TORONTO — The puck was sliding toward Mitch Marner’s skate blades and out of the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ zone near the Toronto Maple Leafs bench during overtime.

Marner was about to step through the door for a change, and Tyler Bertuzzi had already hopped the boards when both players realized a too-many-men penalty was about to be committed on Monday.

Bertuzzi quickly retreated onto the boards. Marner processed the situation at 16 gigahertz and kept the puck onside, passing to Auston Matthews, who then zipped the puck to a streaking Jake McCabe down the weak side.

Jump on, jump off.

Think, think.

Pass, pass.

Deke, score.

Sound the buzzer.

And just like that, the Maple Leafs defeated Kyle Dubas’s playoff-hunting team 3-2, thanks to a nifty finish from the executive’s last shrewd acquisition to the Toronto blueline.

“I was waiting to see what Mitch and Bert were gonna do,” McCabe smiled after his first-ever NHL OT winner. “Auston found me on the back side, and I was able to sneak one by.”

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Perhaps Sheldon Keefe was sneaking one by us a little when the Maple Leafs coach said that he wouldn’t have a “shutdown pair” in the upcoming post-season.

Because McCabe (and whoever’s on his side) appears to be tasked with toughest forward matchups on a regular basis these days.

On Monday, that meant limiting the red-hot Sidney Crosby and his linemates as best as possible, logging a team-high 23:17, and contributing to Toronto’s perfect 5-for-5 effort on the penalty kill.

It also meant showing off some silky mitts for the clock-freezer and boosting an individual stat line that shows career highs across the board: eight goals, 26 points, 54 penalty minutes, and a plus-17 rating.

McCabe also ranks fifth leaguewide in hits by defencemen (212).

Sure, the Maple Leafs D pairs may be in flux come Round 1, but McCabe’s defensive assignments will be of utmost importance.

“It’s a cool moment for a guy that does a lot of the grunt work for us,” Keefe said. “He does whatever the game calls for. So, for him to get that opportunity and make good on it, it’s a nice moment for him for sure.”

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Added Matthews: “He’s such a competitor, and he battles every single night for us, especially in D-zone. He’s matching up against top lines and plays a really important role for us. So, it’s always nice to see guys like that get rewarded on the offensive side.”

The Leafs started flat in what Matthews described as a “slushy” game that demanded patience and leaned heavily on special teams.

McCabe alone skated 4:43 in 4-on-5 situations Monday and was integral to extending Toronto’s run of penalty kills against the Penguins to 24 in a row. (The last Penguins power-play goal versus Toronto came with Michael Bunting in the box on Oct. 23, 2021.)

Toronto’s PK has been a sore spot all season, yet it’s finding an encouraging groove with playoffs less than two weeks away.

“Just the desperation and urgency. I think you guys can see a little bit more pressure coming from us and the anticipation aspect,” McCabe explained.

“It just allows us to play a little bit freer and not think as much and just react. Their power-play has to make a couple of really good plays to beat that pressure, and it’s gonna happen now and again, but so far it’s been looking pretty good.”

So is McCabe, who started the season slow, missed seven games due a groin injury in the fall but has found his role and his confidence grow with time.

More impressive: The lefty is doing it on his weak right side.

And McCabe the first to stand up for a teammate and own his mistake.

Unprompted, the defenceman announced that it was his man, Drew O’Connor, who was allowed to spring free and beat Ilya Samsonov for Pittsburgh’s game-tying goal in the third period that forced overtime in the first place.

Not a play a true shutdown man would want to be the night’s last memory in fans’ minds.

“Sammy was awesome for us all night,” McCabe said. “So it was nice to get one back for him.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• Wash, rinse, repeat.

Matthews is up to 65 goals, matching Alex Ovechkin for most in a single season by any active player.

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Five more games, five more goals?

“Seventy just seems like a crazy number, but he could do it,” Crosby says. “It’s amazing. It speaks a lot to the consistency he’s had. But, yeah, that’s a crazy number.”

Matthews caught the comments.

“I have the utmost respect for him, so hearing that is very humbling,” Matthews says.

That was Matthews’ 22nd goal off a one-timer, a skill he works on after almost every practice and morning skate. His previous best was 17.

• Penguins fans were apoplectic that Crosby did not see the ice in overtime during such a critical game.

According to coach Mike Sullivan, the captain was dealing with a skate issue that prevented him from being ready in time.

• OK, so you can’t high-stick a man in the face, but you can high-stick a puck into a man’s face.

• William Nylander (96 points) has a shot at becoming the first Maple Leafs winger and fourth Leaf in history to crack the century mark. (Matthews, Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour are in the club.)

“That’s a pretty cool goal to get,” he says. “It’s something that I think a lot of players want to try to get to.”

Keefe points out that this season, more than any other, Nylander has been the team’s first star of the game.

“That’s great to see. He’s done it more nights this year than I think he ever has,” Keefe praised. “It shows up in the stats, but it also shows up on the video side of it. It’s been great and fun to watch.”

• Defenceman Joel Edmundson (undisclosed) has been practising with the group and could return as early as Thursday versus New Jersey.

Timothy Liljegren (upper body) and Calle Järnkrok (hand) are hopeful to squeeze into one of the team’s final two games next week, but that’s no guarantee.





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