Maple Leafs become weekend warriors in upset of Canucks

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A broom was the last thing anyone thought to see in the hands of the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena this weekend.

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Yet they made an unlikely sweep of back-to-back home games, the most stunning coming Saturday night when they persevered in a 5-2 win over the favoured Vancouver Canucks.

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It was the first time in nine games at home they held the opposition to under four goals and had to fight their way through the first period when the more aggressive Canucks could’ve made short work of them.

Saturday’s result was not in the cards after they blew a three-goal lead Friday and survived the 5-4 shootout against Calgary.

Vancouver was rested, as it was to beat Ottawa on Thursday after the Sens dumped the Leafs, and the Leafs’ struggles on defence and in net whenever Ilya Samsonov gets the call were well documented for the visitors.

But the Russian stopper limited the damage by Elias Petterssen and Quinn Hughes, two of the top five in NHL scoring, in an evening that unfolded with fireworks and costly fisticuffs.

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Leaf senior citizen Mark Giordano dropped the gloves in a lively scrap with Dakota Joshua after his hit cut David Kampf’s cheek and then Max Domi took exception to Ian Cole flattening Nick Robertson.

The Canucks’ 32.7% power play scored on both the extra minor to Giordano, with Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe lobbying hard for something extra assessed to Joshua, and when Pius Suter banged in a fat Samsonov rebound during Domi’s instigator sentence.

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All this snark from the Leafs came with designated enforcer Ryan Reaves scratched for the first time this season and a rebuilt fourth line with Bobby McMann called up and Noah Gregor and Kampf supplying go-ahead and insurance goals.

The crowd recognized what the Leafs were up against, chanting ‘Gio, Gio’ for the 40-year-old’s fortitude after his scrap. Giordano and Domi had to serve 10-minute misconducts as well.

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Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano (left) fights with Canucks forward Dakota Joshua during first period NHL action at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano (left) fights with Canucks forward Dakota Joshua during first period NHL action at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

Domi assisted on Robertson’s goal in the third period after their forecheck led to a turnover.

In between the early Vancouver power plays, Toronto didn’t click on its lone opportunity in the first period and managed just three shots on net in total, but Matthew Knies did knock in his fourth of the year after Tyler Bertuzzi worked the puck into the crease by banking it off Thatcher Demko’s back from down low.

A similar tactic saw William Nylander feign going around the net with the puck and turn back, twisting Demko the wrong way. Demko’s .948 save percentage before puck drop was another chip in Vancouver’s favour.

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Nylander’s goal continued the hottest start in franchise history, 10 goals and 12 assists in 15 games.

The middle period also saw the Leaf penalty killers under stress again, including a 23-second 5-on-3 that came in part from five penalty-killing Leafs not noticing they were one over the limit for almost 10 seconds. But Kampf almost scored with his team down two men and Gregor snapped the Leafs into the lead with a top corner long-range goal.

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Kampf tipped in the fifth Leaf goal, his first of the year. Toronto is now 6-0-0 when it does hold a lead going into the third.

Still, the Canucks must be considered a revitalized team that is sick of being out of the playoff picture.
“Guys are hungry,” said Hughes, the NHL’s leading scorer among defencemen, before the game. “It’s been tough here the past couple years, guys really want to win. We have a lot of buy-in.

“Our first and second line are playing great and when the third and fourth lines come over the boards, they’re working teams over and that helps momentum.”

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It was clearly the most fear a visit by the Canucks has created here since the Sedin Twins rocked at the height of their powers. Coach Rick Tocchet’s team came to town second in the Pacific Division to the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, with a record of 10-2-1 and a league-best goal differential of plus 33.

But the welcome weekend was Toronto’s last games before it spends a week in Sweden as part of the NHL Global Series playing the Red Wings and Wild.

Keefe had maintained through the past few days the Leafs were making progress, even if it wasn’t showing up in goal differential. Now he and the team have some breathing room.

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