Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock admitted his team wasn’t very good Thursday night after squeezing out a 4-3 shootout victory over the New York Islanders.
And his players know things could become more difficult moving forward if they have to deal with another absence due to injury from Auston Matthews.
Matthews scored the game-tying goal with 3:29 remaining in the third, but left with 1:06 to go in regulation favouring his right shoulder after being sandwiched by Adam Pelech and Cal Clutterbuck. He did not return for overtime or the shootout.
“Clearly he’s a big part of our team and going down the stretch we’re going to need him so hopefully it’s not too bad,” said Nazem Kadri.
The 20-year-old missed six games in December with a concussion as the Leafs went 2-4 without Matthews in the lineup. He missed another four games in November with an undisclosed upper-body injury.
Babcock didn’t give much of an update and said the team would know more about Matthews’ status on Friday at practice. Toronto concludes its three-game home stand on Saturday against the Boston Bruins.
Tyler Bozak scored the winner in the first round of the shootout while Mitchell Marner and Morgan Rielly had the other Maple Leafs goals. Frederik Andersen stopped 32 shots in the win.
“Obviously, we weren’t very good,” said Babcock. “Anybody who watches us regularly knows that we weren’t that good. Saw it coming yesterday in practice, talked about it then and our preparation wasn’t good enough.”
Toronto (38-20-5) has now won eight straight at home, the ninth time in franchise history the Maple Leafs have had a home win streak of eight-plus games and the first since the 2006-07 season.
Bozak beat Halak high blocker side for his third game-deciding shootout goal of the season. He is tied for first the league in shootout winners.
“He is unbelievable at it. I mean he always talks and jokes about it, how good he was back in the day and he still hasn’t lost that touch,” Marner said of Bozak. “He’s been great for us in that category, but I mean I think we’ve got to stop going that route. Thankfully we have him or else we might be in trouble.”
Ryan Pulock, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle scored for the Islanders (29-26-7) while Jaroslav Halak turned aside 28 shots in the loss. New York, which entered the night a point out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, drops to 4-6-2 since the all-star break and is now 13-15-3 on the road this season.
With his three points, Barzal has a team-leading 65 points and a 14-point lead over Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL’s rookie scoring race.
The Coquitlam, B.C. native has eight games with three or more points this season, which is just one shy of Bryan Trottier for the franchise record by an Islanders rookie.
“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t score (in overtime). It’s unfortunate to lose that extra point. It sucks right now, especially at this time of year,” Barzal said.
“We weren’t shy to push the pace early. (Clutterbuck) and (Casey Cizikas) finishing checks early kind of set the tone for the rest of us. I thought we played a pretty good game.”
Pulock opened the scoring at 8:39 of the first, one timing a Thomas Hickey feed past Andersen, who appeared out of position on the play after Eberle bumped into him. Barzal picked up the secondary assist.
The Islanders rookie then doubled New York’s lead, backhanding the rebound off Anthony Beauvillier’s shot past Andersen for his 13th goal of the season at 11:48.
Marner got the Leafs on the board at 17:39. After picking up a feed from Kadri, he showed patience while waiting for Halak to make the first move, and then beat the Islanders goaltender between the pads for his 15th of the season. The goal gives Marner 10 in his last 16 games.
Moments after the Islanders hit the post twice, Rielly tied it 2-2 after taking a Connor Brown pass and beating Halak high glove side for his sixth of the season at 1:28 of the third.
New York responded 99-seconds later as Eberle’s centring pass directed off Nikita Zaitsev’s skate and past Andersen. Barzal registered the primary assist on Eberle’s 21st of the season.