Third-Period Dust-Up Could Become Maple Leafs Turning Point

Although it took until the middle of the third period for Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans to realize it was actually going to happen, their team returned from a less-than-successful western road trip to trounce the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2 last night. It was a win the team needed, and they were led by their captain John Tavares’ 11th hat trick of his career.

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The Maple Leafs outplayed the Flyers in almost every aspect of the game. Although the Flyers scored first, that one-goal advantage was erased when the Maple Leafs scored the next three goals. Although a Flyers’ goal cut the lead to 3-2 and helped fans recall the recent Anaheim Ducks game, the last two Maple Leafs’ goals sealed the deal. 

The Third-Period Incident that Might Shape the Maple Leafs Season 

The question that fuels this post is the potential of the third-period “incident” that saw the Maple Leafs’ Mark Giordano and Michael Bunting literally jump to the rescue of Auston Matthews. Can it become the tipping point for turning this season’s team around? Specifically, might that late-game dust-up result in both shaping and solidifying the Maple Leafs’ identity as the team moves forward this season?

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Obviously, as Maple Leafs’ pundits have been noting since this season began, it’s far too early to tell. However, there was something uniting about the team’s third period that could become a turning point for the team’s season. If it does, this game might become the backstory to this season in much the same way that the Chicago Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime win on October 27, 2021, became the backstory to last season.

Two Perspectives About What Happened Between Matthews and Konecny

The incident happened late in the third period after the game had finally been decided. The game had been physical all night, almost playoff-like in the occurrence of after-the-play grabbing, face-washing ongoing tussles, and stick work. 

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From a Maple Leafs’ perspective, Travis Konecny and Auston Matthews had been jawing with each other all game. Finally, when the score was beyond reach, Konecny pushed the encounter toward further physicality and tried to goad Matthews into a fight.

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Matthews resisted. But, when it looked as if Konecny were pushing toward more physicality anyway, Matthews teammates Mark Giordano and Michael Bunting jumped in to rescue their best player.

From a Flyers’ perspective, their own agitator Konecny and Matthews had been “sticking it to” each other throughout the entire game. Matthews speared and slashed Konecny, but when Konecny wanted more Matthews refused to drop the gloves. Instead, two Maple Leafs’ players (Giordano and Bunting) jumped Konecny to keep him away from their best player who wouldn’t stick up for himself. Then all hell broke loose.

Whichever way the event is recounted matters little. The key point is that Matthews’ teammates immediately came skating to the rescue. 

The Potential Outcome of the Third Period

As my The Hockey Writers colleague Kevin Armstrong noted in his post this morning, the biggest criticism against this Kyle Dubas-built team is that “it lacks grit, physicality and just that in-your-face attitude needed, especially at playoffs.”

Armstrong’s take on the game was that “With less than two minutes to go and the game in hand, Travis Konecny gave a few extra taps to Auston Matthews. The back-to-back scoring king took exception and slashed back. Konecny responded by shaking the gloves, looking for a fight, and setting off every player wearing blue.” (Armstrong, as I am, is partial to the Maple Leafs.)

Travis Konecny Philadelphia Flyers
Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After the game, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe shared with the media that he believed there was a lot to like about the game. Specifically, about Giordano jumping to the rescue (in truth, the question and response were reported as “Mark Giordano’s response to Travis Konecny attacking Auston Matthews), Keefe responded that he “Loved it.”

Keefe went on to note that it was a “huge moment in the game. In this situation, that is what the game called for at that moment. Gio is a leader. He has been in the league for a long time. He is an absolute competitor. He is not known as a guy who is going to fight or anything like that, but he is an absolute competitor.”

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Keefe, whose view obviously leaned toward his own team, added that Giordano was “sticking up for his teammates. Even before that, Auston is in there competing and sticking up for himself. That has happened a couple of times now and our guys have responded appropriately in the moment. That is another really positive thing to come out of it.”

The Kinds of Things a Team Can Use to “Build Your Team a Little Bit Closer”

As Keefe put it, the third-period dust-up is one of those things that can help build a team and make them closer. That would be something this team could use – a close relationship and an identity that it’s “one for all and all for one” (a phrase Alexandre Dumas made famous as the motto of the “three musketeers” in his 1844 novel by the same name).

As Keefe noted, “It is great to see.” I agree. In fact, there are three possible positive outcomes from the game.

Outcome One: The Team Accepts that Their Physicality Doesn’t Come from a Single Policeman

Not known as a physical team, over the last few seasons, the Maple Leafs have ascribed the team’s physical role to a single policeman or two. Recent badges have been strapped to the uniforms of both Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford. That plan hasn’t worked all that well.

Wayne Simmonds Toronto Maple Leafs
Wayne Simmonds, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last night, both Giordano and Bunting jumped up to become deputized. But they were not alone. Newcomer Calle Jarnkrok was seen in the middle of the fray as well. Obviously, it doesn’t seem fruitful to make the 39-year-old Giordano the person in charge of taking care of the physical business. The team wouldn’t want Bunting going there either. The entire team needs to step up.

Outcome Two: This Is the Kind of Event that Can Pull a Team Together

Although there are many disadvantages to playing in the fishbowl of the Toronto market, there is one advantage. A critical media and a critical fanbase can pull a team together to create an “I told you so” or a “We’ll show you” mentality.

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In this market, the team can build off the creation of “us vs. them.” The physical aspect of the game would seem to be a job for every player – working together. If that kind of camaraderie becomes the ethos of this team, it would go a long way toward drawing the team closer together. That closeness seems crucial for success.

Good for Giordano and Bunting, and others. This team lives and plays in the middle of one of the most intense media markets of any sport. As a result, coming to count on each other is absolutely critical for the success of this team. That it can be connected to a win was also a huge link between those two positives – winning and sticking up for each other.

Outcome Three: Matthews Feels Appreciated

Matthews now knows that his teammates will show up on his behalf. When he got pushed around, his team literally leaped to the rescue. Matthews noticed. He won’t forget. Now it’s his job to lead the team (along with Tavares it seems) doing what he does best – scoring.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares screens Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Matthews can’t help but feel appreciated and valued by his teammates. It’s humbling. It was also one of the few times in my memory that a Maple Leafs’ team collectively sold out to protect one of its own.

Prediction: Watch for Matthews to Score in Bunches

I don’t mean to make too much of it, but I have to believe that last night’s dust-up bodes well for this season’s team. I look for a similar effort against the Boston Bruins, which seems the perfect team to follow. What’s the over and under for Matthews scoring at least one goal on Saturday?