It is a mug's game to point to one moment or one event as a team comes of age, but this sure feels like one.
This was a 4-2 win by the rebuilt Toronto Maple Leafs over the Boston Bruins Monday night in as big a game as this group of youngsters has ever played. They hung in against a veteran team – one that knows how to smother hot offensive games as well as any NHL team – and took an important step forward in both their development and the playoff race.
Centre Tyler Bozak got the Leafs off the tightrope with a power-play goal with one minute, 57 seconds left in regulation time to put them ahead 2-1. Then William Nylander and Nazem Kadri scored empty-net goals, which gave the Leafs the necessary cushion to withstand Dominic Moore's goal for Boston with 9.8 seconds left.
The win gave the Leafs a season sweep over the Bruins, 4-0, for the first time since the 1924-25 season. Even better, for a team that was known for blowing third-period leads not long ago, it came in regulation time so no loser point for the Bruins to keep a gap in the playoff race. As a result, the Leafs now trail the Bruins by just one point in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division with one game in hand and 11 games left in their regular season.
Defenceman Morgan Rielly, who picked up his third goal in his last five games, gave a nod to those blown third-period leads when he was asked about the Leafs showing they can grind out a big win.
"We've had moments where we haven't exactly done that, but I think we've learned from them," he said. "We've gotten better as the year's gone on. When you come down the stretch and play these important games late in the season you learn a lot. This is where you learn how to win.
"When you look at the chances we were able to generate in October, November, we were getting a lot of goals, winning games [by] high scoring. Now it's not as back-and-forth and we're still able to win games because we learned a lot."
The first two periods were an odd mix of some exciting offensive action and smothering defensive hockey, the latter mostly from the Bruins. Adding to the off-beat game was the failure of the game clock at Air Canada Centre, which resulted in periodic announcements of how much time remained and the referees whistling the conclusion to the periods instead of the horn.
The clock finally showed up for action at the start of the third period, but there weren't many shots or goals to chart. The intensity was cranked up and the checking grew even closer. But the Leafs refused to wilt, even when the Bruins cranked up the scoring pressure as time grew short.
The one constant was sparkling goaltending from Toronto's Frederik Andersen and Tuukka Rask of the Bruins. Both made lots of big saves, especially Rask, whose work kept the score tied 1-1 going into the third period as the Leafs put on the heat in the first period and still managed some good chances in the second as the Bruins came back.
Among the skaters, the most important Leafs players were the line of Kadri and wingers Leo Komarov and Connor Brown. As the shutdown line, they had to check the Bruins' high-powered unit of centre Patrice Bergeron and wingers Brad Marchand and David Backes, who powered Boston to a 7-3 record going into Monday's game.
The Bergeron line did produce the Bruins' first goal by Backes but it was with Kadri's line on the bench and the Leafs on the ice snoozing defensively. Otherwise, Kadri's line shut down the Bruins trio in a matchup that grew more intense as the game went on, with lots of yakking between noted trash-talkers Komarov and Marchand.
"He loves to talk and I love to talk. We're made for each other," Komarov said of his discussions with Marchand. But he went into deadpan mode when asked for details. "It's just like how his day is going, It's nothing brutal. It's a hockey game. He's a great guy."
After Backes' scored, Rielly tied the score seven minutes later at 14:05 of the first period. That is the way it stayed until the Leafs broke things open in the last two minutes of the third.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock wasn't keen on how his team started the game but he was much happier about how it ended.
"I thought we got more and more competitive as the game went on," he said. "I thought we played better and better. A real good win for our team, obviously. I didn't like to give up the last goal, but a good win for our team. It felt good.
"We've found a way to get points on a lot of nights and tonight was another night against a good team with really high-end players with good experience who can hurt you and have been in a lot of situations. We haven't been in a lot of them and I thought we still did a good job and found a way to win."