The Maple Leafs talked about being rusty after the Christmas break, but they really looked like themselves: The same high-octane offence overcoming the same sloppy giveaways. The same deer-in-the-headlights defence leaving their goalie to fend for himself.
But now they’ve added a new element: The ability to rally from a deficit in the third period.
A game-tying goal by John Tavares in the third and a lucky overtime marker by William Nylander gave the Maple Leafs a 5-4 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night at the Prudential Center. It was their season-high sixth win in a row.
It was only the second time this season — also the second game in a row — that they have won despite trailing heading into the third period.
“Resilience is a good word to describe it,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’ve shown some of that really throughout the last little bit, being a resilient team. Not a lot to like about our game today, obviously, but you know it’s Dec. 27 here and we got two points on the road. So, we’ll take it and get on the plane and recognize we’ve got to get a lot better.”
- Fears for Mikheyev: The win came with a cost. The Leafs finished the game without Ilya Mikheyev, who sped to the dressing room after taking a skate to a bare part of his right wrist midway through the third period. It took some time for the blood on the ice to be scraped away. Mikheyev went straight to hospital with what the team called “a significant laceration.”
“He’s got a deep cut,” Keefe told reporters after the game. “We’ll have to get it sorted out, but he’s going to stay here in New Jersey (overnight), get evaluated and we’ll have to figure out what needs to be done.”
Mikheyev’s health was the priority for Tavares.
“First and foremost, we’re thinking about (Mikheyev) and hopefully he’s OK,” the Leafs captain said. “It was obviously scary there, seeing that much blood. Obviously, a guy that we care deeply about and was having a great night and playing tremendous for us, so thoughts are with him. I think even after that, emotionally that can hit you a little bit when you see something that can be as dangerous as something like that.”
The Leafs were already without forwards Trevor Moore (concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg). They had called up forward Adam Brooks, who was a healthy scratch.
- The goals: The winner — credited to Nylander, capping a three-point night — was a heartbreaker for the Devils: an own goal by defenceman Damon Severson.
Tavares had tied a wide-open game with the Leafs’ second power-play goal of the night. He was unmolested in front of goalie Mackenzie Blackwood and redirected a pass from Nylander to tie the see-saw battle 4-4. Tavares has collected at least three points in consecutive games for the seventh time in his career.
Zach Hyman, Mikheyev and Kasperi Kapanen also scored for the Maple Leafs. Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev scored for the Devils.
- Hutch ado: Leafs backup goalie Michael Hutchinson notched his second win in his last two starts, and is a career 4-0-0 against the Devils. It wasn’t easy. The Leafs’ top defensive pair made weak clearing plays. There were giveaways that led routinely to two-on-ones. They took two penalties five seconds apart, leading to a two-man advantage. They really can’t blame it on being tired as they have in the past when Hutchinson played the second of back-to-backs. Everyone on both sides had three days’ rest. Hutchinson, who made 24 saves, said he expected some wide-open play.
“When players have a few days off — and us having to travel the same day — sometimes it takes a little bit for the players to get into the game and get back into good habits and stuff,” he said. “You expect that you might see some good quality scoring chances. But you know at the same time the other team is in the same boat. They have the same amount of days off. So, knowing our skill, you knew that we were going to get some good looks as well and we got some good scoring chances and buried quite a few.”
- Unusual day: Teams are usually required to be in the city they’re visiting on the evening before. But for games on Dec. 27 — the first after the mandatory three-day Christmas break — the road team can start the day at home. The Leafs did, having their morning skate at the Ford Performance Centre. It meant breaking up routines, but it seemed like the right thing to do. “We talked about a number of different options,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “But we thought given the restrictions of the CBA and the logistics of travelling, having one place here to get organized … would be the best thing for us. There’s no ideal situation.”
- First strike: When Hischier opened the scoring at 4:33 with quick wrist shot that hit both posts before going into the net, it ended a streak of eight games in which the Leafs had scored first. They have still opened the scoring in 12 of 16 games under Keefe, after five of 23 under Mike Babcock. A power-play goal by Hyman and quick follow-up goal from Mikheyev had the Leafs up 2-1 by the time the first period ended. To their “start-on-time” credit, they have not trailed at the end of the first period under Keefe.
Get more sports in your inbox
Get the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter for a daily round-up of the latest big news.
- Moore misery: Moore, who had just returned from a shoulder injury, is now out with a concussion. “No timeline on him,” said Keefe. “We’ve just going to have to see how things go with him. It’s unfortunate. He’s put in so much work to come back you know from his shoulder injury and we were excited to have him back but these things happen.”
- Notables: Hyman has points in three consecutive games (3-4-7) and has scored six of his nine goals on the road … Nylander has eight points (4-4-8) over his last five games.
- Up next: The Leafs host the New York Rangers, Saturday at 7 p.m. Both teams will be finishing back-to-backs. The Rangers beat the Hurricanes 5-3 on Friday. Frederik Andersen is expected to start in goal for the Leafs.