Maple Leafs storm back to earn victory over Hurricanes in holiday spectacle

Justin Cuthbert

Best game of the season? Best game of the season.

With runs of three and four goals to start and close out the contest, the Toronto Maple Leafs survived a five-goal binge from the beast that is the Carolina Hurricanes when riding a wave of score effects, to take Monday’s head-into-the-holidays matinee special 8-6.

Mitch Marner led the way with a game-high five points, while John Tavares and Zach Hyman continued their scoring surges as well with three points apiece. Martin Necas was a force for Carolina, registering four points, while Erik Haula notched two goals in an incredible attacking display from the visitors as well.

The Maple Leafs, who improved to 11-4 under Sheldon Keefe with the win, will have a few days to settle their individual blood pressures and counter that by filling up on egg nog before reconvening after the holiday break in New Jersey on Friday night.

Until then, five points:

Mitch is back

With five multi-point games in his last seven, there’s been something volcanic about Marner’s run of late. And he absolutely exploded versus the Carolina Hurricanes.

His two goals and an assist in 59 seconds swung the game in the Maple Leafs’ favour, and extended his recent scoring binge to eight games. After recording his first five-point game in his career, Marner now has 17 points in the last eight games, and looks like a force to be reckoned with again, especially since moving to Auston Matthews’ wing.

Case and point:

But this shouldn’t be about what Marner has done lately. It should be about what he did this afternoon.

With the finish on the brilliant Matthews’ feed, an expert pass to Tyson Barrie, and the incredible individual effort to blow up any plans that Carolina had out of its timeout, Marner turned a disappointing loss into one of the most inspiring wins we have seen inside Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs have the old Mitch Marner back, and that’s a dangerous thing for the remaining Atlantic Division postseason hopefuls.

More than a moment

One of the many things that’s become apparent from Sheldon Keefe is that he’s not in the business of protecting his predecessor.

Asked about starting Jason Spezza with John Tavares and Ilya Mikheyev in place of the normal left winger Pierre Engvall, Keefe explained that he had a hunch the veteran’s daughters would be in attendance for the Next Gen Game put on Monday afternoon by the Maple Leafs, and that it might be a special moment for the family if he was out there to start.

His premonition turned out to be correct, as Spezza hit the back of the net 30 seconds into the contest.

Of course, what’s juiciest about Keefe’s rationale is that Mike Babcock infamously robbed Spezza of the opportunity to even dress versus his old team, the Ottawa Senators, on opening night. A decision that further thrust the former coach’s relationship with his players under the microscope, it could have been viewed as a window into the cracks developing in the Babcock regime.

Starting Spezza, though, was not solely a demonstration from Keefe; he genuinely likes the combination of Spezza and Tavares, even going back to it at times, including the start the third period.

“I like Jason’s ability to play up in the lineup and make a play at an important time. Obviously, he’s got a lot of experience and I think those are the types of things that can help us. Because of his ability, I don’t hesitate to give him an opportunity to start the game.”

Tit for tat?

One of the theories behind the fact that the Maple Leafs spend comparatively less time on the power play was the fact that at one point they weren’t taking many penalties themselves.

It seems easier to present that idea with validity now.

After the Maple Leafs scored twice, following Brett Pesce levelling Zach Hyman with a high stick, and another opportunity was given when Warren Foegele held Jake Muzzin, the officials raised their arms twice for two really cheap calls, which helped Carolina back in the game.

I mean, this is the call that led to Necas’s first goal.

A little generous, perhaps, considering this is what it might have been compensating for:

I’m not saying the officials endeavoured to call three penalties apiece, but I’m not surprised it ended up that way.

Worst is over

Now pretty firmly slotted into second in the division, there are no shortage of positives to take from the Maple Leafs’ 11-4 run in the Keefe era.

Included in that: the last two starts from Frederik Andersen may be the shakiest he’s had all season, and the Leafs won both games.

If anyone needs the holiday rest, it’s the No. 1 netminder, whose near-1800 minutes leads the NHL.

Proceed with caution

Okay, it’s time to get the Trevor Moore thing right.

Since taking a “bump” in practice around the same time he was apparently cleared to return from a shoulder injury, Moore has been caught in this strange and concerning cycle, toggling between green lights and the road-blocking complications believed to be associated with a head injury.

While it did allow for Jeremy Bracco to earn some NHL money just before the holidays via emergency recall, the fact that Moore had to step back again to address the lingering issue after making his return to the lineup in Saturday’s win over the Detroit Red Wings is... really not great.

It seems like time to shut him down. Be sure, and then be sure again.

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