John Tavares’ hat trick snaps Maple Leafs’ four-game skid

John Tavares scored a hat-trick as the Toronto Maple Leafs ended their four-game losing streak with a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night.  (Getty images)
John Tavares scored a hat-trick as the Toronto Maple Leafs ended their four-game losing streak with a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night. (Getty images)

On the way to the Scotiabank Arena, there was an unmistakable fog that shrouded the Toronto skyline, similar to the foggy shape of the Maple Leafs.

Toronto returned home after a nearly two-week journey from hell, including three losses during the California swing that turned a regular season game into a referendum. Welcome to the land of millions of takes.

And early Wednesday morning, the Maple Leafs still seemed to have their heads in the clouds. Justin Hall – more on him below – couldn’t get past Philadelphia Flyers forward Travis Konecny, who passed the puck to Joel Farabi at the top of the faceoff circle to score the first goal of the game. Scotiabank Arena briefly fell into a deathly silence.

John Tavares had none of that, hitting a hat-trick including two stunning goals in the third period to lead the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 win over the Flyers, a game that could be emblematic of why he is the captain. a talented group that should still be in contention for the Stanley Cup this season.

Here are five takeaways from Wednesday’s game.

That’s why John Tavares wears the “C”.

The underlying theme of Toronto’s tepid start to the new campaign was that its best players weren’t playing like stars. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe issued a challenge to his core group earlier this season, and while the message appeared to be ignored during the reversal, it resonated with John Tavares on Wednesday.

Tavares is considered by many to be the Maple Leafs’ best player, and that was certainly true on Wednesday. On his first goal, Tavares went down briefly – after the game he claimed he might have been brushed by an opponent’s skate – but he got back up immediately, William Nylander showing some patience and then aiming the puck at the laser to tie up the play.

“I was just trying to hit the net before I decided to change,” Tavares said after the game.

Tavares isn’t the fastest skater, but he has outstanding puck skills and used his range to put Flyers defenseman Travis Sunheim on the poster for his second goal of the tournament. Sunheim attempted to test Tavares with a stick, but the Toronto captain instead smeared him with nutmeg and then used his body as a shield to deflect the puck off Felix Sandström’s court before hiding the rebound.

That’s why Tavares is the captain. He’s not the most enthusiastic quote, and he’s not going to deliver a provocative speech to feed us cowardly members of the media looking to infiltrate the team. The pressure for Game 11 of the season reached astronomical levels, but Tavares’ hat-trick blocked all the bile from the media corps, fans, and those who were praying for Toronto’s downfall.

“You admit you didn’t play very well and weren’t able to close some games,” Tavares said. “But even though we didn’t play our best, we were in every game. We had opportunities but we just didn’t realize them, so just keep the same approach every day.

“I think it’s no secret to anyone, whether it’s me or one of our main guys, how we want to play, the roles we want to play, we want to be difference makers.”

It was undoubtedly a standout performance by Tavares, a much-needed burst of energy that the Maple Leafs can use in Saturday’s much-anticipated 9-1 fight against the Boston Bruins. That’s why Tavares wears the “C”.

Fans were given reasons to support the Maple Leafs, and they did.

There was a mixed reaction among Maple Leafs fans, to say the least, but there was also a patronizing tone towards those fans who were fed up. Keefe seemed to understand that Toronto fans would react if given the opportunity to genuinely cheer for the home team. After all, few people choose despair intentionally.

“Our fans will be here to support us if we give them a reason to support us,” Keefe said after Wednesday morning’s performance. “We have to go out and perform. We just have to go out and play better hockey. We are certainly interested in this. It is a matter of mentally clearing our heads.”

Scotiabank Arena registered an attendance of 18,347 and every single person in the building could be heard when Tavares scored his hat-trick or when Mark Giordano dropped Konecna and then Kevin Hayes in a late-game skirmish when a Flyers forward tried to attack Matthews and Veteran defenseman “Toronto” came to the defense of his brothers.

I like it, here people are passionate about our team. People are glad that everything is fine with us. I’d rather play in a city that cares,” Giordano said on Wednesday morning.

