Auston Matthews could sense his line was getting close.
Joe Thornton had a goal waved off late in Wednesday’s first period before another early in the second was also called back.
Moments later, Matthews made sure Toronto’s third shot to cross the line counted.
The star centre blasted home his NHL-best 14th goal of the season, Alexander Kerfoot scored the winner, and the Maple Leafs rebounded from an embarrassing collapse 48 hours earlier against Ottawa, grinding out a 2-1 victory over the last-place Senators.
Thornton’s first effort Wednesday was denied after it was ruled he pushed the puck and Matt Murray’s pad into the net, while the other was cancelled out for a high stick.
But just nine seconds later, Leafs defenceman Justin Holl fed Matthews for a one-timer and a 1-0 lead.
“There’s nothing you can really do about those (disallowed goals),” Matthews said. “Once we scored there right after the high stick, the boys were saying, ‘The puck don’t lie.”’
Frederik Andersen made 27 saves for Toronto (12-3-2), keeping his team in it early with some timely stops, while Jake Muzzin chipped in with two assists.
The Senators roared back from a 5-1 deficit in Monday’s opener of this three-game series against the Leafs before securing a stunning 6-5 overtime decision – the first time in franchise history Ottawa won a game after trailing by four goals.
Despite sitting atop the North Division standings and possessing one of the NHL’s best winning percentages in the league’s pandemic-shortened 56-game season, the Toronto market was a tinder box after that collapse, with one of the city’s newspapers calling out Leafs winger William Nylander on its front page.
“We’ve got to block that out,” Kerfoot said of the noise. “We’re playing good hockey for the most part. That’s what great about playing in Toronto – lots of people care about the team, they’re passionate, and they voice their opinions at times.”
Brady Tkachuk replied for Ottawa (4-13-1), while Murray made 26 stops for the rebuilding Senators, who wrap up this three-game set against the Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
“We were right there,” Tkachuk said. “It’s a good sign we can hang right there with them.”
Tied 1-1 through 40 minutes, the Leafs got their third power play midway through the final period when Nikita Zaitsev went off for hooking. Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe loaded up the first unit with Matthews, Nylander, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly, but they weren’t able to generate much.
Not long after the penalty expired, however, Kerfoot fished a puck out of a forest of legs – including Thornton’s – in front of Murray following Muzzin’s initial shot to deposit his third goal of the season at 10:46.
“That goal only happens because he’s in there battling,” Kerfoot said of his 41-year-old teammate.
“It’s physical in there,” added Thornton, who played his second game after missing 10 with a fractured rib. “Just be strong ... Kerf made a great play and just finished that off.”
Andersen stopped Colin White in tight at the tail end of an Ottawa man advantage later in the third before denying Josh Norris with under four minutes on the clock as the Leafs held on and could finally exhale.
Toronto met as a team Tuesday – on a scheduled day off – in the wake of Monday’s demoralizing setback.
“I was happy the way we came back and answered,” Andersen said. “Tried to clean up some things ... I thought we looked good.”
Thornton said the Leafs talked about what it will take for them to get to their ultimate goal.
“We’ve got to play good defence,” he said. “The offence is always going to be there, but if we look after Freddie ... Freddie’s one of the best in the league.
“Defensively we were a lot better.”
Following a tentative first, Toronto opened the scoring at 4:32 of the second when Matthews buried an eye-popping 13th goal in his last 12 games off that pass from Holl, who scored on a bomb of his own against Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price last week.
“I was really hoping Holler was going to pass that,” Matthews said. “I really thought he was going to let one rip again, but a really nice play by him.”
Thornton, meanwhile, continues to be wowed by Matthews, adding there are probably two or three players he’s lined up with in his Hall of Fame career in the same ballpark.
“But he’s on a different level,” Thornton said. “He just competes so hard.”
The Senators got their equalizer with 1:22 left in the second on a sequence that began when Holl heeled a shot in the offensive zone. The visitors broke the other way with Norris, who hit the post early in the period, and Chris Tierney setting up Tkachuk off the rush for his fifth of the campaign and the 100th point of his NHL career.
“We did a lot of great things,” Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith said. “They beat us 2-1, but it could have gone either way.”
The Leafs looked timid early, perhaps wary of making any mistakes after Monday, with the Senators carrying a 21-6 lead in shot attempts after the first.
Andersen faced at least three-odd man rushes through the opening 20 minutes, while Tim Stutzle whistled a shot just wide on another chance.
Murray made his two best saves late in the period, one with the glove on Tavares in alone and another on Thornton in the dying moments after the Senators couldn’t get the puck out.
After watching Marcus Hogberg pick up Ottawa’s first back-to-back wins since in almost a year while recovering from an upper-body injury suffered last week, Murray stayed with Thornton’s initial move down low. The winger then pushed the puck and the goalie’s right pad over the line on the follow-up, but the play was immediately waved off.
But the Leafs would rebound from that – and another disallowed goal – before securing a much-needed result.
“This was a huge win for us bouncing back from a tough loss,” Kerfoot said. “It’s really big in a shortened season like this to stop that negative momentum.
“You don’t want that creeping into minds or into your game.”