TORONTO â€” Third-period leads haven’t always turned out well for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, but they managed to protect a big one on Thursday night.
Frederik Andersen came up with 36 saves, including 19 in the final 20 minutes, as the Leafs edged out the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 and jumped â€” at least temporarily â€” back into the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto now has 74 points â€” one behind the New York Islanders, who beat the Canucks 4-3 in overtime in Vancouver later that night to reclaim the wild-card spot.
“We know what we had to do â€” we came out and did it so it’s a good feeling,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said.
The win was the Leafs second straight after a slide of five in a row. It also kept a fellow competitor in the playoff chase from gaining ground, the Flyers entering the night just two points back.
It was the protection of a third-period lead that was otherwise notable in victory.
The Leafs have dropped an NHL-leading 10 games when leading after two periods (now 24-1-9), just hanging on to beat the Detroit Red Wings two nights earlier after racing out to a 3-0 lead. The club kept pushing with a 2-1 lead on Thursday, the trio of Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov and Connor Brown generating a number of early third-period opportunities.
Andersen shined too with a big stop of Claude Giroux on a Philadelphia power play.
“I don’t think we were passive,” said Kadri, who scored his 28th goal of the year in the win. “I think we had a ton of scoring chances and were able to put pressure on their D and just wear them down physically. We just tried to get as many hits as we could and play in the offensive zone as much as possible and I really think that did the job.”
“I think that we continued to go after them,” added Rielly. “We continued to try to play offence, not sit back, execute plays and just continue to work hard.”
Among the younger teams in the league with little experience in a playoff chase beyond a handful of veterans, Rielly said the Leafs were still learning how to defend leads adequately.
Mitch Marner finally upped the team’s cushion to 3-1 on a power play, his 16th goal and 53rd point of the season. Fellow rookie William Nylander got Toronto on the board in the first, his ninth power-play goal of the year not only evening the score at one after Wayne Simmonds gave the Flyers the early lead, but equalling a franchise rookie record for power-play goals in one season.
The 20-year-old leads the Leafs and all NHL rookies with 21 power-play points this season, now just four points from matching Dan Daoust for another franchise rookie mark. Aimless for much of the advantage, Nylander quickly changed his team’s course by whipping a shot from the right faceoff circle by Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
Tyler Bozak scored the go-ahead goal near the midway point of the second, picking the puck free from Sean Couturier along the boards before wheeling through the slot and beating Neuvirth. The play followed two huge stops at the other end by Andersen, first on Brayden Schenn and then Michael Del Zotto quickly thereafter.
Andersen has picked up his play after struggling through January and February. He owns a .938 save percentage through three starts in March.
“Just the calm presence he has when he’s making those scrambling, big saves â€” he makes it look so easy and we feed off of that,” Bozak said.
Bozak, who added an assist in the win along with his 16th goal, was questionable to even play. He didn’t skate on Thursday morning and was listed as a game-time decision â€” perhaps bothered by a finger injury that forced him out of one game late last month.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock thought his team was more “assertive” in the final frame against the Flyers. He wasn’t pleased, however, with his team’s defence in the waning moments of regulation, Shayne Gostisbehere bringing Philadelphia back to within one with the net empty.
Andersen had to make three stops before Kadri iced it for the two-goal victory.
Following the similarly close call over Detroit on Tuesday Babcock said his team lacked the stability of a veteran group “who has been through it before, someone goes out and calms everyone down and just makes a play.”
“We don’t,” he said. “It’s like a feeding frenzy.”
The Leafs will have to protect plenty more leads if they’re to secure just their second playoff berth since 2004, now with just 16 games remaining.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press