In the walkup to Scotiabank Arena, there was an unmistakable fog that canvassed the Toronto skyline, analogous to the murky form of the Maple Leafs.
Toronto returned home after a nearly two-week road trip from hell, including three losses during the California swing that rendered a routine regular season game into a referendum. Welcome to the land of a million takes.
And through the early going on Wednesday, it looked like the Maple Leafs were still lost in the clouds. Justin Holl — more on him below — failed to close out Philadelphia Flyers forward Travis Konecny, who dished the puck over to Joel Farabee at the top of the faceoff circle for the game’s opening goal. Scotiabank Arena briefly shuttered to a halting silence.
John Tavares wasn’t having any of it, notching a hat-trick, including two stunning third period goals, to lead the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 victory over the Flyers, a game that may be emblematic of why he is the captain of a talented group that should still challenge for the Stanley Cup this season.
Here are five takeaways from Wednesday’s game.
This is why John Tavares wears the ‘C’
The underlying theme of Toronto’s tepid start to the new campaign has been that its best players haven’t played like stars. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe issued a challenge to his core group earlier this season, and while the message was apparently ignored during the road swing, it resonated with John Tavares on Wednesday.
— NHL (@NHL) November 3, 2022
Tavares has been considered by many as the Maple Leafs’ best player thus far and that certainly rang true Wednesday. On his first goal, Tavares briefly fell down — he asserted post-game that he may have been clipped by an opponent’s skate — but he got right back up, William Nylander exercised some patience, then dished the puck off for a laser to tie the game.
“I was just trying to get a good shot to the net before I was looking to change,” Tavares said post-game.
JOHN TAVARES 🚨🚨
SENT HIM TO THE SHADOW REALM pic.twitter.com/O1PPmcrvtT
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 3, 2022
Tavares isn’t the fastest skater, but he’s got outstanding puck skills and he used his long reach to put Flyers defender Travis Sanheim on a poster for his second goal of the contest. Sanheim tried to stick-check Tavares and instead, Toronto’s captain nutmegged him, then used his body as a shield to jam the puck off Felix Sandstrom’s pad, before tucking away the rebound.
This is why Tavares is the captain. He’s not the most effusive quote, and he’s not going to dial up a provocative speech to feed us craven media members looking for a window into the team. The pressure was reaching astronomical levels for Game 11 of the season, but Tavares blocked out all the bile coming from the media corps, the fan base, and those praying for Toronto's downfall with a hat-trick.
“You recognize that you haven't been playing great and you haven't been able to close out some games,” Tavares said. “But even though we haven't played the way we're capable of, we've been in every game. We've had opportunities but we just haven't finished it out, so just continuing to stick to what you do, same approach daily.
“I think it’s no secret whether it’s myself or some of our other core guys, the way we want to play, the roles we want to play, we want to be difference makers.”
LET THOSE HATS FLY!!!! pic.twitter.com/iW09HAtF1F
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 3, 2022
This was undeniably a difference-making performance from Tavares, a much-needed burst of energy that the Maple Leafs can take into a hotly awaited Saturday night date against the 9-1 Boston Bruins. This is why Tavares wears the 'C'.
The fan base were given reasons to support the Maple Leafs and they did
There’s been a polarizing response among Maple Leafs fans to say the least, but there’s also been a patronizing tone towards those amongst the fan base who are fed up. Keefe seemed to understand that Toronto’s crowd would respond, when given the opportunity to genuinely root for the home team. Few people choose despair on purpose, after all.
"Our fans will be here to support us, if we give them reasons to support us,” Keefe said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “We have to go out and perform. It remains on us to go out and play a better hockey game. We certainly are motivated to do so. It’s a matter of clearing our heads mentally.”
Scotiabank Arena listed its attendance of 18,347 and every person in the building could be heard when Tavares scored his hat-trick, or when Mark Giordano dropped Konecny, then Kevin Hayes in a late-game skirmish, as the Flyers forward tried to attack Matthews and Toronto’s veteran defenseman rose to protect his brothers.
“I love it, people are passionate about our team here. People are excited for us to do well. I’d much rather play in a city that cares,” Giordano said Wednesday morning.
This may have been a precursor to Wednesday’s game, but Giordano and company gave the Maple Leafs plenty to cheer about. It was Toronto’s first five-goal performance of the year and the house was rocking when Tavares once again took the ice to receive the first star.
In defense of Sheldon Keefe
Sheldon Keefe was being positioned to be the fall guy. And it would be disingenuous to pretend as if I also didn’t suggest it in a piece laying out all of the Maple Leafs’ options following the four-game losing streak. A change behind the bench would be the most likely path to stop the bleeding, if, of course, the Maple Leafs couldn’t figure it out internally.
