Leafs respond with big-time performance against Islanders

Auston Matthews scored two of Toronto’s seven goals as the Maple Leafs beat the New York Islanders 7-1.

TORONTO – Every so often the message is tailor-made for the moment.

They’ve taken to playing an updated version of Tim Thompson’s stirring “Maple Leafs Forever” montage during the second intermission at Air Canada Centre.

This one splices together Mitch Marner’s running man celebration and Auston Matthews’ overtime winner in the Centennial Classic and a shot of Dave Keon from the night his No. 14 went to the rafters – all set against the section of Ron Hawkins’ “Peace and Quiet” where the refrain repeats: “This time, we’ll get it right.”

A game against the New York Islanders still hung in the balance when that echoed through the arena on Tuesday night. Then the Leafs exploded for a 7-1 victory that sent a reaffirming shot of belief through the NHL’s youngest dressing room.

“I think when we do the right things we’re definitely a tough team to play against,” said Matthews.

It had become a soul-searching time in these parts, what with the Leafs having won just two of eight heading in while showing some new cracks.

First, head coach Mike Babcock changed the slogan in the dressing room and then he switched up the routine. The Leafs players were kept off the ice ahead of Tuesday’s game and may now find themselves laying waste to the morning skate entirely because of the way it worked out.

“The scary thing about is the players think the optional is for them,” said Babcock. “They have no idea the coach likes it better than anybody.”

The key indicators all seem to point to this organization hosting playoff games following an 82-game season this spring for the first time since 2004. But a period of futility like the one experienced here requires a little extra evidence before most will believe the fog has truly lifted.

This Leafs team sits 12th in points percentage, 11th in score-adjusted Corsi, 14th in team save percentage and sixth in goals per game.

It boasts strong specialty teams and four players among the NHL’s top-40 point producers.

Matthews is tied for fourth overall with 27 goals after scoring a pair against Islanders starter Thomas Greiss, and won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until next fall. He’s on pace to become the first NHL rookie to score 40 since Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06.

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In their wildest dreams, who could have comfortably predicted that?

“Obviously you know he’s a real good player, but you don’t know … the NHL’s a really good league,” said Babcock. “It’s hard to score goals in this league. Obviously he plays on a good line and he’s an elite player and he’s very determined with a heavy shot and goes to the hard areas, the traffic areas.

“That’s where you score.”

A loss to New York would have dropped the Leafs out of playoff position and there seemed to be a little extra buzz in the old barn. Some of it was fuelled by a dubious penalty shot awarded late in the second period – veteran forward Jason Chimera buried his attempt to make it 3-1 – and you couldn’t help but wonder how Toronto would respond over the final 20 minutes.

After all, this team was a few degrees off since returning from the all-star break. With the composite parts seemingly working out of rhythm, the watch had stopped keeping proper time.

“You go through lulls, you go through ups and downs,” Matthews explained.

The roadmap back to success was relatively straightforward.

“Making sure we’re playing our structure,” he said. “Not giving the other team space, not kind of falling into the type of style other teams are playing. Make sure we’re playing our type of game, which is … playing fast, getting the puck in deep and wearing down their D.”

It was exactly what they did during a third period where they chased Greiss for Jean-Francois Berube while scoring four times on 20 shots. The Leafs put the pedal down and left no doubt.

That allowed Babcock to spread around the ice time and keep his skaters fresh for Wednesday’s visit to Columbus. He’ll start backup Curtis McElhinney after watching Frederik Andersen look completely dialed-in against New York.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season, the Leafs will need to make a smart push for the finish. The players are constantly reminded about the importance of nutrition and hydration and proper rest, according to veteran centre Nazem Kadri.

They have put themselves in an ideal position – just one point back of Ottawa for second place in the Atlantic Division. But the schedule offers very few opportunities to reflect and regroup down the stretch.

“It’s intense, it’s fun,” said Kadri. “These are the type of opportunities that you relish. This is where good teams and good players come to play.”

Maybe this time they’ll get it right.

Never say never.

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