Positives to glean despite Maple Leafs loss, but concerns loom amid mediocre stretch

Sebastian Aho scored the game-winning goal with 2:26 remaining in the final frame, and dished an assist on the dagger empty-netter as the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3.

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Toronto Maple Leafs are becoming a bit of a Rorschach test right now. Squint at the Blue and White ink blot and, depending on your perspective, you could interpret things in a couple different ways.

That same notion, really, applies to the Leafs’ latest game, a 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night at PNC Arena in Raleigh. On one hand, the team dug itself an early 2-0 hole and, after fighting to get back on even terms twice in the contest, allowed Sebastian Aho to score the game-winning goal just 32 seconds after Auston Matthews’ second of the game had tied it with under three minutes to go in the third period.

On the other hand, consider Sheldon Keefe’s assessment of a game where his team failed to even capture a single point despite being tied with 2:58 to go in regulation. “I thought, in a lot of ways, it might have been our best game of the season,” the coach said.

How could he arrive at that conclusion? You require a few fingers to count the ways. Yes, Toronto fell behind early, but the first tally was a Brent Burns laser that kissed off the post and in past Matt Murray’s glove during a five-on-three Carolina power play. Then, on a play where the puck was bouncing all over the place, it finally landed within the sprawling reach of Jordan Staal and the Canes captain chopped it into the net.

“You don’t even get going in the game and you’ve stuck a guy in the face [Jake McCabe was called for high-sticking] and then before long you’re now killing a five-on-three before most of our guys have even touched the ice,” Keefe said. “The place is rocking and they’re feeling good and we’re playing against a very good team here on the road.”

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And yet, in the face of all that, Toronto managed to completely wrest control of the game back from a team that leads its division and has already clinched a playoff spot. At one point in the first, Carolina held a 16-6 shot advantage; then the Leafs fired 17 straight at Pyotr Kochetkov, who wound up turning aside 41 shots.

“Four or five shifts before they made it 2-0 in the first period, I really felt our game coming together,” Keefe said.

The other coach sensed it, too.

“I thought we had a good first period and then their world-class talent took over and we just watched it happen,” Carolina bench boss Rod Brind’Amour said. “They’d probably like to have their first period looked at. I don’t really know what we were doing [after that], they were just coming in waves and if it wasn’t for our goalie, obviously they would have won.”

Yes, Kochetkov made it tough on them, but the Leafs’ effort began to pay off 4:41 into the middle frame when Morgan Rielly, back after one game of rest, dished to Calle Jarnkrok and watched the Swede snap one home from the top of the circle. The top line of Jarnkrok on the left with Matthews in the middle and Mitch Marner on the right had a number of dominant shifts, with Matthews in particular getting multiple Grade-A chances in tight he just couldn’t convert. That changed with 7:19 to go in the second when No. 34 jumped on a loose puck in the high slot and whipped it through the wickets of Kochetkov.

It was just a complete barrage from Matthews, as he set an NHL-high on the season for shots in a period with nine in the second. He also tied his previous career high of 12 before the end of that stanza. (The other game he had 12 was last season in Dallas, when he broke Rick Vaive’s single-season goals record with No. 56). Ultimately he wound up equaling Dave Andreychuk’s franchise record of 15 shots, with lucky No. 13 squaring the game in the late stages of the third.

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“I’m feeling good and feeling confident,” said Matthews, who has eight goals in his past nine outings. “I’m clicking really well with my linemates and I just want to continue that.”

As far as Keefe’s concerned, his top centre looks just like the guy who won the league MVP and scored 60 goals last year. “He’s right back to being on the most dominant players in the league,” he said. “Physically dominant; hard on the puck; winning battles; making plays; getting to good spots. He’s been terrific.”

He was. They all were, really, and yet it all came undone in a blink after Matthews had tied it. There have been those kinds of ups and downs for this team of late. This was the first time they’ve outshot an opponent in seven contests; they’re a pretty flat 6-5-1 in their past 11 and now 2-2-0 on a road trip that ends Sunday night in Nashville; the underlying numbers in the past few weeks aren’t great and there’s some sense continuity has been elusive in the wake of so many new bodies being added ahead of the deadline.

What do you see when you look at this team right now? The squad that utterly dominated a first-class opponent in its own barn for 80 per cent of the game and looked like they could beat absolutely anybody in the league, or the guys who broke down right after tying the match, as Aho blasted in from the top of the zone, went unmarked by any Leafs in his vicinity and backhanded the game-winner past Murray after the goalie kicked Jaccob Slavin’s point shot back into the slot.

“That’s one thing that we certainly will take away from this and learn from, that’s a complete breakdown in coverage,” Keefe said. “That’s a critical point in the game, so you can’t let that happen. But I’m not going to let that spoil the effort here. There’s going to be virtually unlimited examples through this game of exactly what we’re capable of looking like and I thought it was really great for our guys [to play like that]. Not many teams come back and put themselves in the game when you get down 2-0 early to a team like that. And our guys just stayed with it.”

For a night or two, that can be enough. But no matter how you see the process right now, a couple more bad results and that’s all anybody will be talking about.

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