a Toronto-Arizona game that probably looked like it would be nondescript if you simply glanced at Tuesday’s NHL schedule. Inside Scotiabank Arena, however, there was tension and a nervous energy and even brief moments of outrage before Kasperi Kapanen froze the clock 3:43 into overtime.

It’s only Feb. 11, but there was nothing manufactured about the way these teams battled for a win. No one needed reminding about how important the points were.

“They’re massive,” said Zach Hyman, a scoring hero on a night where Sheldon Keefe created a $29-million line featuring his three brightest young star forwards.

“Every game matters, whether it’s Tuesday against Arizona or Saturday against Montreal or against Florida. … These points all matter, right? We’ve just got to keep getting them and it’ll all work out.”

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There has already been plenty of talk in Toronto about playoff positioning, but it hadn’t yet been felt at this level.

Not even close.

The Leafs were coming off a week where they blew three third-period leads and collected only three out of a possible eight points. That raised some questions, both inside and outside of the dressing room.

“Well, we think that we had a bad week in that regard,” said Keefe. “And sometimes when it happens like that, it can be something big that maybe snowballs. You want to control it; you want to be aware of it.”

The head coach rolled out William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to start Tuesday’s game and then saw Arizona open the scoring on the second shift. It was a sign of the slog to come. Despite playing the second half of a back-to-back against a rested opponent, the Coyotes were hard and fast and difficult.

They didn’t allow Toronto’s skilled forwards to generate much speed through the neutral zone, which helps explain why Hyman twice scored to tie the game. He battled to get to the front of the goal and had Tyson Barrie’s point shot bounce in off his quad muscle before burying a gorgeous spinning feed from captain John Tavares to make it 2-2 early in the third period.

The Nylander-Matthews-Marner line didn’t produce any magic in its trail run — although the fact Nylander was returning from four days off of skates because of an illness surely played a factor in their lack of crispness.

Still, let’s remember what this represented.

This was Keefe going to his nuclear option in a big moment and it’s likely foreshadowing for what we’ll see as the games take on even more meaning. Particularly if the Hyman-Tavares-Alex Kerfoot trio continues to show promise behind it.

“[Scoring balance is] something I’m conscious of, but I’m also trying to find — is the offset worth it?” said Keefe. “Can you have one line that’s really dominant there? I felt very confident with the Tavares line, they had been dominant in their own right, so there’s still pretty good balance there.

“We just kind of changed up the top six, the look of it.”

That’s an intriguing notion with the Leafs holding down the third seed in the Atlantic Division and facing the possibility of matching up with a team that takes a similar approach — whether it be Boston (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) or Tampa (Stamkos-Point-Kucherov).

Of course, talk like that is wildly premature.

They’ve got to get there first.

The Leafs actually would have fallen below the playoff cut-off line if Arizona had scored on a power play in the final 35 seconds of regulation and they nearly dropped a point when Jakob Chychrun beat Jack Campbell in overtime.

However, that goal was overturned by video review because Derek Stepan bumped the new Leafs backup just before it went in — sending Campbell briefly into a panicked rage.

“I usually don’t get too emotional in the game, but the guy bumped me pretty good and I mean the guy shot it five-hole,” said Campbell. “So I knew I would have saved that if he didn’t bump me, but you never know how it’s going to be called. I tried to state my case a little bit and thankfully it got overturned and we won the game.”

That brought with it new life and, for one night anyways, a new feeling.

Relief.

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