TORONTO — These were the games, Mike Babcock said, that good teams found a way to win and indeed, his emerging Toronto Maple Leafs did just that on a record-setting Thursday night.
Playing on the second half of a back-to-back against one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Leafs managed to pull out their seventh win in the last nine games (7-1-1), a 4-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. The win gave Toronto (85 points) a three-point cushion over Boston (82) for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand.
The Leafs, who beat Columbus on Wednesday night, are only five points back of Ottawa (88) for second.
"I think you have to learn how to win these games over and over again," Babcock said of the win over the Devils, who haven't won on the road since Feb. 4. "You just expect it. It doesn't matter if it's back-to-back. It doesn't matter where you played. It doesn't matter who you play. You expect to win."
The victory was fuelled once again by the Leafs' rookie class with Auston Matthews and William Nylander both notching two points apiece.
Rolling especially since the start of February, Nylander set a new franchise rookie record by extending his points streak to 10 games — during which he's registered four goals and eight assists. His first point of the night, a helper on Josh Leivo's power-play goal, also gave him 25 power-play points this season to draw even with Dan Daoust for the franchise rookie mark (1982-83).
Keith Kinkaid stopped Matthews's initial attempt from the right face-off circle, but struggled to smother the rebound, Leivo stuffing it into the goal. Leivo, who also drew the penalty that led to the man advantage, was getting his first chance to play since Feb. 28 after 10 straight healthy scratches.
Leivo stepped into the lineup for Eric Fehr, who had surgery for his hand, according to Babcock, and will be out indefinitely.
All this came after Curtis McElhinney allowed a weak first goal to John Moore less than three minutes into the opening frame.
It was later in the period, following a handoff from Matthews, that Nylander snapped his 21st goal of the year. He has 11 goals and 25 points since Feb. 1 to lead the Leafs, totalling 56 points on the season.
"Willy's obviously been playing lights out lately," Matthews said. "He's been playing unbelievable."
Rookies continued to dent the Leafs' record book early in the second. Coming down the right side Mitch Marner fired a shot off the right pad of Kinkaid that kicked straight to James van Riemsdyk, who promptly banged in his 23rd goal of the year for the 3-1 lead. Marner notched his 40th assist of the season to equal Gus Bodnar's rookie mark for assists (1943-44).
Matthews, meanwhile, remains one goal from matching Wendel Clark's rookie franchise record of 34 and six points from tying Peter Ihnacak's rookie franchise mark for points (66). His two points against the Devils gave the 19-year-old the third-highest scoring season ever from a Leafs rookie, trailing only Ihnacak and Bodnar (62).
"We've got so many of us so I think all of us can feed off each other going through similar things," Matthews said of the Leafs rookies. "Especially towards this part of the season where your body's wearing down and we're fighting for a spot in the playoffs."
Tyler Bozak also picked up an assist on the van Riemsdyk goal to establish a new career-high with 50 points. Connor Brown, another rookie, scored his 17th goal of the year into an empty net.
The Leafs have picked up 15 of a possible 18 points since dropping their fifth game in a row on March 3, their chances at only a second playoff berth since 2004 rising. Babcock has been checking the standings daily after avoiding a look even once last season when the club finished last in the NHL.
He cared little when his team peaked.
"We just want to get in," Babcock said.
A veteran who's been to two Stanley Cup finals, 32-year-old Brian Boyle wanted to ensure that his team (filled with youth beyond just the rookies) didn't slow up with nine games to go, even as a playoff spot appeared more and more like a reality.
"We don't have a checkmark next to our name yet..." Boyle said. "We haven't clinched anything. We've got a long way to go."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press