TORONTO — Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was annoyed with his power play.
Minus injured star Auston Matthews, the NHL's seventh-ranked unit had flubbed its way through three earlier opportunities and a big chunk of a four-minute man advantage in the dying moments of a tie game.
One dynamite sequence flipped the script.
Mitch Marner scored on a power play with 1:15 left in regulation Wednesday as Toronto defeated the Nashville Predators 2-1 on a night where both goaltenders stole the show.
The winger took a terrific feed from William Nylander, who sold a shot on the lights-out Juuse Saros, before taking a second to gather himself and bury his 16th goal of the season after a Nashville defender broke his stick.
"It was ugly, but won us the hockey game," Keefe said of the power play. "So coach is gonna keep his mouth shut."
John Tavares added a goal and an assist as Toronto (26-9-7) won its third straight game. Nylander chipped in with two assists, while the impressive Matt Murray made 32 saves.
"I'm not sure there's ever been a game (this season) where the goaltender won us the game," Keefe said. "In a lot of ways, you could say that here tonight."
Filip Forsberg replied for Nashville (19-15-6). Saros stopped 33 shots for the Predators, who saw their season-high four-game winning streak snapped.
"We did a good job on the penalty kill," Nashville head coach John Hynes said. "You can't give them those looks. We allowed their power play to be the difference."
Toronto improved to 31-15-2 all-time without Matthews — absent from the lineup for the first time in 2022-23 with an undisclosed ailment — since picking him first overall at the 2016 NHL draft.
"Auston obviously brings a lot to our team," said Marner, who tied Darryl Sittler's franchise record by registering at least a point in his 18th straight home game. "The scoring ability, the leadership, the defensive play.
"Just got to take over and try and win games without him."
The goaltenders put on a clinic in the first, with Murray denying Tanner Jeannot on three consecutive chances — including a no-look desperation effort while swimming in his crease — before Saros made terrific stops on Nylander and Timothy Liljegren.
"Bit of a crazy play," Murray said of his saves on Jeannot. "There was some contact after the first shot and kind of spun me around. I was looking over my shoulder and saw the guy made a pass down to the back door.
"Had to get something over there."
Tavares then opened the scoring with 3:06 remaining in the period when he took a pass from Nylander on a 2-on-1 and slid home his 20th of the campaign, and the Toronto captain's fifth in the last four games.
Forsberg got the visitors back even 1:46 into the second when he deked around Murray for his 17th.
Toronto, which was also minus defenceman T.J. Brodie because of a rib injury, killed off a penalty with under 10 minutes left in regulation as Murray again stood tall on a couple of Nashville chances.
"Bit of a disaster start," Marner said of that man advantage. "“I’m just trying to not get that save on the highlight reel … trying to put it in the net.
"Lucky enough I was able to."
Last season's Hart Trophy winner sat out with an issue Keefe said he'd been dealing with "for a while." Matthews, who took part in Toronto's optional morning skate and is listed as day-to-day, has 20 goals and 47 points in 41 games this season. The 25-year-old missed nine contests in 2021-22 through injury or suspension, but still scored a league-best 60 times in 73 contests.
Matthews' absence opened the door for the 26-year-old from Wainwright, Alta., to make his NHL debut. Bobby McMann was the American Hockey League's reigning player of the week with six points in three games before getting the call to join the big club Tuesday. "You dream about it your whole life," McMann said. "Definitely pretty special to step on the ice and throw that jersey over (my head) — such a historic organization."
Leafs: Visit the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday.
Predators: Visit the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press