UNIONDALE, N.Y. — One puck is being sent back to Sweden as a souvenir for mom.
The other sent the Toronto Maple Leafs back to the playoffs.
That the winner came off the stick of John Tavares, in a building where they only weeks ago tossed rubber snakes in his direction, guaranteed that this goal would be just as memorable as the first of teammate Calle Rosen’s NHL career.
“It’s a big one,” said Mitch Marner. “You could just tell our whole bench, everyone on the ice, was very excited about that moment. That’s a great shot by him. It’s great to see him score in this barn and get the game winner.”
There was something poetic about the way it all went down. The Nassau Coliseum crowd didn’t give Tavares anywhere near as rough a ride as they did for his first trip back on Feb. 28, nor did the New York Islanders make things quite so difficult on the Leafs while losing 2-1.
If that was a hard rock concert, this felt more like a night at the symphony.
And Toronto had every part of its game working in unison.
That’s not the way it’s been very often in the 31 days between trips to Uniondale — a humbling and briefly harrowing stretch where injuries and indifferent play backed the official playoff clincher into April. The Leafs didn’t earn their “x” until a few days after the Islanders already had, something even locals here wouldn’t have bet on when Tavares decided to come home as a free agent last summer.
Mike Babcock is viewing the delayed clinch as nothing more than pre-playoff character building, especially since he’s encouraged by how they’ve emerged on the other side. Against the Islanders, Toronto came out ahead in shots, attempts and chances — only leaning heavily on goaltender Frederik Andersen during a couple hairy moments at 4-on-5.
“I think what we’ve been through this last little bit — even though we’ve been playing better and better defensively, we haven’t been winning every night — I think it’s probably good for our group,” said Babcock.
It had to be good for Tavares to come back in this building and find a reason to smile. You could see the relief on his face as he left the visitor’s dressing room and walked towards the bus afterwards.
His goal came after Marner delivered the puck deftly to the slot. It was behind Robin Lehner within a second of touching his stick, the career-best 46th goal and 87th point of his headline-grabbing season.
“Mitch put it in a great spot where I could just kind of step into it and I liked what I saw,” said Tavares. “Just timed it right and I’m happy it went in.”
That’s exactly how Rosen felt, even he didn’t see his shot hit twine. The 25-year-old defenceman had waited a long time for a moment like this one — a wait made longer because of a foot injury in the American Hockey League that prevented him from being recalled for the Leafs’ last visit here, after Travis Dermott joined Jake Garinder in the injury ward.
This was Rosen’s first NHL game since Oct. 17, 2017 and he played it alongside the now-healthy Dermott, his former Marlies teammate. He felt much more confident than his previous four-game cameo with the Leafs.
“It’s almost two seasons since I had the last game,” he said. “All the games I played with Marlies, all on the small ice, have helped for sure. …
“I know myself. I kind of felt that I had it in me today.”
His goal opened the scoring on an innocent-looking shot that appeared to glance off the shaft of Michael Dal Colle’s stick. It completely fooled Lehner.
“I think it hit the stick or something and then maybe bounced on the ice and the post, too,” said Rosen. “So I can’t say I’m completely sure how it went in but, for sure, a good feeling.”
He found an excited text from his mother Marie, who stayed up deep into the Swedish night to watch the game. He plans to send the puck back to her home in Vaxjo for safekeeping.
28 Likes, 12 Comments – Marie Rosen (@marierosen) on Instagram: “Yes”
If the previous stop on Long Island seemed to hint of trouble brewing for the Leafs, this one felt like a choppy sea calmed. Tavares was arguably the most effective player on the ice. Andersen allowed one goal or less for the first time since Feb. 4, a span of 21 starts. And they’re getting healthy and adding depth just as they’ve booked another first-round series with Boston.
“It’s great to punch your ticket,” said Tavares. “You work so hard all year to give yourself a chance and to be a part of it.”
Now Babcock has the luxury of resting regulars over the final three games of the regular season and everyone inside the organization can exhale for a brief moment.
“Finally,” said Andersen. “We took a few tries to clinch it, but obviously, it’s great to be back in the playoffs. Hopefully we can get revenge from last year.”
A fair thought after seeing No. 91 exact a small measure of his own.