Woll keeps Maple Leafs alive long enough to win bizarre shootout stunner

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 — For a moment, there was Joseph Woll, back in the Toronto Maple Leafs locker room, mulling a night that had seen him give all he could to keep his club alive, only to see it all fall apart on one final save he couldn’t make.

A few minutes earlier, former Maple Leaf Evan Rodrigues had gotten him to bite, faking backhand and then contorting to slide the puck to his forehand, tucking it just under Woll’s pad as he mirrored the forward’s movement a fraction too late. It was a disappointing final note to close out one of the finest performances of the 25-year-old goaltender’s season.

Before he could spend too much time stewing on the loss, though, he was being ushered back onto the ice to turn one point into two.

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“I didn’t really know,” Woll said from the bowels of Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday, when asked about the situation that resulted in Rodrigues’ goal being overturned, the Florida Panthers’ win being reversed. “I got back in the locker room and someone told me I might be going back out.”

“I didn’t catch the fact that it was a two-touch on it — I was back in the room, Woll and I were back here, a couple others,” his coach, Sheldon Keefe, added. “But as soon as I walked in the coach’s room, our video guy said, ‘I think this is going to come back.’ So, we went back out.”

The next time they made their way to the room, it was with a 2-1 shootout win on the board, a two-game losing streak snapped, a thoroughly disappointing performance salvaged.

Had the bizarre late-game redo not had come, though, Woll would’ve been just fine. There would be no faulting the young ‘tender had it not gone his club’s way — as, if not for him, the Maple Leafs would’ve been buried long before the shootout that eventually swung in their favour.

“Joe was awesome,” Morgan Rielly said of his goalie once the final final buzzer had sounded. “He’s been playing great for us. In a game like that, where it’s back and forth, he keeps us in it. … And then he was great in the shootout. He’s a big reason for the two points.”

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Rewind back to the early portion of this tilt, before the tumultuous extra frames, before the Maple Leafs’ third-period revival and second-period balancing act, and for a time Woll seemed the only one in blue and white who looked like he’d come to play.

Twenty minutes into the team’s first home game in two-and-a-half weeks — their first time hosting these Panthers since they ended Toronto’s season last spring — the home side was in shambles. The Cats were coming in waves, winning races, outmuscling the Leafs along the walls, funnelling pucks to the slot and throwing everything they could at Woll.

The crew in front of the netminder did him little help, repeatedly turning over the puck, throwing it away, trying haphazard passes that more often than not were intercepted and turned back at Woll’s net. For every ill-fated Maple Leafs play that didn’t connect, the Panthers came up with a well-executed sequence, a flurry of chances. They were direct, decisive, and knocking at the door.

But they couldn’t break through.

“I mean, that whole first period, he was standing on his head, and kept us in the game,” William Nylander said of that abysmal opening stretch. “It could’ve been bad if he wasn’t standing on his head. He made some huge saves for us.”

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It was partly on No. 88 that the Panthers were able to break through at all in that opening frame. 

With five minutes left in the first period, it was Nylander who was on the receiving end of the Panthers’ stiff forecheck, as Ryan Lomberg steamrolled into Toronto’s zone, shoved Nylander off the puck, delivered it to Aaron Ekblad in the slot, and kicked off a sequence that saw the visitors hammer away at deflections and rebounds until the puck had finally crossed the line. 

Still, the Cats poured 29 more shots on Toronto’s goalie after that early goal, and added in a signature Matthew Tkachuk crease-run for good measure. But Woll held them at bay.

“Outstanding. Just so solid,” Keefe said of the goaltender once the win was in the bag. “His play through that final segment of the first period obviously keeps us around in the game. I don’t think we gave up much after that, for the most part — but anything that we did, he was solid. And of course, in overtime, in the shootout.”

While he cut a serene figure post-game with the win secured, the coach had more than a few outpourings of frustration on the bench over the course of the night as his team came out flat against a team they should’ve had no problem waking up for, and nearly got buried by their own mistakes.

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“I thought we started the game fine. … And then we just, we sagged,” the coach said. “You sag emotionally, competitively, lose your intensity against that team, it’s going to look the way it did the rest of that first period. But I thought we got real life from our penalty kill the second period, and then from there, I think it’s a pretty even game. We’re right there. A couple posts and crossbars and pucks sitting on the goal-line.

“We’ve had some of that bad luck recently, where the puck just doesn’t seem to fall for us. I liked that we stayed with it, and found a way to get the second point again. I think this was a hard-fought game that required a lot from our guys. I thought we stood in there.”

He can thank Woll for giving the team a chance to do so, for navigating a highwire act to keep things level until that luck finally started to turn. 

It wasn’t just the fact that Woll kept them in it though, Keefe explained. It was how he did it. Not just by making the routine save, by playing a calm, steady game until Toronto’s offence found its footing — but by stepping up and holding on through the most chaotic of circumstances, again and again.

“This has been a problem for us the last little bit — the best chances we’ve given up have come off of our breakout,” Keefe explained. “We give the puck back to the other team, and all of a sudden it’s at our net. 

“There’s not a whole lot of time to think, or to get set, or make any reads. You’ve just got to battle, and be athletic, and compete. And he did that.”

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