Gregor unlikely hero as Maple Leafs steal shootout win: ‘Never seen that before’

Noah Gregor scored in regulation and buried the deciding goal in the shootout while Joseph Woll made 38 saves to help the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

TORONTO — Joseph Woll had already returned to the dressing room, figuring the game had squeaked under his pad with a shootout loss.

Toronto Maple Leafs fans had begun filing out of Scotiabank Arena disappointed, believing they’d seen their squad drop a third straight game, this one to the Florida Panthers, those same rugged villains who snuffed out their playoff dreams on this same sheet.

Noah Gregor was walking down the tunnel, preparing for a quiet room and a stall in the standings.

Then Morgan Rielly piped up and informed Gregor to turn around and head back to the ice. Because Evan Rodrigues’ apparent 2-1 shootout winner had been reviewed by the NHL’s situation room and been ruled a “double-tap” (peep the overhead view).

“Is that what it’s called?” Rielly said.

No goal.

“I think it’s good we have rules,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice would later deadpan in mock approval.

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Technology and technicality had gifted the home team a mulligan.

“Only in Toronto,” muttered one Panther, who had to swivel from the victory music and head back to the bench.

The Scotiabank Arena game operations staffers responsible for unfurling the giant Maple Leafs flag after wins raced around the rink’s bowels excited and confused, trying to get back in position.

It was then that coach Sheldon Keefe single-tapped Gregor — the Leafs’ only goal-scorer goin’ up on a Tuesday — and informed the fourth-liner he’d be shooter No. 11.

A valued extra point on his blade and a chance to flip a 2-1 final in Toronto’s favour.

Gregor circled wide left, cut right, and ripped a puck clean and high over the rock-solid Anthony Stolarz’s blocker. So smooth and sharp, you wouldn’t guess that was the 25-year-old’s first-ever NHL shootout attempt.

Fortune flipped. Improbable hero crowned.

“I’d never seen that before,” Gregor admitted. “It’s a crazy end to the game, but fortunately we ended up on top.”

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Were it not for video replay and Gregor’s two slick snipes — his unassisted game-tying rush in regulation was even prettier — and goalie Joseph Woll’s steady 31-save performance, the Maple Leafs surely would have lost this one to the Cats, who didn’t appear the least bit tired from Monday’s penalty-filled affair in Ottawa.

The Leafs stole one, and Gregor sped off in the getaway car.

“Great. I mean, he scored some beauties. He can fly once he gets going on the outside, and obviously a great night for him with two big goals,” Rielly said.

Added William Nylander: “Speed and work ethic. I mean, obviously he’s scored some really nice goals this year. He’s a tremendous guy, too. And you see the speed that he has, and the way he scores on that left flank.”

Gregor, we’ll remind, arrived in this city for training camp as GM Brad Treliving’s lone tryout invitee, unqualified by sad-sack San Jose and determined to skate his way into a near-minimum-wage NHL contract.

Quietly consistent, he has generated rush chances with his fleet feet and tried to improve his raw penalty-killing skills.

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Many of those scoring opportunities, though, have resulted in an errant shot or an easy save from a bad angle. Knowing that, the career seven per cent shooter has spent time with Nik Antropov, Denver Manderson and Guy Boucher reviewing video and refining his offensive skills.

To be an extra beat patient. To trust his ability to slip defenders wide and earn a better look for himself.

“Just trying to protect the puck and make a good shot,” Gregor said. “Create as much space as you can. I think sometimes I might rush a shot where I have a little more time than I think I do.

“But it’s hard in that moment, too. You’re going with a lot of speed; things happen quick out there. So, you don’t always have time to look up and see how much time you have, but that’s definitely something I’m working on.”

That work paid off on a night where the Leafs started in the mud, lost another player to injury, and were at grave risk of getting trounced once again by the Panthers in their own barn.

“It’s awesome to see for him,” Woll said. “You know, we have a lot a lot of big names in the locker room, but to go far and to win a Stanley Cup, we need everyone. And he really stepped up for us, which is cool to see.”

An unlikely hero capping off a rare rule enforcement.

“That’s a first,” Rielly said. “We’ll take it.”

And speed off.

Fox’s Fast Five

• Mitch Marner blocked a deflected Matthew Tkachuk shot with his jawline in Period 1 and immediately skated off to the room.

He returned in a full cage for the second period.

“It’s awesome to see a guy come back like that,” Woll said. “Throw the cage on, and he’s ready to go.”

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• The Maple Leafs had 21 giveaways and five takeaways.

The Panthers had five giveaways and 13 takeaways.

Toronto’s breakout issues get exacerbated against aggressive forecheck teams like this one.

• Already missing Timothy Liljegren (high ankle) and John Klingberg (hip) long term, the Maple Leafs lost another top-six defenceman when Mark Giordano (upper body) left the game midway through the first period.

Keefe believes the 40-year-old will “miss time” and that the Leafs will likely practise with fewer than six D-men Wednesday as some of the healthy guys nurse bumps and bruises.

Treliving is already exploring the trade market, but he’ll have competition from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks shed forward Anthony Beauvillier to cap-flush Chicago Tuesday and is also hunting for a D-man.

Max Domi lost his fight to Sam Bennett, but reminded the victor who can grow more hair:

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• Maurice on the Panthers’ perfect six-for-six penalty kill: “We had lots of opportunity to practise it tonight, and we were really, really good with it.”

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