In their latest biggest game of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs started small and finished big.
The biggest Leaf of all was goaltender Frederik Andersen, who held off the Philadelphia Flyers until the Leafs found their skating legs. Then he saved it at the end when the Flyers were pressing hard in the third period, first with a power play and then in the final 90 seconds with their goaltender pulled for an extra skater.
Andersen finished with 36 saves in the 4-2 win Thursday night, the Leafs' second in a row, which dealt the Flyers a stiff blow in the NHL playoff race. The Flyers, who were breathing down the Leafs' necks in the chase for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, fell four points behind the Leafs, who are neck-and-neck with the New York Islanders for the wild-card berth.
Nothing illustrated Andersen's value to the Leafs more than two consecutive saves he made in the second period that preceded a big goal by Toronto centre Tyler Bozak, which gave the Leafs the lead for the first time. He stopped a tough shot by Flyers forward Brayden Schenn and when the rebound went to defenceman Michael Del Zotto, Andersen kicked that one out, too.
The puck went almost immediately to Leafs centre Tyler Bozak, who wove his way down the ice and scored an unassisted goal at 9:28 to put the Leafs ahead 2-1.
"A hell of a save," said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
Andersen, as is his wont when the subject of his brilliance comes up, practically shrugged.
"Every save and every play can make a difference in the game," he said. "Sometimes those help you. It was nice to see the guys go down and score."
Bozak almost didn't get the chance to score his 16th goal of the season and get an assist on Mitch Marner's third-period goal that stood up as the winner. He is dealing with an undisclosed nagging injury, suspected to be a groin muscle, and was a last-second decision to play.
Since Bozak, 30, has been in the playoffs exactly once in his eight seasons as a Maple Leaf, aches and pains are not high on his list of concerns. A playoff race is a rare treat.
"Obviously, this is way more fun," he said. "We're fighting for a spot. That's why you play the game, to compete and to get in the playoffs and then the biggest prize. You've just got to get in and anything can happen. It's been a blast so far and there's lots of big games coming up.
"Adrenalin is the best painkiller there is."
The Leafs took that 2-1 lead into the third period and turned up their game considerably. Mitch Marner put the Leafs ahead by two goals at 13:44 with a power-play goal.
But that familiar fear of blown third-period leads returned when Flyer defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere scored at 17:32. Then the Flyers cranked up the heat by pulling goaltender Michal Neuvirth but Andersen slammed the door on them. Nazem Kadri scored an empty-netter with one minute left in the period to let the 18,894 fans at the Air Canada Centre breathe again.
Unlike Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings when the Leafs started the game flying and then almost blew it, they came out plodding against the Flyers. Fortunately for them, they had Andersen at the top of his game.
"I thought we were a little bit tight early," Babcock said. "[Andersen] was good. Good for him and good for us."
It was the power play that provided the scoring for both teams in the first period. Babcock was prescient here as well. "I don't like to be on the penalty kill against them. I think their power play is real good," he said earlier in the day.
Well, the Flyer power play has been good at times this season, not as good as the Leafs' third-ranked unit (going into the game) but good enough for 12th in the NHL. However, in the Flyers' previous three games it went 0-for-13.
But Babcock was right, as the Flyers were all over the Leafs after Marner took a tripping penalty a little more than five minutes into the game. The Leafs' defence pair of Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev forgot all about Simmonds, who had all the room he needed in front of the net to score his 28th goal of the season at 6:09.
It was another tough night for Rielly, who was supposed to be celebrating his 23rd birthday, although he could console himself with the assist on Marner's goal. Rielly is drawing fire for his struggles of late, although Babcock is still in his corner.
"Well, you know, it's an interesting thing," Babcock said. "There used to be a guy here named Dion Phaneuf that took all the flak for everybody. And when you trade that guy, someone else gets the flak, especially when it doesn't go good for you.
"So [Rielly] has just got to quit thinking and worrying about what anybody else says. He understands that the manager and the coach think he's great and his mom and dad think he's great."
The Leafs managed to tie the score on a power play of their own eight minutes later but they certainly did not have the Flyers on the run when it started. After a few false starts, the Leafs finally got the puck into the Flyers' zone. Rookie William Nylander took care of the ineptness by ripping a wrist shot to the top corner from the right faceoff dot at 13:57 for his 18th goal of the season.