We’ll wager a few of the fathers in attendance Tuesday night in New York once drove their future NHLers to many early morning, long-distance road rinks.
So the Maple Leafs didn’t want to disappoint their dads — and assorted brothers and others — in the team’s annual re-bonding trip. No matter if they’d lost in overtime the night before, a flu bug was ravaging the room and they were facing the Metro-leading Rangers with Martin Jones making his first start.
“You want to play hard every single night, but if your dad’s in the crowd, it’s a little more motivation,” Mitch Marner, credited with the winner in taking down the Rangers 7-3, told media in New York. “It’s for what they’ve done your whole life and what your family means to you.”
Fathers, faceoffs, goals and goaltending gave the Leafs three of four points on the trip and handed the Rangers only their third home-ice loss this season, while Toronto has a record of 9-1-3 in its past 13 contests.
Auston Matthews scored two, giving him the NHL lead with 21, pending other games Tuesday, reaching at least 20 in all eight of his NHL seasons.
Jones made 28 saves, having not gone a full night since last April for Seattle and now counted on alongside Ilya Samsonov with Joseph Woll gone week to week with a high-ankle sprain.
“Definitely some nerves before, but once you get into the game and the boys are playing well, you start to settle in,” Jones said. “New York has a good power play (it struck once), they’re good in transition and it’s tough to contain them for a full 60 minutes, but we ground it out.”
Harvey Jones was making his first Leafs trip, coming in from B.C. to see his son, and lucked out.
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The Leafs bested the NHL’s top faceoff club on the night, David Kampf winning seven of nine, while Matthews and Max Domi won twice in the dots to provide multi-goal leads. As Toronto flirted with blowing a 4-1 lead early in the third period, Matthews got it back to Morgan Rielly, whose point shot was tipped by Marner.
Domi and Calle Jarnkrok did likewise in the first, working the puck back to defenceman Conor Timmins for his first of the year.
The Rangers came into the match tops in faceoff percentage at 55.7%, Toronto third at 53.6%. At 63.7%, the Rangers’ Vincent Trocheck topped all NHLers who had taken at least 400 faceoffs with Toronto’s John Tavares second at 62.8%.
The difficulty of playing back to back increased when left-winger Matthew Knies caught the worst of the flu bug going around the room and couldn’t start. Coach Sheldon Keefe elected to use Max Lajoie as a seventh defenceman, while promoting Noah Gregor to Knies’s spot with Matthews and William Nylander and replacing Ryan Reaves with Bobby McMann.
“That was a pretty emotional game last night,” Matthews said of Tavares getting his 1,000th regular season point on Rielly’s goal with seven seconds in regulation, before Toronto lost in overtime. “Fighting for one point and then coming back tonight against a very good team, it’s so nice to finish the trip off with two points and the dads make it extra special.”
Highly criticized for poor line changes this season that led to several bench minors, the Leafs seamlessly switched to their best players during an early delayed New York penalty. With Jones pulled for an extra man, Nylander drew four Rangers his way and fed Matthews, who added another late in the game, as did Kampf with an empty netter.
Consecutive shots produced a big rebound for Jarnkrok’s second point of the first period and Marner added his seventh point the past six games, uncontested after finishing a Matthews setup. It was Toronto’s most productive period this season.
After playing a near-perfect road period in the second, the Leafs gave up two in two minutes. Mika Zibanejad struck late on a power play and Blake Wheeler broke free after Nylander set up McMann on a 3-on-2, Igor Shesterkin stopping McMann’s long-awaited first NHL goal.
Jones and Ilya Samsonov will still both be busy as the Leafs still have eight games in December to get through without Woll.
Keefe said before the game he was grateful Jones had survived the training camp waiver wire, which had not been kind to the team’s goaltending depth in recent years.
“I’m sure he’s excited, but he isn’t going to get too fazed,” Keefe said. “He’ll just be ready to take advantage of his opportunity, rely on things he’s done through his career. That’s the beauty of having an NHL goalie.
“We debated how (the rotation) would look with three games in four nights and usually we wait until the first game (Samsonov’s shutout of Nashville).”
For just the eighth time since the Islanders joined the Rangers in the NHL more than 50 years ago, the Leafs played them back-to-back on the road. In capturing the closer, the Leafs avoided getting swept on the trip, which had only happened once — in 1982.
Though there was little time for Tavares to bask in his 1,000th point Monday, teammates were ecstatic for the captain.
The Leafs had pre-game permission from the league to empty their bench whenever Tavares hit the magic number and that he assisted on Rielly’s goal with seven ticks in regulation against his Islanders draft team was perfect, even if they lost 53 seconds into overtime.
There was some confusion as the Leafs’ leadership group, who’d lobbied for the on-ice recognition, were already out there and the rest had to be coaxed to come over.
“Pretty wild,” Nylander told reporters on Tuesday morning. “It kind of felt before the draw that (the point) was going to happen. Everyone was so fired up. Initially, I didn’t know the puck hit his skate, but once the celly started, I understood. It was lots of fun.”
Defenceman Jake McCabe also commented: “He’s Mr. Consistent every year. You can learn a lot from the way he takes care of himself. Really special to see a guy like that rewarded with 1,000 points.”