Seventeen goals allowed in three games that included numerous third period breakdowns and an overtime loss to the New York Islanders, the Toronto Maple Leafs were looking for anything to help them play a full 60 minutes and grab two big points. On the other side of the puck, the Dallas Stars were looking to avoid their third straight loss, but they were taking on a Leafs team they beat just one week ago.
But something had to give. While it wasn’t a penalty-filled affair, it was special teams that would ultimately seal the fate of the losing team in this matchup and hand one team two points in regulation.
With Curtis McElhinney set to make his first home start in a Leafs uniform, the Leafs were looking to their young guns once again to tackle the offensive load. The Stars, however, were without Jason Spezza and went back to Antti Niemi who had been pulled twice in his last three starts heading into Tuesday night’s affair in Toronto.
Still, it wasn’t a battle of the backup and the inconsistent platoon goalie. Instead, it was experience against youth and quickness – a game that meant so much for both clubs.
The Leafs came out with a little more desperation than they have in the past few games in the opening frame. Just 20 seconds into the first period, William Nylander came out from behind the Dallas net and fired one on Niemi. While the Stars’ net minder was able to make that save, the Leafs didn’t stop there.
Connor Brown followed that up with a post just under three minutes in before Mitch Marner sent Tyler Bozak in alone for a breakaway. Still, Niemi made the stop and the game remained tied. That, along with the Leafs ability to keep the Stars to the outside over the first five minutes or so of the period, kept the game tied early.
But it didn’t take long for the Leafs to take advantage of the numerous opportunities they were creating. About nine minutes into the frame, Bozak won an offensive zone face-off. Marner picked it up and dropped it back to the point for Jake Gardiner who slapped it over the glove of Niemi to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.
The goal was Gardiner’s seventh of the season and his first in 22 games.
Curtis McElhinney had his own flurry of saves in the first period. Following the Gardiner goal, the Stars made a push to even up the game, but the Leafs’ goalie was up to the task. Dallas followed that up with a crossbar, but the puck stayed out of the Leafs net in the first period.
While the chances likely favoured the Leafs in the first, the Stars did out shoot Toronto 16-10 in the period.
The Stars started the second on the power play following a four-minute double minor that was handed to Kadri late in the first. The Leafs, however, were able to kill off the penalties while only giving up six shots on the double minor.
Following the power play, McElhinney had to make a number of save and even got lucky when a quick Seguin shot went off the crossbar behind him. Still, the Leafs returned the favour with opportunities of their own – including a post of their own off a Nylander shot five minutes into the frame.
The Leafs got a man advantage just over seven minutes into the frame when Antoine Roussel was forced to hook Matthews who got in on a break, however the Leafs’ second-ranked power play couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.
Seguin took a penalty with just over seven minutes left in the frame, however the Leafs (again) weren’t able to take advantage.
However, with under three minutes left, the Leafs got another one past Niemi to give themselves a two-goal cushion. First thought to be the second of the night for Gardiner, it was later changed to Matthews’ goal as he was able to get his stick on it in front. The goal was his 25th of the season and his 22nd at even strength (second to only Sidney Crosby this season).
Toronto finished the second with 27 shots and led the Stars 2-0.
The third had a little bit of everything. Dallas was tagged for three minor penalties, while the Leafs were whistled for two of their own. And both clubs were able to take advantage of their man advantages.
Seguin was the first to fire home a goal in the final frame four minutes into the period. Following a Zach Hyman holding minor, the Dallas forward was able to notch his 20th of the season two seconds into the man advantage.
But the Leafs were quick to respond following three straight minor penalties by the Stars. After Radek Faksa was sent off for delay of game, Nikita Zaitsev fired home his second NHL goal from the point to restore the Leafs’ two-goal lead. That would be how the game would end with the Leafs picking up a big two points in a close Eastern Conference playoff race.
TOR – Jake Gardiner (7) assisted by Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak
TOR – Auston Matthews (25) assisted by Jake Gardiner
DAL – Tyler Seguin (20) PPG assisted by Cody Eakin
TOR – Nikita Zaitsev (2) PPG assisted by Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly
THW Three Stars
First: Curtis McElhinney (39-save win)
Second: Jake Gardiner (1 goal, 1 assist)
Third: Auston Matthews (GWG)
St. Louis Blues at Toronto Maple Leafs
Air Canada Centre – 7:30 p.m. EST – Thursday, February 9
Broadcast channels – SNO and FS-MW
2016-17 Season Series: Blues lead 1-0-0
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.