TORONTO — Filip Forsberg’s first career hat trick helped the Predators continue their dominance of Canadian NHL teams on Tuesday night.
The 21-year-old’s three-goal performance proved the difference for Nashville in holding off the young and feisty Toronto Maple Leafs in a 3-2 victory at the Air Canada Centre.
The Predators improved to 11-1-3 in their last 15 games against teams based in Canada, while also picking up points on the road for the ninth-straight game (7-0-2) — the longest such stretch in franchise history.
Nashville has outscored Canadian foes 47-28 during the 15-game string of dominance. They won Tuesday without captain Shea Weber, who is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Weber played nearly 29 minutes in Montreal on Monday night.
Forsberg, who had a hat trick in the playoffs last spring but never before in the regular season, is enjoying a dominant February with nine goals in 11 games. The 11th overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft has 23 goals this season, overtaking James Neal for control of the team lead with Tuesday’s performance.
He scored in a variety of fashions against the Maple Leafs.
Forsberg broke free of the Toronto defence for his first goal, beating James Reimer in alone on an early first period power play. He added his second when Craig Smith lifted a Reimer hand-off behind the Leafs net, sneaking a shot through the goaltender’s pads. He completed the hat trick with a point shot rebound.
“It was great,” Forsberg said of the three-goal night. “It obviously put our team in a good spot (at) 3-0 and obviously it was all that we needed for tonight.”
He credited Mike Ribeiro, his centreman of late, for his February surge.
Nashville, which holds the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference, last lost in regulation on the road Jan. 12. The club is 9-3-3 in its last 15 games overall, holding off a furious last stand from the Leafs, who continue to languish with an ever-depleted and increasingly young lineup.
Toronto went down 3-0 before inching their way back. The club won a coach’s challenge on a Ryan Ellis goal that was deemed to be offside and then scored twice in the third period on goals from Josh Leivo and Morgan Rielly. Leivo now has goals in three straight games.
They would come no closer, boasting an impressive performance no less, one that saw them control possession for much of the night.
Due to trades, injuries and suspension, the Leafs lineup has veered younger with minimal NHL experience.
All six defencemen that played against the Predators were 25-years-old or younger. Jake Gardiner, 25, was the most experienced of the bunch with 301 career NHL games. Rielly, 21, was second on that list with more than 200 games in the league.
“These young guys, including myself, have a chance to grow, have a chance to get more responsibility and play in more situations and I think it’s going to help us out in the long run,” said Rielly, who played nearly 26 minutes against Nashville.
In addition to youth on defence, Toronto also added 21-year-old Brendan Leipsic to its lineup — playing his second NHL game.
Leipsic, in particular, caught the eye of Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
“I think he’s got some quickness, he’s not scared, he has the puck, he makes plays in small areas, seems to want to play,” Babcock said of the former Predators draft pick who played nearly 18 minutes.
Gone after trades are Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, Roman Polak and Dion Phaneuf, while injuries have sidelined the likes of James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and leading minute-muncher Matt Hunwick, among others.
Leo Komarov, Toronto’s leading scorer, also sat out the second game of a three-game suspension Tuesday. The 29-year-old is expected to return Saturday when the Maple Leafs visit the Canadiens in Montreal.
The Maple Leafs have lost 16 of their last 20 games (4-13-3) and sit last in the NHL with 50 points.
Carter Hutton stopped 25-of-27 shots to earn the win in net for the Predators while James Reimer made 23 saves for Toronto. Reimer has allowed 19 goals in his last five starts, holding an .823 save percentage in that stretch.