NEWARK — They’re a little weary and a bit dinged up, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are coming home happy.
For a good portion of Tuesday night, it seemed like Toronto would finish its five-game road trip with a loss to the high-flying New Jersey Devils. But Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews scored late goals less than two minutes apart, as the Leafs snatched a 4-3 victory at the Prudential Center.
What they lacked in pretty, Toronto made up for with persistence, refusing to throw in the towel despite having visited three time zones in the past week and playing without two-thirds of its usual second line.
“Just perseverance and never giving up,” said Matthews, whose power-play marker with 2:53 to go in the third was the difference. “Last game of a pretty long road trip and one of those games you just kind of grind out, and that’s what we did.”
All that grinding was done with Ryan O’Reilly and John Tavares — typically the centre and left winger on the second line — not in the lineup, as O’Reilly had surgery on his broken finger earlier in the day and the team said it was just being extremely cautious keeping Tavares on the sidelines as the captain just didn’t quite feel like himself.
That left Toronto with a second line featuring William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok flanked by one of the recent trade acquisitions, Sam Lafferty. Sure enough, that trio opened the scoring in the second period after Toronto had been outshot 15-4 by Jersey in the first.
The scoring play started when Lafferty blew into the Devils zone, forcing the defence to back off a bit. That created a nice seam for him to drop a pass to Nylander, who in turn used his backhand to dish a nifty feed over to Jarnkrok. By the time the puck got to him at the side of the net, all Jarnkrok had to do was shovel it into an empty cage.
Asked if he was surprised his fellow Swede was able to thread the needle through three Devils, Jarnkrok referenced the passer’s reputation. “Well, I mean, it’s ‘Willie Styles,’” he said with a grin. “If anyone can do it, it’s him.”
Nylander may have been responsible for the juicy apple, but Lafferty’s contributions — on that play and others — caught the attention of Sheldon Keefe, the former’s coach now for all four games.
“I thought Lafferty really came alive in the second period, really started to skate through the neutral zone with the puck,” Keefe said. “I thought that really got them on their heels a few times. Obviously, a big play on the goal and a good play by (Nylander and Jarnkrok) to get to the net. That’s obviously an important goal for us. But like I said, I really saw signs of what Lafferty is capable of in terms of putting the other team on their heels with his speed. He’s done that at different times in the earlier games with us, but it was more off the puck in getting up the ice and applying pressure. Today, it was with the puck and carrying it through the neutral zone, which is probably a byproduct of playing at center.”
Lafferty may have helped keep the Devils honest at times, but the opening 20 minutes were all New Jersey, and the sole reason Toronto didn’t find itself down a goal or two was the stellar play of Ilya Samsonov.
The big saves started right out of the gate, when the Leafs stopper made two huge saves in quick succession. When Jesper Bratt put a 2-on-1 pass on a tee for Jack Hughes, Samsonov flashed his right pad across the crease and denied Hughes’ one-timer. Moments later, Bratt was feeding Timo Meier at the other side of the net and Samsonov again thwarted a one-timer. Later in the frame, Miles Wood drove wide with a head of steam, barrelled across the top of the crease and tried to slip a backhander past Samsonov, and the Russian was having none of it.
Samsonov’s play allowed the Leafs to gather themselves, and they returned to the ice a much better team after the intermission. “I thought we came out really hard in the second and obviously got our game back,” Matthews said. “They’re a really good team over there. You’ve got to tip your hat. It was close all the way through. We just found a way.”
For a minute, it seemed as though Toronto’s path to victory might be by flipping the script from its last game, when the Buds allowed two third-period shorthanded goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 4-1 loss on Saturday. This time out, it was Mitch Marner scoring an absolute gem of a shortie 4:57 into the third, picking Meier’s pocket before juking every which way on goalie Vitek Vanecek and sliding the puck home.
The good vibes were short-lived, though, as Ondrej Palat pulled Jersey back even with three seconds left on the same Nylander slashing penalty. When Erik Haula redirected a bit of a weird one past Samsonov about three minutes later for his second of the game, it seemed like perhaps it just wasn’t the Leafs’ night.
But the Blue and White refused to go out like that.
“I just loved how our guys stayed with it,” Keefe said.
Bunting capped a brilliant sequence that started when Justin Holl sprung David Kampf with a stretch pass into the Devils zone. Kampf sucked the Jersey defenders his way, then slid a beautiful backhand pass to Bunting as he streaked toward the net for his first tally in six games.
Bunting — recently moved off the top line by Keefe — factored into the game-winner, too, as he lifted his skate to ensure a pass from Nylander to the slot went through him and onto the stick of big No. 34.
“I heard him calling for it,” Bunting said. “I heard it was him and clearly he was wide open, so I didn’t want to get in the way of that. And he made that count.”
He sure did. The marker gave Toronto a lead it didn’t relinquish and capped a journey Matthews said felt like a month away from home.
“It’s a great way to end our road trip and come out of it with a winning record” of 3-2-0, Matthew said. “You get to go back home now and have a couple of days to recoup, re-energize and get going again.”