NEWARK, NJ — Having dropped three of their last four games entering Thursday night’s tilt with the Devils in New Jersey, questions abound the Toronto Maple Leafs: Are they tough enough? Can John Tavares and Auston Matthews co-exist? What’s wrong with William Nylander? Are there still moves to be made?
With the buzzards circling, Tavares scored twice and assisted on a third while backup Michael Hutchinson came on to record 27 saves as the Maple Leafs held off the swarm with a much-needed 4-2 victory over the Devils at Prudential Center in Newark.
Tavares’ second goal of the game — with 6.5 seconds left in the first period — proved to be the game-winner in what was surely a sigh of relief for the Mississauga native who inked a mammoth seven-year, $77 million dollar deal with his hometown Leafs this summer.
“I don’t really think about it, I just go out there and be as consistent as I can be (but) it’s always that much more satisfying when you contribute in a big win — especially bouncing back after the other night,” Tavares said after the Leafs were shutout, 4-0, at home by the Nashville Predators on Monday.
“I’m just trying to be hard to defend, find different ways to produce whether it’s around the net, on the cycle, on the rush or on the power play. I’m playing with some pretty good players so just trying be ready for those opportunities and capitalize. I’ve been consistent as long as I’ve been in the league and don’t want to stop there.”
Ron Hainsey broke a scoreless tie 4:30 into the action when his seeing-eye slapshot from the point found a home, assisted by Connor Brown and Zach Hyman, and Tavares doubled it 2:51 later when the six-time NHL All-Star found a loose puck in front and backhanded it home at 12:39 of the first period.
The goal was a milestone for Tavares — the 300th of his career — that began in 2009.
With the seconds ticking away on a fast-moving first period, the former No. 1 overall pick of the New York Islanders wasn’t finished as Morgan Rielly took a beautiful backhand, cross-ice pass from Mitch Marner before finding Tavares camped out in the slot, making no mistake one-timing the feed past Devils’ goalie Keith Kinkaid with just 6.5 ticks on the clock.
“I’m just trying to get lost in space when I see Mitch get some space, get some speed,” Tavares said. “He’s looking for the open man and has a good sense of where everyone is on the ice. Hell of a job finding a seam. He had all day and found the right time.”
“It’s such a fast game but I understand how to slow it down,” Marner said. “John has come in and been such a great teammate while producing so well on the ice. You want to play harder for guys like that because they’re going out and playing their heart out for everyone. He had a hell of a game tonight.”
Patience on display as @91Tavares puts away number 300.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 11, 2019
Outshooting the Devils 15-8 after one period of play and cashing in on three of those opportunities, the second frame could not have been any different for the Leafs, which, despite all the media buzz surrounding their struggles, improve to 28-13-2 with 58 points, 10 back of the Atlantic Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Devils (16-20-7, 39 points, 7th in the Metropolitan Division) got on the board with 3:53 left in the second period when Blake Coleman picked up the rebound off of Andy Greene’s initial shot from the point and backhanded it past Hutchinson to make it 3-1.
The goal breathed live into the Devils which scored again just 26 seconds later when Brian Boyle took a drop pass from Blake Pietila and roofed one past Hutchinson top-corner, glove side.
“When we play with structure, we play well and put teams on their heels,” Greene, the Devils’ team captain said. “When we don’t, we look like chickens with our heads cut off. We kind of run around and try to cover for other mistakes. You just have to trust yourself and trust the other guys out there.”
Despite peppering Kinkaid with 18 more shots in the second period, the Leafs nursed a 3-2 advantage into the second intermission. Certainly, if not for the play of the Devils’ netminder, who finished with 39 saves in between the pipes, Toronto’s slim lead would have been much broader after two.
The Devils pressed in the third but couldn’t generate anything consistent against the Leafs, getting off just three shots before pulling Kinkaid in favour of an extra attacker the final minute of regulation. The ploy did not work as Marner capped off the scoring with an empty-netter with 21.6 left.
“Obviously don’t want to give up those two goals but I liked the way we responded overall,” Tavares said. “We played pretty well but we can always do better, we can always strive for more. We’re trying to raise our game and continue to find new ways to improve, but overall a pretty good game.”
After the game, the line of Tavares, Marner and Zach Hyman were full of compliments for each other.
“Tavares and Marner are awesome to play with,” Hyman, who made his return after missing eight games with an ankle injury, said. “I just try and get them the puck as much as I can. (Tavares) is tenacious and you see how strong he is, how he gets the puck back all the time. He’s one of the best finishers around the net in the league.”
Marner was beaming after assisting on Tavares’ milestone marker.
“Coming in, I didn’t really know him, how good of a player he is but he’s been nothing but great to play with,” Marner said. “He’s a guy everyone wants to play better with when you’re on the ice with him. He’ll battle for you. Definitely a guy that makes you want to work harder for your teammates.”
Tavares has seen first-hand the playmaking skills that Marner possesses. Having Hyman back in the lineup only strengthens the Leafs’ depth up front.
“I think you see his contributions on the penalty kill, certainly on the forecheck,” Tavares said of Marner, tied for fourth in the league with 41 assists. “There’s so much trust in him winning battles with 50/50 pucks and how good he is coming out of those. Just putting pressure on opponents — he just makes things happen.”
Hainsey, who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win The Stanley Cup in 2016-17, soaked up a team-high 24:39 of ice time in addition to potting his fourth goal of the season to get the scoring started in the first for the Leafs. It will take blue collar efforts from the likes of Hainsey, Brown and Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri to push Toronto to the next level.
“We had a real good start, got the lead, got into a bit of a track meet in the second period, which was not to our advantage,” Hainsey said. “But the third was one of our better periods. I don’t think we gave up much and generated a lot. The third was something to be really pleased with.”
Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock also liked the chemistry generated by the Tavares-Marner-Hyman line and was pleased with the way Toronto responded after being shutout last time out.
“Plus-4, involved in three goals, took care of the puck and gave up very little — that line was the difference tonight,” Babcock said. “And good for Tavares, obviously 301 goals that’s a lot of goals in The National League.
“I really liked our first and really liked our third,” Babcock continued. “We didn’t back up and play in our own zone. We had the puck and took care of it. We think we’ve got a good team and that’s what matters down the road. We’ve had some runs in big spots.”
The Devils have lost three straight and four of their last five.
“(Toronto) played better than us. They’re a good team,” Devils’ coach John Hynes said. “Some of their strengths gave us some issues, particularly for us it’s something we continually work on with our guys that we need to be better — a hardness and intensity level around our net. That’s where they do a good job. Tampa does a good job. Those teams are highly skilled and highly talented teams but they get into the hard areas of the ice and make it hard on your goalie, your D and your low forwards.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares (91) skates during the third period of the National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 10, 2019 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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