Leafs thump Stars to make it back-to-back road wins heading into break
Jason Spezza of the Stars gets knocked to the ice by Leafs Dominic Moore while Travis Dermott collects the loose puck Thursday night in Dallas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Like that old fast food commercial, the Maple Leafs deserve a break today.
Their NHL all-star hiatus will be even more enjoyable, after the Leafs put a few troubles behind them with a two-game Central Division road sweep — the biggest surprise here on Thursday with a 4-1 takeout of the Stars.
Two Nazem Kadri goals, two nifty William Nylander assists and three Jake Gardiner helpers were part of an impressive showing, capped by backup Curtis McElhinney’s 39 saves.
“That’s a team that can potentially go deep in the playoffs and it was a playoff kind of vibe,” Kadri said. “We have to be ready to go up against big-time players and I think we did a great job.”
Toronto won its first set of back-to-back games since October and first on the road in more than a year, against one of the league’s best teams of late. It was also the Leafs’ largest margin of victory in more than a month.
“Regardless (of playing in Chicago the night before) we had pretty good legs,” said Auston Matthews, who is headed to the showcase game in Tampa Bay on the wings of scoring his team best 22nd goal to cap Thursday’s effort. “They worked equally as hard, but we tracked back and didn’t give them too much space, especially their top line (Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin).
“When you come back and help your defence, it’s an easier pass for them to us. We let our speed and our skill take over. It puts pressure on their defence and it doesn’t matter how good they are, it’s never easy when you have a guy draped all over you and chasing you down.”
Stars coach Hitchcock predicted that, despite the Leafs playing the night before, their speed against the Stars’ tight defence would be an interesting match as the night wore on. Instead, Toronto burst into a three-goal lead and didn’t look back.
Quickness was the key to the first goal, a turnover at Toronto’s line that Patrick Marleau rushed up the ice. Just about every Leaf coming in his wake touched the puck before Mitch Marner fed Kadri at the edge of the crease, making it consecutive goals on the trip. Gardiner’s first assist gave him a career high five games with an assist.
Getting Marner off the fourth line and with his fellow London Knights alumnus has looked good in two games, with the veteran Marleau a bonus.
“It’s coming along great. I just have to focus on getting open (for Marner),” Kadri said. “You have to give him space, because he’s the playmaker who will find the open guy. I can become more of a shooter. He finds you. ”
The Leafs took a too-many-men call late in the first period, but killed it easily and, as Nylander exited the box, he was away on a 2-on-1. With little room to spare, he found Zach Hyman on Ben Bishop’s doorstep. Hyman’s ninth is one shy of last year’s total.
Toronto went up 3-0 on a power-play, a ridiculously fluke goal after so much bad luck earlier in the month. With Kadri, Gardiner and Marner throwing the puck around with authority, a hard cross-ice feed by Kadri struck Mattias Janmark’s leg and Dan Hamhuis’ stick and through a flustered Bishop.
“You know that’s going to happen,” Kadri said. “My game hasn’t really changed in the 20 games (with just a couple of goals) until now.”
Earlier in the second, Connor Carrick and Dominic Roussel had dropped the gloves as frustration grew on the ice and in the crowd at the American Airlines Center.
Meanwhile, McElhinney was doing the right things in his first action since Dec. 20, earning his first win in six weeks.
He was getting help from defenders such as Roman Polak, diving to break up a Dallas 2-on-1 with a stick check.
But the wall couldn’t hold through 40 minutes, as Gardiner was stripped by Radulov behind the Leafs net, who in turn set up the all-star game-bound Seguin.
Toronto’s fourth goal was Gardiner’s third assist of the night and eighth in his streak, sending away Nylander and Matthews. For Matthews, it’s an NHL-best 39 road goals since the start of last season, as calculated by Sportsnet.
The time off now will be beneficial to the recovery of defencemen Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev, out with upper and lower body injuries, respectively. Zaitsev is skating after five weeks away and could rejoin practice Monday. It’s significant that Gardiner’s surge of points has come with Rielly out the past week.
Toronto is off until a home game against the Islanders on Wednesday, sitting with 61 points after 51 games and though the rest of the Atlantic Division has games in hand, the teams below the Leafs have a lot of ground to make up.