Maple Leafs survive ‘dirty’ hit, ugly 5-on-3 in ‘character-building’ win

John Tavares scored with 41 seconds left to tie it and William Nylander scored the overtime winner on the powerplay as the Toronto Maple Leafs came back to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.

TORONTO – So precious are the tiny windows of opportunity the Tampa Bay Lightning allow over 60 minutes that if you miss one, well, it might be your only one.

The threepeat-hunting champions have learned the hard way to execute the type of structured, poised and opportunistic brand of hockey to which the Toronto Maple Leafs aspire.

When they sense a tight game, the Bolts begin hording scoring chances like Stanley Cup rings.

Which is why two egregious bang-bang penalties by the visitors and two atrocious minutes of 5-on-3 play by the home side nearly snuffed out the Maple Leafs’ win streak Thursday night.

“We gotta recognize those key moments,” coach Sheldon Keefe instructed his out-of-sync superstars after a limp first period concluded with a passive two-man advantage.

Yes, the Maple Leafs wasted their best chance to claw back into a game controlled by the Lightning, a group that jumps into every shift with purpose.

But in rallying for a dramatic 2-1 overtime victory, the big guns found a way to steal not one point but two against a divisional threat.

“Just a good character builder. Just a good feeling,” said captain John Tavares, whose fingerprints were all over the comeback. “You found a way to get it done when you didn’t have your best.”

Positionally sound and dialed in from the jump, Tampa rang two posts within the first five minutes of action and gave Toronto little in the way of Grade-A looks in a dominant first period.

So, when depth winger Pat “Threepeat” Maroon dusted a troubled Jake Muzzin on a 2-on-1 rush to cash in his first goal of the season, there was a sense that a 1-0 lead might even be enough.

With Tampa choking away speed through the neutral zone and space in the interior of the ice, the Maple Leafs needed a break.

Then… they got one.

Mitch Marner chipped a puck past Victor Hedman at the Leafs’ blue line and gained two steps on the perennial Norris contender.

Hedman hooked Marner something fierce, desperately trying to prevent a breakaway. And with the official’s hand already raised and Marner bearing down through the hook for a chance on Andrei Vasilevskiy, Mikhail Sergachev glided in from the blindside and delivered a nasty headshot.

The type that will surely get replayed in the league office, even though Sergachev was whistled for an illegal check to the head.

“I thought it was dirty,” said Tavares, who charged toward the Tampa defenceman in the ensuing fracas.

“I thought Mitchy was pretty exposed and no chance to really protect himself or see it coming. Just didn’t like it at all. Hit him right in the head. We want that stuff out of our game. Certainly should be at least talked about.”

Should Marner have been granted a penalty shot? Perhaps.

Should the Maple Leafs have at least threatened to tie a tight game with both Sergachev and Hedman in the box for a full two minutes of 5-on-3? Absolutely.

In what could’ve been a game-defining moment, the Maple Leafs loaded top unit, but had no plan and no quality attempts.

“Our execution was poor,” Tavares said. “Sluggish.”

“Just bad,” Nylander agreed.

Keefe called them out in the first intermission, their response was strong, but Tampa appeared ready for the pushback.

The Lightning are not the directionless Blackhawks, rebuilding Red Wings, or injury-ravaged Golden Knights. And their Conn Smythe–winning goaltender is acting world-class all over again.

They don’t give you much.

As they proved last summer, the Lightning have grown content with 1-0 victories.

And were it not for Jack Campbell standing on his head, again, they would’ve had one.

But with Campbell pulled in desperation, the Leafs’ money-makers were granted a second man-advantage opportunity in the final minute at 6-on-5.

Tavares leapt in the air to glove down a Hedman clearing attempt, worked a tic-tac-toe with Auston Matthews and Marner, and converted with 41.1 seconds left in regulation to force a fourth period.

“He's back to the way he has been playing his entire career,” Nylander said. “He’s been flying out there, making great plays, and scoring a huge goal for us today.”

Added Keefe: “That's a big-time shot he scored there tonight. That’s not an easy shot, to get that into the top of the far side of the net with the pass coming from that angle. That's what he's capable of doing. He’s been getting rewarded because he has worked.”

Tavares’ work didn’t relent in overtime, as he drove the net, Hedman was called for slashing, setting up two minutes of 4-on-3 and a redemption shot for the group that punted its 5-on-3 chance earlier.

This time, however, they took charge.

Nylander one-timed a Matthews pass for his third game-winner of the season.

From the captain on down the line, confidence has been gradually mounting as the Maple Leafs’ star forwards are finding their footing.

Gather enough game-breakers, lean on great goaltending, and a four-game losing skid can spin into four-game win streak in a blink.

“They're huge players for us, and everybody knows it,” said Campbell, all smiles. “They work so hard. A lot of pressure’s on those guys, and those big dogs are coming to play. It's great to see — and we're gonna need it.”

They’ll need it again Saturday, when the Boston Bruins roll into the city.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Justin Holl was healthy scratched for the third consecutive time.

• Stamkos, the NHL’s most recent 60-goal man, says the pandemic cheated Matthews out of some magical numbers: "He's probably next on the list to score 60."

• Keefe was asked Thursday morning if he’s happy Jack Eichel got traded out of the Atlantic Division. The coach waited a beat, smiled, and shrugged: “Sure.”

(I’m sure the Eichel trade is the last thing he’s worrying about these days.)

• Nylander has already spent more time on the penalty kill in 11 games this season (7:39) than his entire prior six seasons in the league combined (6:51).

• Pierre Engvall fondly recalled the time, during a February 2020 game, he burst past Hedman shorthanded for a scoring chance.

“He's fast. He's a good skater, too,” Engvall said of his more decorated countryman. “But [going wide] is probably the best shot to beat him.”

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