TORONTO — On a night that began with six Hall of Famers lined up at centre ice, the Scotiabank Arena crowd raining down cheers for their decades of greatness, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best finished the evening by showing they’re beginning to understand what the path to those lofty heights looks like.
The glimpse of lessons potentially learned came in a 2-1 overtime victory Friday night, Toronto following up a dominant performance against Philadelphia with a come-from-behind win over the scrappy Calgary Flames.
It wasn’t pretty — the Maple Leafs first trudged through 53 minutes of disappointment, unable to capitalize on multiple power-play opportunities nor a seemingly endless parade of breakaway chances for precisely the names you’d want gifted them.
But with their backs against the wall, the options running thin, Sheldon Keefe’s squad managed to claw their way back from the brink yet again, pocketing some valuable points and maybe some experience to draw upon down the line.
Truth be told, the Maple Leafs are all set on pretty wins. They’ve filled more than enough highlight reels. They’ve proven they can stack goals with thrilling verve. What’s been more unproven is their capacity to claw and battle and grind, to crawl through the mud with the clock winding down and pull out a win that’s decidedly un-pretty.
File Friday night in that category.
“Each and every win you can learn something, and you’ve got to find different ways to win,” captain John Tavares said post-game. “It’s nice to have the perfect script every night but that’s not always how it goes.… You’ve just kind of got to stay with it.
“And certainly when you fight through that, and it’s challenging, and not only tie it but find a way to get the win, no doubt it brings confidence and a lot of belief in the group.”
It’s not the first time in this early season that the Maple Leafs have shown that mettle. The win over Calgary marks the third over the past two weeks in which the club’s fought back to level the score in the latter half of a third period before tipping the scales in overtime, the first coming against Chicago when they snapped their early losing streak, the second against the defending champs last week.
Slowly, steadily, Tavares’s Leafs are learning to live in those situations.
“I think it’s getting there. It certainly was not there earlier this season,” Keefe said of his club’s comfort level in games like Friday’s grind. “I think that we felt we needed to score every shift early in the season. I think we’re settling in here now to the realization of just, it takes time. We’ve go to be patient. We can’t open ourselves up defensively.… I think our team is more comfortable in those spots.”
It’s a continuation of what they discussed as a team two nights ago in Philadelphia, heading into the final period with the Flyers just one shot away from flipping the script like Toronto did here.
“We said, ‘We’ve got to go into this third period with the mindset that we can win 1-0.’ We’re good with this. We can play like that,” said Keefe of that approach two nights ago. A similar one was relied upon upon Friday. “I certainly knew Calgary was going to be comfortable playing in that third period, 0-0. They’re on the road, it’s a back-to-back, they love to keep scores really close, they’re leading the league in shutouts. A big part of their identity is just doing their thing in that environment. We had to be comfortable there as well.
“The fact that we were able to get it all square and give ourselves a chance to compete for the second point is big for us.”
The season’s still young, these early tests just dots on an 82-game timeline. But if the goal is truly to aim high, to focus not on November glory but bigger-picture steps forward in May and June, then nights like this one will be key bricks in that path.
“It [was] kind of a playoff feel,” netminder Jack Campbell said of Friday’s atmosphere. “Calgary’s a deep team. They obviously have a lot of great structure and don’t give you too much. Their goalie played amazing today and really kept them in it.
“We just stayed with it. We played our game and kept the belief, and found a way to win it.”