A week ago, I got an innocent enough, random enough Twitter question in that fun period between sunset and bedtime:

Naturally, hockey is starting to rear its head again and people are getting excited to see their favourite teams again, and are more than happy to reminisce while the clock ticks. An obvious answer to this question would be Game 81 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, where the Leafs clinched a playoff spot thanks to memorable goals from Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Brown and a once-in-a-career save by Curtis McElhinney on Sidney Crosby, all capped off with Auston Matthews potting his 40th on an empty net. Nothing tops that game in terms of pure excitement and reward unless we put huge weight into playoff overtime.

But, this made me think of something. The biggest moment of the season may have come against the same opponent, in a much different game on December 17th.

There’s a lot going on during this play that makes it a great goal in its own right. Tyler Bozak makes a great drop pass, Mitch Marner turns on the jets to create a scoring chance. While he spends a moment looking skyward, he shows great hustle to pounce on Derrick Pouliot and cash in on a lucky board bounce as his opponent gets tangled with the referee.

While Marner’s sweep towards Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t get him the chance he wants, Jake Gardiner’s pinch affords him a wide open net to bury the winning goal into. It’s a fun play that illustrates the strong points of both players.

But it’s a little more than that. Looking at the individuals, it was a much needed multi-point night for Marner after a month or so where he had begun to cool down, with just a goal and five points in 12 games after starting at a point-per-game pace. For Gardiner, it brought his point streak to five games, in the midst of an 11-in-11 run that returned his public perception from “hit or miss” back to one of the club’s core players.

For the team, though? It was monstrous, in hindsight.

After spending their November recovering from a slow October, the Leafs began to cool down as Christmas neared. From November 30th to December 15th, the team won just 1 of 7 games, with none of the losses being easy to swallow. Between the shutout loss to the Flames, getting narrowly beat by Vancouver in their post-brawl rematch, and collapsing against Minnesota thanks to a couple misjudged players in an otherwise dominant game, things already seemed rough.

Then they lose to last-place Colorado, scoring just 1 shot of 52 on Semyon Varlamov. Then, a pair of shootout losses to San Jose and Arizona, the latter of which was capped off by just-departed Peter Holland and gave the team a 0-4 record in the skills competition. All leading up to this game against the defending cup champions, who hammered them just a month before.

Toronto showed determination to not let history repeat itself, taking 49 shots on goal, but for a while, seemed poised to be stuck with another game where firing at the net would do them little to no good, another game where they’d have to go to a shootout, and a chance to fall to a record of 11-11-8.

Dismiss the human element all you want, but I can’t imagine morale amongst the team would have been very high if they had endured a third consecutive shootout loss, or their third game in four where they placed over 45 on net, 15+ more than their opponents, and skated away defeated. A loss in that game very well could have had a major ripple effect on the rest of the season.

Instead, Marner makes that rush, Gardiner buries that puck, and instead of the Air Canada Centre crowd leaving the building ready to wave the white flag for yet another season, they were louder and more excited for a Leafs game’s outcome than the building has seen in years. Oh, and it started a 12-3-2 run for the team, their most dominant stretch on the standings sheet that season.

I suppose it’s possible that a run like that happens without the goal to lift them back up, but I wouldn’t want to chance it.

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