The Maple Leafs battled their way back into the win column on Thursday, outlasting the New Jersey Devils for a 4-2 victory. John Tavares lead the way with two goals, while Michael Hutchinson turned aside 27 shots in net to help preserve the win. Toronto moves to 27-13-2 on the season.
Start hot, and hold on
The Maple Leafs had sputtered their way out of 2018 and into 2019, losing three of four (and being shut out twice) heading into Thursday’s game against New Jersey. Toronto set the tone there with a scorching first period, controlling play for most of the frame and jumping out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes off goals by Ron Hainsey and a pair from Tavares.
In the second, Devils netminder Keith Kinkaid made a series of big stops on Nazem Kadri and Tavares, breathing life into New Jersey they used to hit back with goals from Blake Coleman and Brian Boyle just 26 seconds apart. The first goal came via a collective breakdown by the Leafs in their own end, while the second was precipitated by Jake Gardiner’s fanned pass at the Devils’ blueline, sending play the other way.
Toronto clung to a 3-2 lead heading into the third, momentum firmly in the Devils’ clutches. The Leafs did their best to pull it back, outshooting the Devils 5-1 early in the period and generating a couple of quality chances in the bunch. They controlled possession for most of the final 20 minutes at 72 per cent but didn't find the back of the net again until Mitch Marner's empty-netter with 22 seconds left capped off the Leafs' dominant frame.
Since early November, Tavares hasn’t gone more than two games at a time without a goal, emerging as the Leafs’ most consistent scoring threat. All that production paid off for Tavares with the 300th goal of his career, scored in the first period of Thursday’s win. It was Tavares’ 28th marker of the season, his ninth in Toronto’s last 11 games, and his third in as many games this season against the Devils.
In reaching the benchmark, Tavares became the first player from the 2009 NHL draft class (of which he was selected first) to score 300 goals, and joins Alex Ovechkin (420) and Steven Stamkos (348) as the only players to perform the feat since the 2009-10 season.
Tavares would score again late in the first, taking a cross-crease pass from Morgan Rielly to bury the puck behind Kinkaid.
Since he entered the league, Tavares has tallied more goals than assists only once, back in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign (28 goals, 19 assists). In this debut season with the Leafs, Tavares is out-pacing himself in goals compared to helpers (29 goals to 21 assists).
Blue collar battle
Zach Hyman was like a caged tiger waiting to get back in the Leafs’ lineup after an eight-game absence nursing an ankle injury (incidentally suffered during Toronto’s last trip to New Jersey on Dec. 18). So when the winger was cleared to return on Thursday, he didn’t waste any time making an impact.
Early in the first period, Tavares and Ben Lovejoy were in the box for roughing and it was Hyman getting in on the cycle and fishing a puck out from behind Kinkaid’s net to tee up Hainsey’s slapshot from the point that put Toronto up 1-0.
Then Hyman was at work again on the forecheck, winning the puck back for Toronto before Tavares buried the 300th score of his career. Like any returning player, Hyman had his hiccups along the way in the form of errant passes and his legs began to fade in the third. But it’s Hyman's skill set – highlighted by tenacity and offensive heaviness – that is unmatched by any teammate, and the Leafs clearly missed having him available. He finished a team-leading plus-four with three shots on goal in 16:44 ice time.
Hangin’ on Hutch
Michael Hutchinson made his fourth straight start in net for Toronto on Thursday, as the team waits for Frederik Andersen (groin) and Garret Sparks (concussion) to come back from injury, and it may have been his best performance of the bunch so far. Starting in the first, Hutchinson made a handful of notable saves to keep New Jersey off the board, and continued to calmly handle the Devils’ pressure early in the second.
It wasn’t until that wayward middle frame and the 26-second span of scoring within it that Hutchinson, like the Leafs, faltered. Giving up those two quick scores that easily could have rattled a player with limited NHL experience in the last two seasons. That wasn’t the case with Hutchinson, who gathered himself and remained effective and in control the rest of the way to hold Toronto ahead.
The victory was a good confidence-booster for Hutchinson, who could be called up again for the Leafs on Saturday, in a massive divisional matchup against the Boston Bruins at home. He finished the game with 27 saves and .931 save percentage.
Searching for a spark
Much was made about the Leafs altering their power play units in Wednesday’s practice, where Auston Matthews was moved to the second group and Kasperi Kapanen joined the top unit. It was the slightest of adjustments, but Toronto seemingly had to do something to combat its recent 5-for-43 run through 15 games with the extra man.
The alterations did nothing to help production though, not that the Leafs stuck with them for long. On Toronto's lone power play attempt in New Jersey, each group saw about 40 seconds of time, before Toronto went back to its original top unit (Matthews back in place) for the final 30 seconds, and actually managed two shots on goal.
It was a small sample, but that burst at the end may have been enough to convince Toronto it needs to remedy the power play woes with personnel that’s worked in the past, as opposed to tinkering for unknown future gains.
The Leafs have completed a season sweep of the Devils, outscoring them 17-5.
Blue and White Trending
Tracking Leafs’ trends all season long
The Leafs are 22-2-1 when scoring first this season.
Toronto will come home to meet the Bruins on Saturday.