BOSTON—Auston Matthews is coming to life at just the right time.
Matthews opened the scoring with his fourth goal of the post-season, leading the Maple Leafs to a heart-stopping 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night.
The Leafs now lead the best-of-seven set three games to two, and can take their first series win since 2004 in Game 6 at home on Sunday.
“We’ve got an opportunity to close out this series in our rink,” said Matthews. “We’re excited. We’ve got to be ready to go.”
Matthews, who has scored in three straight games, scored a beauty in a tight game in which both sides played a conservative brand of heads-up defensive hockey. Playing on his off wing, Matthews one-timed a pass from Jake Muzzin at 11:33 of the third to break a scoreless tie.
The goal wasn’t without controversy, with the Bruins challenging for goaltender interference — arguing Zach Hyman had interfered with Tuukka Rask. Matthews has had more than his share of goals overturned by review in the regular season and was fearing the worst.
“I was just praying they were going to call it a good goal,” said Matthews. “There’s a lot going through your mind there. Haven’t had the best of luck as far as those go in my career. It’s nice to get one back. I’ll take one in the playoffs any day of the week instead of the regular season.”
Kasperi Kapanen scored the eventual winner at 13:45 of the third, as the winger showed signs of pulling out of his lengthy slump. He also assisted on Matthews’ goal.
“He’s found a way to score big goals in his life,” coach Mike Babcock said of Kapanen. “He’s got a swagger about him, some confidence.”
The Leafs needed the second goal when David Krejci scored with 44 seconds left — another one that withstood a review, this time for offside.
It was a pivotal game and both sides knew it. When a best-of-seven series is tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 has gone 205-55 (78.8 per cent), according to the NHL.
“The hardest game to win is the fourth game to put the other team out,” said Babcock. “It’s something we haven’t been able to do. It’s a process of learning how to do this. It’s all part of growing your group.”
The biggest concern for the Leafs coming in was their penalty kill. It had a few breakdowns leading to two Boston goals in the Bruins’ Game 4 win. Boston had won the special teams battle through the first four games, and the Leafs took time to work on it at the morning skate.
“Just be aware of everyone out there,” Leaf Mitch Marner said. “We talked a lot about how they score a lot off … dirty plays and they got a couple of those last game against us. We’ve just got to make sure we’re aware of everyone on the ice.”
The Leafs needed the penalty killing brush-up, killing one penalty in the first and two in the second. Boston took the only penalty of the third and killed it.
There wasn’t a lot of space out there, not a lot of risk taking, not a lot of mistakes. Players knew the stakes.
A scoreless first, all things considered, was a pretty good result for the Leafs. They had hope to get out to a fast start, take the lead — and take the rowdy TD Garden crowd out of the game. That was the plan, anyway. Boston had scored first in three of four games heading in.
The Leafs didn’t score in the first, but neither did Boston. Instead, most of the period was played in the Boston end. The Leafs didn’t exactly get many scoring chances — a Matthews deflection was their best — but they did everything else right.
Boston didn’t get much by way of sustained pressure until the 17-minute mark, on a power play after Zach Hyman was called for tripping. The Bruins looked good moving the puck, but Frederik Andersen made the stops while the likes of Frederik Gauthier and Marner made plays to break up Boston’s attack.
In a way, it was the period Babcock had envisioned.
“You want to have the puck as much as you possibly can. You want to spend as much time in the offensive zone as you can,” said Babcock. “That’s having the puck, that’s executing, that’s being heavy when you have it and keeping it and spending time in the offensive zone. I think, in particular when you go on the road, the first 10 minutes is even more critical. Good poise and execution early and be ready to play at a level that’s worthy of a game like this.”
The second was also scoreless, although there was a goal celebration after David Krejci thought he’d scored — it went off the iron. The period belonged to the Bruins, again thanks to two power plays, but Andersen was there to stop what was coming his way.
The best scoring chance for the Leafs belonged to Kapanen, a short-handed breakaway with Marner off for delay of game.
The Bruins got a pre-game boost when Sean Kuraly returned after missing five weeks with a fractured hand.
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran