TORONTO – Perhaps it was after Connor Hellebuyck lost his stick, yet still scrambled to deny Mitch Marner right at the blue paint.
Or when Paul “Bunyan” Stastny lumberjacked Morgan Rielly’s stick to shards in overtime, a slash that went uncalled, and three Winnipeg Jets forwards closed in on Frederik Andersen’s crease, sniffing another victory.
But at some point prior to Thursday night’s storybook climax — as Toronto generated its 45th high-danger chance (to the Jets’ 11) and Hellebuyck made his 70th save through two games — a thought flashed through Sheldon Keefe’s mind.
What if we dominate play but come up empty, again? What if this skid extends to four and Winnipeg creeps within striking distance of the division lead? How do I convince my room that they’re on the right track?
“We very easily could have been on the other side of this one here tonight,” said Coach Keefe, after a roller-coaster 4-3 win that required four periods and line juggling and the kitchen sink.
“How do you frame that? How do you stay with it [considering] the fact you’re not getting the results and all of that?”
Zach Hyman says the Maple Leafs will be served well by this recent bout of adversity.
Nylander, who could be seen firing a puck at the boards during a TV timeout, believes, sometimes, frustration is a good thing: “I like it.”
Embrace the suck.
Or, as Joe Thornton said, wisely: “It’s a long year. You’ve got to enjoy the process. There’s going to be downs, but you fight through.”
Ostensibly, the sage old Leaf was talking about hockey. But on the anniversary of the pandemic shutting down sports and so much more, Jumbo could well have been speaking for all of us.
An earlier edition of this same Maple Leafs core might have wilted every time Hellebuyck windmilled the leather or tracked another cross-seamed pass perfectly.
They might’ve made passive-aggressive comments about whistles that went unblown or condemned their puck luck.
Or fell out of sync once Keefe mixed his top nine on the fly, trying Thornton alongside John Tavares and William Nylander.
So, it is saying something that the Leafs’ top-end talent never stopped pushing through their mini slump.
Morgan Rielly notched two assists, bringing his total to 19. Marner’s 11th even-strength goal vaulted him into a tie for second overall in that category. Tavares drew three defenders on an up-the-gut rush, then dished to Nylander for a beautiful one-timer. Hyman, Marner, Nylander and Auston Matthews — contributing another two-point night with a hurting hand — each registered a minimum of five shots on goal.
“We were generating a lot. It just felt like a matter of time before it would go in for us. I thought the guys were really working,” Keefe said, letting pride encroach his relief. “To get rewarded with a win certainly feels good.”
Nylander, in particular, shone bright, generating his own breakaway with a rare shot block, stripping pucks in the neutral zone, and pumping a game-high six shots.
“Willy Nylander had his best game of the season today,” Keefe enthused. “He was outstanding. It was great to see him get rewarded with a goal, because he certainly earned it with how he was playing. I’ve been really encouraged.
“He just looked determined — determined to score, determined to make a difference.”
A win like this, general manager Kyle Dubas would argue, is why you invest tens of millions in the difference-makers.
Quadruple down on talent.
Give enough looks to enough skilled players and, eventually, they’ll solve even the hottest goaltender.
Which is precisely what Matthews did, 59 seconds into a hectic overtime. Bum wrist and all.
Funny how the hockey gods taketh and giveth.
When Stastny chopped Rielly’s stick in sudden death and no penalty was called, Marner hit the deck to break up the Jets’ chance while Rielly fetched a fresh twig.
“There was a lot of yelling going on in that D-zone when Mo did break his stick. Me and Tone [Matthews] were kind of snow-angeling down there, playing whatever we could,” Marner described.
Marner head-manned the puck to Rielly, now in fine position to spring a gasping Matthews, who faked shot and roofed a buttery backhand deke for his league-leading sixth game-winner.
“I think it’s difficult for a lot of people; it’s not difficult for Tony [Matthews]. I’ve seen him pull it off a lot of times,” Marner said. “No one’s really surprised by it, regardless of how he’s feeling.”
“He’s a star. That’s what they do,” Keefe added.
“The condition of his hand and stuff aside, he was quite tired there, too. That was a long shift. A long shift in overtime. Overtime shifts are difficult. Just to have the energy to get up the ice and put himself in that spot amongst the chaos of the broken stick and all of that nonsense that was happening. That’s big-time stuff.”
Big-time slump bust.
Big-time rubber match, Saturday.