KOSHAN'S LEAFS TAKEAWAYS: In playoff-type atmosphere against tough Carolina group, Leafs get it right

koshan's leafs takeaways: in playoff-type atmosphere against tough carolina group, leafs get it right

Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (centre) scores a goal and celebrates with teammates during the third period against the Hurricanes at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Friday, March 17, 2023.

The Maple Leafs won a playoff game on Friday night.

OK, so the St. Patrick’s Day match will go down as the Leafs’ 68th game of the 2022-23 regular season, with the post-season Stanley Cup tournament still a month away.

Still, the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Scotiabank Arena had that feel, and the Leafs, clad in green and white St. Pats uniforms, combined several important elements to win 5-2.

The victory gave the Leafs a 2-1-1 record in their four-game home stand, and they were hustling out of the dressing room to get to the airport to fly to Ottawa. They’ll play the Senators in the nation’s capital on Saturday night, and likely be buoyed by their record in the second game of back-to-backs, which comes in at a crisp 6-3-1.

Some of our takeaways from the Leafs’ 41st victory:

TAKING INSTRUCTION

The Leafs knew that the Hurricanes, in their only visit to Toronto, are a club that loves to put a lot at the net from all areas of the offensive zone.

At five-on-five, Carolina nearly had two shot attempts to each one by the Leafs, finishing with 70 to the Leafs’ 36.

That could be misleading, however, as the Leafs’ defencemen did a fine job in front of goalie Ilya Samsonov, who had another sharp performance in net. He’s now 18-2-2 at home.

“I thought the guys boxed out well,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The guys defended well. They were in lanes, we blocked some shots, discouraged a few. Did enough to keep them away from the net.

“I thought we moved the puck really well coming out of our end, which has been an issue for us in recent games. We’re playing against a team that’s maybe the hardest in the league to come out of your zone against.”

That was a focus for the Leafs in practice a day earlier, and it was stressed again in morning meetings. The group was clean in its decision-making behind its own blue line. If you’re looking for a large positive in the victory, certainly take that as one. Keep in mind what Keefe alluded to — this happened against a team that’s not exactly dragging along the bottom of the National Hockey League.

The Hurricanes, second in the overall NHL standings, keep the opponent on its toes, and if the Leafs were not alert, they wouldn’t have won.

Carolina has speed and diligence, but the Leafs’ ability to move the puck out of harm’s way won over.

DEPTH DOES IT

Not often does Zach Aston-Reese score two goals in a game.

In fact, it happened just three times in his previous 292 NHL games, and not since Oct. 13, 2019, when he was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After going 14 games without a goal, Aston-Reese tipped an Erik Gustafsson shot past goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov early in the first period and converted a terrific pass from Sam Lafferty in the second.

Aston-Reese got the post-win belt for the uncommon outburst.

“Definitely felt good,” Aston-Reese said. “It’s always easy to play the rest of the game when you score on your first shift.

“They were pretty easy goals for me to put in. Gus with a great shot, a great move by him, that little shimmy at the top to get free and then Laffs with a great sauce pass. Hoping for the third, but happy with the night.”

Felt good for the rest of the team too. The Leafs have a group of bottom-six forwards that brings hard work every night, and with the additions of Lafferty and Noel Acciari, the lines have a bit more offensive flair than they did before. We’ll never suggest that the defensive responsibility isn’t most important, but on a night when Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly scored, the offensive contributions from the unsung heroes were crucial.

As for what that does for the bench?

“A lot,” Marner said. “I think our depth guys have been playing really good hockey since the deadline. I think our bottom six — I don’t know if you can really call them that — there’s a lot of skill on those guys. The work ethic is top-notch and it’s been great for the last couple games to see them get rewarded for it.”

Said Rielly: “Our guys really feed off of it. They do a lot for our team that goes unnoticed or not talked about. For them to get in on the scoring is awesome.”

Acciari, who was knocked out of the game after a collision with Jesse Puljujarvi in the first period, will not travel to Ottawa. Wayne Simmonds will draw in, as will Justin Holl on the blue line. Keefe said he still planned to go back to 12 forwards and six defencemen, but would wait to make that final call on Saturday morning.

CRUNCH TIME

No, we’re not talking about Luke Schenn’s big hit on Sebastian Aho into the side boards in the third period, but it would apply.

The Leafs might have bent a few times under the Hurricanes’ pressure, but as some defensive coordinators in football like to say, they didn’t break. A perfect three-for-three on the penalty kill was key.

The Leafs couldn’t put it all together in a tight game against Colorado some 48 hours earlier, losing 2-1 in a shootout. They didn’t have similar issues on Friday.

“If you look at the game again, it had that playoff-type feeling in terms of both teams being conscious not to allow too much offence,” Rielly said. “Tight, not a lot of high-end chances. I thought that was a good effort by us, a good bounce-back from the loss against Colorado.”

THEY SAID IT

“I think it’s probably tough on the refs to call that. It’s a quick play. It’s   hard to see that out there in that moment and hard to really tell if it’s on purpose or not, but you never like seeing that for any guy. It’s a scary incident.”

— Marner on the collision between Puljujarvi and Acciari. No penalty was called by referees Brian Pochmara and Kevin Pollock

“This is huge win for us. A hard game for us. A really dangerous team off the rush. We played a great game. Played simple in the defensive zone and got five goals in the offensive zone. We need to stay focused. (Saturday) is a hard game against Ottawa. Just keep working hard.”

— Samsonov on the victory

“He’s phenomenal. Better than I expected. We all knew he was a talent, we knew he was a great player. But just to see how he prepares, his willingness to get better every day. Met him once before, played against him way back in the day. We’ve become good friends. Our sons play on the same hockey team. He’s a great Hurricane. I wish we could have had him for 20 years. But we’ll take him as long as he can hang in there.”

— Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour on the impact of veteran defenceman Brent Burns, who was acquired from San Jose last summer

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