Maple Leafs survive sloppy post-holidays affair to keep winning ways alive

William Nylander scored the winner and added two assists, John Tavares picked up three points and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the New Jersey Devils 5-4.

NEWARK, N.J. – The eggnog cartons may well be drained. What scraps of turkey remaining might only amount to a sad sandwich. And surely the presents are all unwrapped, if not already returned for more desirable presents.

Yet the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils appeared half-stuck in a Christmastime hibernation Friday, both sides looking like they’d thoroughly enjoyed three whole days away from hockey to refresh their minds and reheat their leftovers.

A time to get fat and merry.

“When you’re at home, you’re eating a lot of food, you’re gaining a couple pounds,” Mitch Marner said. “It’s time to get back to work now.”

Even the most responsible among us fail to be at our sharpest on the first day back at the office after a vacation.

In the end, it was Toronto that made one error fewer, seizing the final lead change, defeating New Jersey 5-4 in overtime, and extending its win streak to six games — the Leafs’ longest heater since Nov. 6-18, 2017.

They don’t ask how; they ask how many. (Spoiler alert: If you’re a Jersey fan, you might not even want to read how.)

“We’re just gonna toss this one out,” said Sheldon Keefe. “Not a lot to like about our game today, obviously. But it’s Dec. 27 here, and we got two points on the road.”

Nico Hischier pumped the Devils on the board first when he was given plenty of time smack in the slot to take a Jesper Bratt pass and let loose a wicked two-bars-and-in wrister that zinged past Michael Hutchinson with a resounding clang.

That the goal was just the second on the season for New Jersey’s top-line centre speaks volumes of their campaign, but not nearly as much as the winner would.

Rookie Ilya Mikheyev tipped a John Tavares point blast through Mackenzie Blackwood, triggering a “Go! Leafs! Go!” chant on enemy ice and making an early case for coach Keefe’s new-look Mikheyev-Tavares–William Nylander line.

But instead of stomping the throat of a weaker opponent, the Leafs gave Jersey a foothold to climb to life.

Granted a 5-on-3 power-play early in the second frame due to sloppy infractions by Marner (tripping) and Jake Muzzin (puck over the glass), the Devils needed just nine seconds to knot the contest at two, thanks to Nikita Gusev slamming home a juicy rebound.

Kasperi Kapanen restored Toronto’s lead with a beautiful far-side snipe off the rush, snuffing out his longest goal drought of the season at 11 games.

“That’s textbook for him, coming down the wing and using that speed, putting pressure on the opponent and creating space for himself,” Tavares noted.

Kyle Palmieri, who registered three points, retorted for the Devils — a result of some own-zone mismanagement by Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie.

That blueline duo — and Hutchinson behind them — was quickly victimized again, this time by Jesper Bratt on a 2-on-1, and the Devils rallied to gain a 4-3 advantage that never felt secure.

To be sure, the sloppiness and stream of scoring chances (66 all told) by both clubs had all the feel of a holiday hangover. An unlucky 13 high-danger chances were gifted at each end. As Hutchinson said, the “puck luck” has simply started to turn his way.

“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,” Hutchinson said. “You expect that you might see some good quality scoring chances.”

Due to the CBA’s mandated Boxing Day off, the Leafs, in particular, had an atypical workday. They conducted a morning skate in Toronto before trying to catch some sleep on a charter to Newark.

“It just gets you out of your routine. Hockey players can be animals of habit,” said Barrie, hoping the schedule tweak could provide a mental test.

Well, at least it saved a hotel bill and reminded Toronto that even when things turn bad, they don’t turn Jersey bad.

The Devils cut their own third-period power-play opportunity short when they got caught with six skaters on the ice, and Tavares redirected a Nylander shot to tie it up again on Toronto’s ensuing power play.

Asked the last time he saw a team get penalized for going 6-on-4, Tavares was stumped.

“I’m not complaining,” he replied.

Hockey is a game of mistakes, to be sure, but seldom are they this frequent, this amplified.

How fitting, then, that overtime concluded with a Damon Seveson own-goal, last touched by Nylander, who wasn’t eager to talk to a scrum of reporters about a game-winner he didn’t actually shoot into the net.

So he and the Leafs bolted back to their airplane a few hours after it had touched down to fly home, forget, and rest up for Frederik Andersen’s start against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

“Yeah, I’m going to throw this one out for the most part, frankly,” Keefe said. “Start fresh tomorrow.”

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