TORONTO — Rewind to just four days ago, and Sheldon Keefe was standing at the podium pointing to what seemed his club’s fatal flaw.
On a night that saw his Toronto Maple Leafs put themselves in position to add an important win to the pile, to build the habits they’ll need to win the games that matter most, they stumbled and fell.
“We were up 2-0 with 10 minutes left in the second period on home ice,” Keefe had said of the eventual 4-3 loss to Buffalo, after the Sabres had answered that early Toronto lead with four straight goals to steal the night. “You have to win that game every time.”
The blueprint for withstanding such barrages, for avoiding letting games flip and overtake them? It comes down to a simple, familiar lesson, Keefe had said.
“You have to play with intelligence and play very smart, and manage the game.”
It’s a message the coach has delivered before. Rewind back even further, before the calendar flipped to the new year, and he was preaching a similar lesson for his group.
“You want to be an elite team?” Keefe had said then, after another blown lead, another win turned narrow loss. “You need to be elite in managing games.”
Friday night at Scotiabank Arena, with the No. 2-ranked, Presidents Trophy-hunting Carolina Hurricanes in town, his Leafs got another chance at redemption.
And this time, they made good on the opportunity.
For the second straight game, the Maple Leafs found themselves locked in something of a post-season preview, a bout in which ice had to be earned, where persistence beat out pedigree.
“Again it kind of had that playoff type of feel, in terms of both teams being conscious not to allow too much offence,” said Morgan Rielly of the affair, similar to the extra-time nail-biter against Colorado two nights ago. “Tight, not a lot of high-end chances, if you look at it.”
Like they did against Colorado, and Buffalo before that, Toronto drew first blood, Mitch Marner and Zach Aston-Reese getting the Leafs on the board early. By the time 40 minutes had expired, Keefe’s squad found themselves in the same, all-important spot they’d held against Buffalo: two-goal lead, a talented team staring them down from the other side of the sheet, the task at hand simple.
Manage the game, close it out, and get the win.
“We battled the entire time, no matter what happened,” said Aston-Reese from the locker room post-game, after his club not only held that lead, but added to it, finishing the evening with a 5-2 victory. “Whether it was calls we didn’t agree with, to fight through it and get the kill, going down to 10 forwards — it’s never easy.
“I think we kept it simple and everybody did their job tonight. There were no passengers.”
Carolina didn’t make it easy on them. Though not as lethal as they might’ve been had star forward Andrei Svechnikov not seen his season cut short by injury, the Canes still brought plenty, throwing 34 shots at Ilya Samsonov and giving the Scotiabank Arena crowd more than a few white-knuckle moments as pucks trickled past the crease and flipped off the post in the latter half of the game.
Still, these Leafs managed to see it through to the final buzzer.
“When they were pressuring us hard, we did our job,” said Mitch Marner. “We bent a little bit, but didn’t break. We stayed to our structure. We got opportunities often, and when we did, we didn’t miss.”
The greatest test came midway through the night — around the same spot their effort against Buffalo had fallen apart — as Carolina’s Martin Necas found space deep in the Leafs’ zone and wired one past Samsonov, pulling his side within one.
This time, Toronto came up with the counterpunch, Aston-Reese burying his second of the game to restore the two-goal lead.
“They had scored, and the game’s in the balance a little bit in terms of momentum and all of that, (Sam) Lafferty takes a puck, you see his separation speed to get into good ice, Reeser really worked to get to the back post, and those guys connected. That’s a big goal for us,” Keefe said of his depth forwards’ clutch showing.
“I thought the guys responded well to them scoring, to the game, to the pace of the game,” Rielly added. “Not getting frustrated. Just sticking with it.”
Stuck with it they did, and for their efforts, they move back to the win column after two tough games ending in L’s. It wasn’t a perfect effort — clad in their green and white St. Pats threads for the St. Patrick’s Day tilt, Keefe’s squad still needed a bit of luck to withstand a fair few grade-A Carolina chances that happened to bounce just out of reach. And some suspect officiating that more than once seemed to tilt the ice against them.
But on this night, Keefe saw his club manage the game as well as they could — against one of the most dangerous opponents in the league — and come up on the right side of the thing.
“The penalty kill responded really, really well, whether it was at the start of the second period or in the third period — if the penalty kill doesn’t do a job, it changes the game significantly. Our power play gets one opportunity, and makes good on it,” the coach said.
“I just thought we played a real smart game against a very good team.”