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Knee Jerk Reaction: Leafs’ stars lead the charge in win over Dallas

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Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
19 days ago
The Leafs’ formula for winning has been disproportionately reliant on their star-studded core for a long time, and more so this year than ever before. In a hard-fought, fast-paced matchup with one of the league’s top teams, the Dallas Stars, it was once again Toronto’s own stars who took over to ensure victory for the Leafs.
William Nylander opened the scoring with a power play marker early in the first period, but Dallas controlled the run of play for the remainder of the opening frame and battled back to take a 2-1 lead before the intermission. The Leafs picked up the pace in the second period, with their special teams units playing a huge part in flipping the momentum in Toronto’s favour. John Tavares tied the game with a quick blast off a clean faceoff win on the power play less than five minutes into the period but with the Leafs starting to stack together some solid shifts, a slow change from Noah Gregor led to a power play opportunity for the Stars.
Far too often has this Leafs team shot themselves in the foot or killed their own momentum with a self-inflicted wound like a too-many-men penalty in a tight game, but the Leafs flipped the script in this one more than once – starting with a spectacular effort to kill off that bench minor. Missing key penalty killers like David Kämpf and Calle Järnkrok has forced head coach Sheldon Keefe to lean more heavily upon the likes of Nylander and Auston Matthews while down a man, and they were up to the task against the Stars on Wednesday. Matthews teamed up with Mitch Marner to generate a couple of quality shorthanded looks, not allowing the Stars to possess the puck or set up any kind of play, and Nylander followed it up with a chance of his own on a partial breakaway that nearly gave the Leafs the lead. The Stars were unable to answer, and the successful kill energized the Leafs as well as the home fans.
The Leafs found themselves back on the power play shortly thereafter, and after putting a shot off of all three posts against the Islanders on Monday, Matthews was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead. It’s been said that you create your own luck, however, and Matthews earned his 41st of the season with a great play to chase down a loose puck and take it to the net off the wall.
Defending leads has been a problem for the Leafs this season, and another lapse halfway through the third period allowed Evgeni Dadonov to get in behind Mark Giordano for a breakaway. Giordano impeded Dadonov enough to warrant a penalty shot opportunity, and the veteran sniper beat Samsonov cleanly to tie the game.
In what could have been a “here we go again” kind of moment, the Leafs’ big guns stepped up once again as Marner finished off a relentless shift by taking a feed from Matthews and burying it on Scott Wedgewood just over 30 seconds after Dadonov’s penalty shot tally had tied the game.
They weren’t done there, as Nylander wasted little time netting an insurance marker before the home crowd could get settled back into their seats. It turned out to be a crucial goal and the eventual game-winner after the Stars pulled within one off an icing call when Nylander tried for the hat-trick on his own side of centre ice. That’s a play he’ll probably want back, and it made the dying moments of the game a bit more tense, but the Leafs prevailed in the end, and the core of their team led the way to a big win over a tough opponent.
When all was said and done, Nylander, Tavares, Matthews, and Marner had combined for all five Leafs goals and a total of nine points. It’s no secret that the Leafs’ stars are capable of taking over games as they did against the Stars on Wednesday, and until some of the club’s secondary scoring options start pulling their weight or more help arrives via trade, they’re probably going to need more performances like this one to keep pace in a tightly contested Atlantic division.
 
Statistics from NHL.com

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