To Keefe’s immense credit, he blocked out all the analysis that suggested that the Maple Leafs need a new voice. As it turns out, Keefe has a number of vocal supporters in his camp, including Flyers bench boss John Tortorella.
"You guys don't know anything. See, I coach against Sheldon. I think coaches know other coaches,” Tortorella said pre-game via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “You guys don’t know what he's done for that team. I’ve watched from afar. I’ve coached him. We’ve had conversations as a young coach in this league.
“You guys chuck darts at him because you want some results. I guess, it is. It’s always the coach that gets the darts chucked at him. I know in watching him and coaching against him, I think he's a terrific coach. I hope he jams it to you all, quite honestly. Not tonight. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Keefe has been gracious with the media corps assembled and has warned his own group about buying into the numerous articles calling for drastic changes. We have a job to do, so does he, and it appears that a number of tactical changes he threw together paid off on Wednesday night. Throw an ice bucket onto the hot seat.
Keefe’s defensive trial-and-error largely works but Holl continues to struggle
Toronto shook up its defensive pairings on Wednesday, starting the game with TJ Brodie-Justin Holl as the first pairing, Morgan Rielly-Victor Mete as the second group, and Mark Giordano-Rasmus Sandin as the third duo.
How did the Rielly-Mete grouping come together, in particular?
“To be honest, it’s really just a matter of how the other pairs checked out, frankly,” Keefe said Wednesday morning. “We’ve got a mix of guys right now, trying to find the right mix.”
And for the most part, it worked, with Justin Holl as the lone exception — if the Scotiabank Arena faithful were still in a nasty mood, they took their frustrations out on him during a particularly brutal shift. Holl got booed by the fans with just under five minutes remaining, after throwing the puck to no one up the center of the ice in the offensive zone, then seconds later failed to corral a puck at the offensive blue line.
It wasn’t just one poor shift for Holl. During the game’s opening goal, Holl failed to close out on Travis Konecny, who dished the puck off to Joel Farabee at the top of the faceoff circle for the forward to promptly wire past Ilya Samsonov. Some attributed the error to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner not tracking back, but Holl should've been better here.
The rest of the groupings worked. Brodie seemed to innately account for Holl’s tendencies to play deep into the offensive zone, instinctively ducking out of the zone a few times to mitigate any potential odd-man rushes.
Rielly finished with a sparkling 65.22 Corsi at 5-on-5 in one of his best games of the year and almost set up Michael Bunting for what should’ve been Toronto’s first goal. Mete’s speed was noticeable and though he’ll get bullied by larger forwards, he’s played a highly-skilled game, he facilitated zone exits easily, and this pairing should get another look.
Mark Giordano didn't like that 🥊 pic.twitter.com/FJ5X2XhezE
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 3, 2022
As for Giordano-Sandin? There’s not much to write home about Sandin, but Giordano made waves for sticking up for his teammates in a third-period fight, tackling Konecny for charging at Matthews, before dropping Hayes in a fight. Not a bad night for the revised pairings, and we’d like to see them again on Saturday against the Bruins.
Ilya Samsonov put together his best game of the season
Samsonov entered this season as a somewhat erratic variable. Boasting a first-round draft pedigree, Samsonov failed to secure Washington’s starting goalie spot before joining Toronto on a prove-it deal. And since his role was elevated after Matt Murray suffered an adductor injury on Oct. 15, Samsonov became Toronto’s No. 1 goalie by default.
Amid the firestorm that surrounded the Maple Leafs’ losing streak, Samsonov perhaps incurred too much of the blame during the losing skid. Although it will likely get lost in the shuffle - this is the land of a million takes after all - Samsonov put together arguably his best game of the season.
Samsonov quietly entered Wednesday’s game with a .920 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average, numbers that were obscured by Toronto’s stagnated opening ten games. He didn’t have to keep the Maple Leafs in the game, as they were the far superior team on Wednesday, but he prevented a number of sure-fire goals, notably robbing Flyers defenseman Tony DeAngelo to begin the third frame.
Samsonov told reporters that the Maple Leafs lost confidence following a 4-2 Oct. 29 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. It must’ve been a temporary setback, as Samsonov shook off the nerves from a tight game and held down the fort.
After the game, Samsonov revealed his grand plans for Thursday’s off day: stay in bed!
It’s certainly well-earned rest for Toronto’s starter, who has somehow gone under the radar through 11 games.
More from Yahoo Sports