TORONTO – For Auston Matthews and Co., it was a chance to put a bad outing in Boston behind them. But it was also an opportunity to test their nerve against an opponent looking to take a pound of flesh along with two points.
"They’re a big, physical team, and they like to get the puck in deep and wear you down," Matthews said of the Anaheim Ducks. "When we broke out fast and just got the puck back behind them, we were able to kind of control the play."
They were undeterred – by flying bodies, by recent form, by the sight of Frederik Andersen leaving the game with injury.
The Matthews line pulled the Toronto Maple Leafs into the battle on Monday night and made sure they walked away with a 7-4 victory. That came with a measure of satisfaction given the surrounding circumstances.
"It was a bounce-back game and [when] we were able to dominate like we did today, I think you’re very happy," said William Nylander, with a nod to Matthews and Zach Hyman.
"We got a response when we needed it," added head coach Mike Babcock. "Matty’s line had a huge night."
The Leafs certainly needed it. They had no head-to-head answer for Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rackell. The Ducks No. 1 line chewed through shutdown centre Nazem Kadri and basically anything else Babcock tossed their way.
"They were eating us alive, right?" he said.
Toronto’s big boys bit back.
They tilted the ice on a night where it was an uphill battle for everyone else in blue and white. Matthews faked Ryan Miller out on the opening goal before Nylander scored the first of his two breakaway beauties. Matthews then added an insurance marker.
Each of the goals arrived against the run of play, allowing the Leafs to claw back at points where Anaheim seemed to be taking over. They proved to be more than Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg could handle.
"They played against a real good checking line and they didn’t affect them," said Babcock. "That line tried to be physical with them early, and they didn’t let that bother them. They just played."
It was a solid test for the sophomores who were left frustrated by their performance against the Bruins two nights earlier. Patrice Bergeron helped hand Matthews his worst game possession-wise as an NHLer in the 4-1 loss.
That didn’t sit particularly well with the Leafs centre, who faced persistent questions about it before facing the Ducks and eventually responded: "We don’t have to keep talking about Saturday."
He then went about burying it in everyone’s memory.
With the Leafs about to enter the stretch run, they are hoping for Matthews and Nylander to find another gear. A game like this certainly makes it seem possible. Nylander was strong on the puck all night long against the Ducks and made no mistake when Jake Gardiner sent him in alone with a gorgeous 100-foot pass and the score tied 4-4.
The puck rolled slightly but he still beat Miller for the eventual winner.
"I saw that [Gardiner] was looking at me, so I thought it was going to come through," said Nylander. "It was nice, it landed perfectly on the tape. Amazing pass.
"I don’t think I’ve had two breakaway goals in a game since I was a little kid."
It helped ease some of the short-term sting after seeing Andersen take Perry’s left skate in the head and leave the game in the 34th minute.
The contact appeared accidental as Perry went airborne amid a drive across the top of the crease, but it could prove significant given Andersen’s history of neck and head issues. The Leafs starter stayed down for some time before skating to the dressing room under his own power and being replaced by Curtis McElhinney.
Babcock offered no update on Andersen’s condition afterwards.
With Matt Martin on a stretch of healthy scratches and Kasperi Kapanen playing well in his place, the Leafs aren’t the type of team looking to flex their muscles when the temperature rises. Instead, they just hope to show that their skill players don’t run away and hide.
"I thought we responded really well to that," said Matthews. "We knew coming into the game how it was going to be. They’re a big physical team so that’s the way games are played sometimes. That’s the way the games are during the playoffs."
Those games may still be two months away, but the Leafs can be excused for looking ahead given the wonky Atlantic Division standings.
They clearly saw this as a test passed.
"I think Anaheim has a really good team," said Babcock. "You’ve got to see what you can do against good teams to really measure yourself and winning 7-4 isn’t how you draw it up, but it was nice to win.
"Let’s keep getting better."