Travis Dermott answers the bell in most important game of Leafs’ season

William Nylander scored the game-winner in the third period and Justin Holl added an empty-netter to lift the Maple Leafs to a 5-3 win over the Panthers Thursday.

SUNRISE, Fla. — Travis Dermott has never been so important to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Here we are in the middle of a white-knuckle playoff chase and the 23-year-old is being tested in a way he’s never previously experienced as an NHL player — counted on to handle the high-leverage matchups in tight games while teammates Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly nurse injuries back home in Toronto.

Through four periods, anyway, Dermott has been up to the task. Those were four crucial periods that helped the Leafs bank four points during a productive business trip through Florida.

“Real positive steps for him,” coach Sheldon Keefe said after Thursday’s 5-3 victory over the Panthers.

Dermott made a smooth transition to Muzzin’s spot alongside Justin Holl, helping Toronto control play in a matchup against Florida’s most dangerous forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.

That’s a line that typically feasts on the Leafs, particularly in games played here at BB&T Center. The Panthers had won six straight against Toronto in this building, and have a reminder of that dominance hanging on a wall inside the arena.

(Photo via Chris Johnston)

But none of those games carried the importance of this one, which made the stage even bigger for Dermott and everyone else wearing blue and white. And Toronto’s playoff ambitions received a big boost with the regulation victory that followed — jumping to 78 per cent, according to MoneyPuck.com.

A rare off-night for Florida’s difference-makers was a huge factor. They were out-attempted 11-3 in the seven-plus minutes they went up against Dermott at even strength, and had just 15 per cent of the expected goals.

Contrast that with the strong performances from the Leafs top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, plus the Dermott-Holl pairing, and you’ll find the key to the game.

“They did an excellent job,” said Keefe. “Today they’re matched up against the Barkov line and it’s the entire group doing a job against them, but I think that line ends up off the scoresheet and is minus-2 on the night. That was our greatest challenge going into the game: How you’re going to manage players of that level with the defencemen that we were missing.

“Those guys did an excellent job, and our whole team did.”

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It became an even bigger question after Muzzin broke his right hand blocking a shot during Tuesday’s win in Tampa.

Dermott was forced to play more than 11 minutes in the third period that night as a stop-gap solution. He ran on instincts and survival. With 48 hours to prepare for an elevated role against the Panthers, he tried to focus on staying within himself.

“I mean, you can’t be scared of it,” he said. “Then they’re going to take advantage.”

It helped that there was familiarity with Holl dating back to their time together in the American Hockey League. However, they only usually found themselves playing together with the Marlies late in games when the team was chasing a goal — basically a nuclear option that came with a high rate of success.

Under these circumstances, on a night where Toronto went down 3-1 and had to battle its way back into the game, they were only really concerned with having a tidy performance in their own end.

“I think we just kind of focused on our defensive duties,” said Dermott. “All the extra stuff was, really, if it’s wide open we’ll do it, but we’re not going to force any plays. I think that’s what we did and our forwards helped us out a lot too.

“I think we just stayed in front of the net, tried to protect Freddie [Andersen] as much as we could, make the first pass out of the zone and everything kind of fell in place from there.”

Dermott’s belief built with each quality shift — almost as though he was stacking blocks on top of one another and left with a better view of everything happening around him. The good vibes actually started during that third period in Tampa when he was on for the scrambly final minutes and Toronto found its way through.

This is a triage situation. Rielly and Cody Ceci are still out for “weeks,” according to Keefe, while Muzzin is sidelined for about a month. The Leafs coach dressed seven defencemen against Florida and only one of them — Tyson Barrie — has appeared in more than 250 NHL games.

“I’ve never been a part of a group quite this young,” said Barrie.

That’s worrying given the slim four-point margin the Leafs have over Florida for the Atlantic Division’s final playoff spot. But it’s invigorating for the players stepping into a larger role.

Dermott is one of five Leafs defencemen who won an AHL championship together in 2018 and believes the group is ready to take another step. By his own admission, his personal progress has come slowly this season — no doubt impacted by missing training camp, exhibition play and the first 13 regular-season games while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.

But you wouldn’t have known it on a Thursday night in South Florida, with a building full of chanting Snowbirds and vacationing Canadians, while watching Dermott hold his own on the top pairing in the biggest game of the Leafs season so far.

“It’s nice to have a lot of our Calder Cup-winning team back here on the D corps,” he said. “Opportunity’s fun, right? If we can get the team buzzing here under these situations then it’s going to feel even better when everyone’s back.”

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