William Nylander and John Tavares were reunited. And if felt so good.
Nylander had a four-point night — two goals, two assists, all in the second period — as the Maple Leafs overcame a slow start to beat the New York Islanders 5-2 on Monday night.
Tavares had a goal and an assist while Calle Järnkrok, the third wheel on the reunited line, scored the winner.
“Willie has been excellent for us and he was excellent tonight in that second period,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He was really good.
“But I thought the second period was the best period John Tavares played all season. That got Willie going. Willie finished the chances and really was good, but I thought Tavares was excellent. He led us in the second period.”
Tavares scored for the first time in six games and finished with eight shots on net against his former team on a night that didn’t look like it was going to go the Leafs’ way. After a flat first period — the Leafs had just six shot and trailed 1-0 — Keefe had right wingers Nylander and Mitch Marner flip lines.
“We had to change something,” said Keefe. “Well, we had to change many things, but that was probably the biggest change. And it was noticeable right from that first shift in terms of what Mitch and Auston Matthews brought to that first shift. Life and energy and, obviously John and (Nylander and Järnkrok) connected as well and things just started to come together for us.”
Järnkrok’s winner was his 11th goal, one off his total from last year. It was a bit of a bobbling puck on the breakaway.
“I had some speed, and the puck was standing up on edge,” said Järnkrok, adding the puck’s bobble made the shot unpredictable. “I was trying to hit the net. But if I don’t know where it’s going, the goalie probably doesn’t know where it’s going either. So it worked out pretty good.”
Nylander is on a hot streak. He now has points in four straight games, with nine points over that span, and leads the Leafs with 26 goals. He eclipsed the 25-goal mark for the third time in his career.
“I’m trying to pick up my game,” he said. “Every night, that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on doing. So that’s nice to get that (offence) today.”
Not to be outdone, Matthews also scored on a breakaway. It was his 25th goal, a mark he’s reached in each of his seven seasons. Matthews has points in each of his last 10 games, and has six goals in his last six games.
Ilya Samsonov was strong in the Leafs net, which now appears to be his given his hot hand. He started his third game in a row and made his fourth straight appearance (3-0-1).
“He’s earned it,” Keefe said. “The door opened for him in terms of coming in in relief for us (against Florida, a 5-4 overtime win). He’s done a really good job. He deserved better the other night in terms of a result (a 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal). So I wanted to get him right back in.”
Samsonov stopped 31 of 33 shots but the play everyone was talking about was his pass during a power play to Nylander at the Islanders blue line that caught New York on a line change.
“That was a beautiful pass,” Matthews said. “I didn’t know who it was going to because I was the guy that was coming back. Next thing I turn around and John’s on a breakaway. A really nice play. Just awesome.”
Nylander tipped the puck to Tavares for the breakaway goal.
“I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest,” Tavares said. “I was happy I got back onside because (Samsonov) set it up very quickly. He’s done that a couple of times this year. His recognition and ability to zip it up there is great. You can tell he’s into all facets of the game. He’s ready, he’s competing and making a difference.”
The Islanders won the first meeting between the two teams this season, a 3-2 overtime win Nov. 21. They’re in the race for a wild-card spot, but came into Monday’s game with just two wins in their last 11 games, averaging just two goals a game in January.
“They’re a resilient group,” coach Lane Lambert said of his Islanders. “It’s an unforgiving league. And there’s a fine line between winning and losing. We’ve been in every game and we just have to continue to stay that way, stay the course, and we’ll turn this thing around.”
The Leafs have earned points against the Islanders in their last six meetings (5-0-1). Their third and final meeting of the season will be played at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York on March 21.
Back to the grind
The Islanders play a grinding, slow game. They have to, since they don’t have the offence of other teams. So no surprise the scoring chances were low for both teams in the first period. There were long stretches without whistles, but very little happening. The Leafs didn’t even manage a shot until the midway mark of the first period. Anders Lee gave New York a 1-0 lead with the first of his two goals.
At the intermission, the Keefe let the players speak amongst themselves.
“We had no life, no energy, no pace of execution,” Keefe said. “The first intermission gave us chance to regroup, and I don’t think a lot had to be said other than pointing out the obvious. It’s on the players. They did the talking and, more importantly, just came out for the second way more focused, with way more life and more energy from the drop of the puck
The second period has been the Leafs’ best all season. They came into the game with 24 more goals than their opponents in the period of the long change, the second-best differential in the league. And with Keefe putting Nylander back with Tavares, the Leafs clicked into motion to take a 4-2 lead.
Nylander tied the game on a feed from Tavares. After Lee restored New York’s lead, Tavares tied the game on a pass from Nylander on a play that was started by Samsonov. The Isles went for line change and Samsonov fed Nylander at the far blue line, who tipped it ahead to a charging Tavares. Then Järnkrok scored on a breakaway, again fed by Nylander. Then Nylander, unassisted, picked the corner on a beleaguered Ilya Sorokin.
“I was really impressed with our team’s ability to bounce back and flip the game like that,” Keefe said.
Monday’s game was the first of five in a row at the Scotiabank Centre that will take the Leafs into the all-star break and their bye week. At 17-3-4, the Leafs had the second-best home record in the league entering Monday.
“It helps in the recovery side of things and you can settle in the comfort of being at home, being in our own building facilities,” Tavares said. “We get to play in front of our fans. So we have an opportunity here. We want to take advantage of it.”
Forward Dryden Hunt cleared waivers and was loaned to the Marlies … T.J. Brodie (rib) could return to the lineup by the weekend … Jordie Benn and Wayne Simmonds were scratched.
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