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Maple Leafs swing odds in their favour with enormous win over Panthers

The Toronto Maple Leafs took a massive step toward making the postseason with a win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Victories don’t come bigger.

The Toronto Maple Leafs stormed back to win the most important game of their season, scoring four answered goals to knock off the Florida Panthers 5-3 on Thursday. They now have a four-point lead over the Panthers in the race for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, increasing their odds of making the postseason to 78 percent.

William Nylander scored the eventual game winner in the third period, while Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Auston Matthews and Justin Holl also found the back of the net. Matthews remained within two goals of David Pastrnak’s league lead with his 44th of the season.

Frederik Andersen survived a nightmarish opening period, stopping all 18 shots faced in the final two periods to register his 27th win of the year.

Up next, Toronto hosts the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.

Until then, four points:

Playing chess

We’ve had the last two days to wonder how the Maple Leafs were to cope.

Breaking his hand in the win over the Tampa Bay Lightning 48 hours ago, Jake Muzzin was leaving an incredibly significant hole in the Maple Leafs lineup. His injury was arguably the worst thing that could happen to the Maple Leafs in that moment, given the other knocks that have left the blue line shorthanded.

Manipulate it as you might, it was hard to envision a combination on the back end that was going to be able to offset the loss, or stand up against a reasonable opponent.

So Sheldon Keefe tried something new in the biggest game of the season to date, sacrificing a forward to dress seven defensemen. And with that decision, he may have stumbled upon the best framework for his lineup — even when all the healthy bodies are back at his disposal.

Springing for the uncommon roster construction, Keefe was able to accomplish two important things:

  1. Maximize the best of his roster

    Instead of dressing a sixth top-six forward, Keefe had his top five forwards soak up all the top-six minutes themselves. Matthews, Marner, Hyman, Tavares and Nylander were up over 10 minutes of ice time before the halfway mark of the game, before minutes started to disperse as the game went on.

  2. Minimize the worst — including in real time

    Denis Malgin’s influence had waned from his impressive debut, and for that reason he was chosen to sit as Keefe trimmed the fat before the game. But what was more important from a coaching standpoint than allowing better players to mop up Malgin’s middle-six minutes was the adjustments Keefe could make on the fly. He quickly cut his defensive rotation from seven to six after Timothy Liljegren laboured through the first period, allowing him to optimize his pairings in response to what was happening in the game.

Maybe it’s a stretch to reason that the Leafs wouldn’t have had quite the same punch with Malgin eating up his 12-14 minutes. The way Liljegren was playing, though, it would not have been ideal if Keefe was married to three largely inflexible pairings.

Herculean Hyman

Matthews might have the 44 goals and Marner might be scoring at over a point per game, but there is not a single player doing more within the scope of their capabilities than Zach Hyman.

It was as though Muzzin’s spirit lived inside him during this game. Hyman worked nonstop to will the Leafs on every shift he had versus the Panthers.

Hyman tied the game just a little over a minute after Florida scored its early icebreaker, and then played a role on two more Leafs goals before the end of the period — including registering a primary assist on Matthews’ marker.

All told, Hyman was on the ice for 18 of the 29 shots the Maple Leafs finished with in the game.

Massive, massive effort.

Howe it’s done

Before Auston Matthews finally notched his first hat trick earlier this season since his four-goal NHL debut, whenever the Leafs’ leading goal scorer gave himself a chance, everyone was on high alert.

Now it’s another combination of three that seems worth being on watch for: Kasperi Kapanen’s apparent interest in a Gordie Howe hat trick.

Suddenly as feisty as he is speedy, Kapanen has now followed up a goal with a five-minute fighting major in two of his last four games. It might be just a coincidence, but Kapanen did acknowledge after the fight-and-score performance versus the Pittsburgh Penguins last week that he wouldn’t mind completing the requirements to get himself one for Gordie.

He came up an assist shy once again.

Apologies, Denis

So much for special moments, I suppose.

The situation was understandably far too important tonight for Keefe to willfully make even a minor concession with his lineup in order to continue in his efforts to provide players with moments they may or may not savour. As mentioned, Denis Malgin was denied the opportunity to square off against his former team — one he apparently requested a trade from — with Keefe instead opting for seven defensemen.

While certainly not a Babcock-ian decision from the new Leafs coach, Malgin probably starts the game if this was mid-November.

Oh well.

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