TORONTO — Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe wasn't happy.
Neither were his players.
Toronto sleepwalked through Monday's opening 20 minutes — fortunate to only be down 1-0 against a struggling opponent.
"No life, no energy, no pace, no execution," Keefe said.
A change in mindset and a big move up front sparked a dominant response.
"We decided to battle and compete a little bit more," said the winger. "That's what took over the game."
John Tavares, with a goal and an assist, Calle Jarnkrok and Auston Matthews also scored for Toronto (29-11-8), which got 31 saves — and a key setup — from Ilya Samsonov. Justin Holl added two assists.
Following that disastrous first, Keefe shook up his top-6 forward group, reuniting Nylander and Tavares, and Matthews with Mitch Marner.
The impact was immediate.
"I don't think a lot had to be said (in the intermission) other than pointing out the obvious, but it's on the players," Keefe explained. "They did the talking and, more importantly, just came out on the ice way more focused."
“Our details and our awareness cost us," said head coach Lane Lambert. "We've got to just absolutely get past that and clean it up."
Toronto tied it 1-1 at 5:07 of the second when Nylander ripped his 25th off the rush after a nice play from Tavares.
"We knew we weren't doing anything good out there in the first," Nylander said of switching spots with Marner. "Gets the boosters going."
Lee restored New York's advantage 1:10 later, but the home side pushed back on a power play at 7:53 when Samsonov caught the Islanders on a long change with a stretch pass.
Nylander quickly fed Tavares, who moved in alone and backhanded his 21st goal of the season upstairs against the team that drafted him first overall in 2009.
"I wasn't expecting it, to be honest," Tavares said of Samsonov's quick strike. "Happy I got back onside because he sends it up there quickly."
Keefe said that while Nylander's named dotted the scoresheet, Tavares deserved just as much credit.
"Best period John Tavares has played all season," Keefe said. "That got Willie going. Willie finished the chances and Willie was good. But I thought J.T. was excellent."
"He was buzzing," Nylander added of Toronto's captain.
The Leafs, who lost 3-2 in overtime to the Islanders in November, took their first lead 1:40 later when Nylander used a delicate flip pass to send Jarnkrok in alone to score his 11th on a rolling puck.
"If I don't know where it's going, the goalie probably doesn't know where it's going," Jarnkrok said.
Sorokin stopped a Michael Bunting penalty shot later in the period, but Nylander buried his second of the night and 26th overall at 16:32 after stealing the puck from Scott Mayfield in the offensive zone.
"He's been playing so good for us all year and just attacking offensively and creating havoc," said Matthews, who put things to bed with his 25th goal of the campaign at 7:44 of the third on a breakaway.
Nylander leads Toronto in scoring, but isn't heading to next week's NHL all-star game in Florida.
"We've got two great guys that made the team," he said of Matthews and Marner. "I'm not too worried about it. It would be fun, but they're incredible players.
"I'm just happy to see them go."
New York, which has dropped below the playoff cutline, opened the scoring with 22.2 seconds left in the first when Lee swatted home a loose puck for his 16th.
Samsonov was sharp on a number of chances earlier in the period, including a terrific blocker save on Casey Cizikas before his teammates regrouped.
"For us to flip the game like that, it's going to take a significant effort," Keefe said. “The players have to be in the right frame of mind to be able to do that. I was really impressed with our team's ability to bounce back and flip the game.
"Really good to see."
SAMSONOV ON A RUN
The Russian made his third straight start and fourth straight appearance. Samsonov now owns a 15-4-2 record and a .920 save percentage, while Matt Murray is 11-5-0 with a .911 mark. "Excellence," Keefe said of Samsonov's performance Monday. "Looking very comfortable."
BOLDUC DEBUTS; PALMIERI, PELECH RETURN
New York defenceman Samuel Boldoc made his NHL debut. The 22-year-old from Laval, Que., has eight goals and 26 points in 40 AHL games this season. Meanwhile, Islanders winger Kyle Palmieri and defenceman Adam Pelech returned to the lineup after long injury absences.
Leafs: Host the New York Rangers on Wednesday.
Islanders: Visit Ottawa on Wednesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press