It may have been a harbinger of Wednesday’s game, but Giordano and company have given the Maple Leafs plenty to celebrate. It was Toronto’s first five-goal appearance of the year, and the crowd shook as Tavares took the ice again to claim his first star.

In Defense of Sheldon Keefe

Sheldon Keefe was positioned as a fallen guy. And it would be disingenuous to pretend I didn’t suggest that in an article that lays out all of the Maple Leafs’ options after a four-game losing streak. A bench shift would have been the most likely way to stop the bleeding, unless the Maple Leafs could figure it out internally, of course.

To Keefe’s great credit, he blocked all analyzes that suggested the Maple Leafs needed a new voice. As it turns out, Keefe has a number of active supporters in his camp, including Flyers bench boss John Tortorella.

“Guys, you don’t know anything. You see, I’m training against Sheldon. I think the coaches know other coaches,” Tortorella said before the game via Luke Fox of Sportsnet. “Guys, you don’t know what he did for this team. I watched from afar. I trained him. We had conversations as a young coach in this league.

“You guys are throwing darts at him because you want some result. I think so. The trainer always throws darts at him. I know, watching him and training against him, I think he is an amazing coach. I hope he drowns it out to all of you, to be honest. Not tonight. But I have a lot of respect for him.”

Keefe was gracious to the assembled journalists and warned his own group not to buy into the many articles calling for sweeping change. We have a job to do, and so does he, and it looks like a series of tactical changes he made together paid off on Wednesday night. Throw an ice bucket on the hot seat.

Keefe’s defensive trial and error mostly works, but Hall continues to struggle.

Toronto shook up their defensive pairings on Wednesday, starting with TJ Brodie-Justin Hall as the first pair, Morgan Rilly-Victor Mete in the second group, and Mark Giordano-Rasmus Sandin as the third duo.

How, in particular, was the Rilli-Mete group formed?

“Frankly, it’s just a matter of how other couples have tested themselves, honestly,” Keefe said Wednesday morning. “Now we have a few guys trying to find the right mix.”

And for the most part, it worked, with the exception of Justin Hall: if the Scotiabank Arena devotees were still in a bad mood, they took their frustrations out on him during a particularly tough shift. Fans booed Hall with just under five minutes left after he didn’t throw the puck to anyone in the center of the ice in the offensive zone, and after a few seconds he could not get the puck to the blue offensive line.

For Hall, it wasn’t just a bad shift. During the first goal of the game, Hall failed to cover Travis Konecny, who passed the puck to Joel Farabi at the top of the faceoff circle, and the striker quickly passed Ilya Samsonov. Some attributed the mistake to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who didn’t follow back, but Hall should have been better here.

The rest of the groups worked. Brody seemed to innately explain Hall’s tendency to play deep in the offensive zone, instinctively slipping out of the zone several times to soften up any potential outliers.

Rilly finished with a brilliant 65.22 Corsi in a 5-on-5 game in one of his best games of the year and almost set Michael Bunting up for what was to be Toronto’s first goal. Mete’s speed was noticeable, and although the bigger forwards will intimidate him, he played a highly skilled game, easily facilitating exits from the zone, and this pair should get a new look.

As for Giordano-Sandin? There isn’t much to write about Sandin, but Giordano made some noise by standing up for his teammates in the fight in the third period, grabbing Konechny for attacking Matthews before dropping Hayes in a fight. Not a bad evening for the revised doubles and we would love to see them again on Saturday against the Bruins.

Ilya Samsonov collected his best game of the season

Samsonov entered this season somewhat unstable. With a first-round draft pedigree, Samsonov was unable to secure a starting spot as Washington goaltender before joining Toronto on a proof-of-consent deal. And as his role rose after Matt Murray suffered an adductor injury on October 15, Samsonov became Toronto’s No. 1 goaltender by default.

In the firestorm that surrounded the Maple Leafs losing streak, Samsonov may have taken on too much blame during the losing drift. While he’ll likely get lost in the shuffle – it’s the land of a million takes, after all – Samsonov put together arguably his best game of the season.

Samsonov calmly entered Wednesday’s game with a .920 save percentage…