Mike Babcock said he came up with a new dressing-room slogan – Play fast. Play right – because he wanted his Toronto Maple Leafs to shake off their recent spate of slow starts and start flying.
The Leafs head coach was well rewarded by his players Tuesday night, as they started in high gear and stayed there most of the way through a 7-1 blitzing of the New York Islanders at Air Canada Centre.
“We came out and played the right way, like the slogan says,” Leafs star rookie Auston Matthews said. He was one of the top high-fliers with two goals, his 26th and 27th of the NHL season.
The Leafs were a different team than the one that stumbled out of the gate eight days ago in Brooklyn and wound up losing 6-5 in overtime to the Islanders.
Babcock’s message to start quickly and play quickly sunk in, as the Leafs came out skating hard for the start of both the first and second periods and wound up with a 3-1 lead going into the third.
Even though the Islanders held a 28-21 lead in shots on goal through two periods, it was the Leafs who had the puck most of the time. After 40 minutes, their puck possession stood at 56 per cent. And when the Islanders fought back in the second period, Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen was outstanding. He made several big saves, especially on a couple of Islander power plays.
Andersen also earned his 100th career win, although he was happier the Leafs won their 26th game of the season to keep their grip on the second wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s nice,” he said of the 100th win. “But more important is the 26 we got as a team this year.”
The rewards for their improved fore-checking and play in their own zone started coming in the last half of the first period on goals by Josh Leivo and Nazem Kadri (his 21st of the season, a career-high) and continued in the second.
The best example was William Nylander’s 15th goal of the season midway through the second period. Nylander and linemates Kadri and Leo Komarov were wheeling around the Islanders zone when Kadri lobbed the puck at goaltender Thomas Greiss. At the same time, Nylander came flying down the right side and cut to the net while three Islanders in the slot failed to pay the slightest attention to him. So when Greiss shoveled Kadri’s dump-in right on Nylander’s stick it was an easy goal and a nice gift.
Before the game, when Babcock was discussing how the Leafs needed to shake off the slow starts that saw them win just two of their previous eight games going into the Islander game, he said, “If you do good things, good things will happen. To me, it’s real fair. Over time, the hockey gods reward the teams that play the best most nights.”
If so, then the hockey gods owe Andersen big time. He was in position to bag his fourth shutout of the season, with the Leafs holding a 3-0 lead when he lost his shutout through a most egregious injustice. The teams hit a sloppy patch late in the second period and traded rushes and scoring chances by trading turnovers when Islanders forward Jason Chimera wound up with a breakaway.
Chimera never really pulled away from Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick and as he chased Chimera to the net, Hunwick had his stick in front of the Islander but did not impede him in any way. But somehow referee Dean Morton saw this as worthy of a penalty shot. It wasn’t even a regular two-minute penalty. Naturally, Chimera scored on the penalty shot at 16:55 to end Andersen’s chances for a shutout.
“You’ve just got to think about the next save and regroup,” Andersen said of the goal. “The most important thing is to get the win.”
The penalty shot could have given the Islanders life, since the Leafs were known for their third-period meltdowns over the first half of the season. But they showed that particular shortcoming was vanquished, as the Leafs poured it on in the third period with four goals.
Matthews scored his 26th goal and Tyler Bozak grabbed his 14th of the season to put the game away. Both goals came from quick-stick plays around the crease. Matthews made it 27 on the season when he scored again at 11:51 to give the Leafs a 6-1 lead.
“That’s something we haven’t been doing enough of lately, going to the net and screening the goalie,” Matthews said.
While the win was a complete team effort, there was an encouraging individual effort. Fourth-line winger Josh Leivo, 23, has not had an enjoyable season. He missed 25 games with an injury and then spent time with the Marlies farm team. Since his recall to the Leafs on Dec 19, Leivo was regularly assigned to the press box as a healthy scratch.
But thanks to an injury to Nikita Shoshnikov, Leivo finally got into the lineup on Feb. 9 and he made his presence felt Tuesday against the Islanders. Part of the Leafs’ strong start in the first period was due to aggressive fore-checking by Leivo and his linemates. He, too, was rewarded with a big goal, the first one of the game, when Islanders defenceman Adam Pelech tried to relieve the pressure by firing a behind-the-back pass up the middle. The puck went right to Leivo and he scored his first goal of the season at 11:36.
Leivo also had two assists in the third period on the Leafs’ last two goals to finish with three points on the night, a first for his NHL career. He helped set up Matthews’ second goal and had a hand in Hunwick’s goal late in the period.
“It feels good to help contribute,” said Leivo, who noted it was the first time he was in the lineup this season for a Leafs win. “I just want to keep it going now, take it day-by-day. As I got into the game I got more confident.
“We got on their [defence] real quick. We had a good fore-check.”
Leivo will get a quick chance to keep his good fortune going, as the Leafs left after the game for Columbus where they will play the Blue Jackets in the second of back-to-back games on Wednesday night.
“We have a quick turnaround,” Matthews said. “[The Blue Jackets] have a good crowd. It will be a good test for us.”Report Typo/Error