TORONTO — Enough was finally enough.
The Toronto Maple Leafs power play should be a source of strength given the enviable array of scoring talent at its disposal, not an energy-zapping drag that draws boos on home ice.
That’s why it was so important that the Leafs found themselves with a television timeout immediately before their sixth crack at the man advantage on Thursday. It bought a group stuck in a 2-for-32 rut another 90-plus seconds to catch their breath and clear their minds. It gave them a chance to adjust on the fly.
When the five players on the $42-million top unit huddled together at the bench — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Andreas Johnsson — they basically decided to throw caution to the wind.
“We pretty much said ‘What do we have to lose? Let’s move around, let’s get the penalty kill kind of thinking more’ and I thought we did a really good job of that,” said Matthews. “Different guys going into different areas and just reacting and playing off our instincts. Not just drawing up plays, but reacting off one another and then using each other.”
It’s basically came down to the difference between doing and thinking.
Reacting, rather than reading from a script.
The primary goal of Toronto’s top unit is to create open looks for Matthews, but there are many ways to accomplish that. Matthews felt they had grown a little too stagnant with him basically camped out on the right flank during their first five power plays against Vegas, which is why he and Tavares briefly swapped spots once they established offensive zone possession on the sixth one.
Matthews then floated into the left circle, held the puck in at the left point, zipped around behind the goal and had two shots at Golden Knights goaltender Malcolm Subban before he tucked a shot off the crossbar and in.
All of that freelancing crossed up the Vegas penalty killers — which entered the night with the NHL’s second most effective unit. It gave the Leafs the window they needed to tie the score on another night where they appeared destined to squander a tight game.
“A little bit’s reading off one another, create some movement and cause [some doubt on] those split-second decisions. They got caught kind of in-between and that’s when you’re able to isolate someone or get someone open,” said Tavares. “Especially Matty’s the guy we want to get the puck to, obviously.
“Glad it worked out and a hell of a shot.”
It was the second straight game where Matthews delivered a big goal after scoring the winner against Los Angeles late in the third period on Tuesday. His laser beam over Subban’s shoulder came at 8:14 of the final frame and set the stage for a Tavares overtime winner in a 2-1 final against the Golden Knights.
This was a tightly played affair between teams with big aspirations, and the Leafs leaned heavily on goaltender Frederik Andersen.
For a time, it appeared as if their ongoing power-play struggles were going to be the story. Toronto enjoyed some good puck movement during two first-period opportunities with the man advantage, but lost its way on the two it received in the middle frame.
Simply entering the zone — normally a power-play strength for the Leafs, according to data tracked by SportLogiq — became difficult.
Some fans grew restless and even booed.
“We had some real good looks, we had some real good power plays that didn’t score,” said Mike Babcock. “And then we had a couple that were hard to watch.”
The Leafs coach had maintained that they’d be OK in that department even though they entered the game sitting 20th in power play efficiency at 17.3 per cent. He didn’t see the need for a massive overhaul or change in approach.
A big part of that confidence had to come from having a healthy Tavares.
The captain missed eight of the nine games where Toronto went on a 2-for-27 run with the man advantage because of a broken finger and shot high on a wide open net during a power play in his return on Tuesday.
In fact, the SportLogiq data shows that the Tavares/Marner/Matthews/Johnsson/Rielly unit is the NHL’s fourth most effective in goals per 20 minutes played this season.
Still, they needed a breakthrough moment to restore some confidence on a night where Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant felt there were too many penalties called on both sides. The Matthews goal seemed to stem some frustration and offer a path forward for that talent-rich top unit.
“With the skill we have, I think if we move around in the O-zone when we have a power-play chance it’s going to screw a lot of penalty kills up,” said Marner. “I think that’s what kind of gave us our opportunity there, is we had guys kind of running all over the place.
“We were moving the puck well and we were moving bodies around and it resulted in a goal.”
Credit the extra break they had before with an extra assist on the goal. The pressure had been mounting.
“That’s what we said before the power play there, ‘C’mon, lighten up here fellas. Let’s just go out there and breathe a little bit and do what we’re supposed to do,”’ said Babcock.