It was just a win against the New Jersey Devils, a mediocre mixture of veterans and youngsters with no playoff hopes, but for the Toronto Maple Leafs it was just as important as their recent ones over some of the NHL's best teams.
First, it was the kind of game where a letdown is not surprising. The Leafs were on a high after strong performances against the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins and they were coming off a big road win Wednesday in Columbus against the Blue Jackets. That meant the Devils, who were resting and waiting for the Leafs in their Toronto hotel rooms, caught them on the second of back-to-back, road and home games on Thursday night.
Second, given the seven rookies on the Leafs' roster going into game 72 of the regular season, this is the spot on the schedule where a lot of them can be expected to hit the wall.
The game was far from an artistic success, as the Leafs started slowly and then just managed to be a little better than the woeful Devils. But that was not the point, as the players and head coach Mike Babcock pointed out.
The point was to win and that is what the Leafs did, grinding out a 4-2 decision for their third win in a row. That, combined with losses by the teams chasing them in the playoff race, tightened their grip on third place in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs now have a three-point lead and a game in hand on the Boston Bruins, who lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We discussed that," said veteran Leafs centre Brian Boyle. "It's a grind, playing an NHL team that's rested, and we had a big emotional win on the road [Wednesday] night.
"So it's important for all the work we put in last night, to come away with two points. You don't want to throw it away when you come back on home ice. We didn't have the greatest first period but we got our legs about us, and [backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney] played great. They're not always picture-perfect but it was important we made that win in Columbus stand up."
The game had barely started when it looked like it was going to go the way these things often do. Devils defenceman John Moore drifted down the right side and fired a routine shot that McElhinney somehow let through him three minutes into the game. But the Leafs gradually played better and took over the game as the period wound down.
It was the kids who stepped up. Specifically, it was William Nylander with supporting appearances by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Less than three minutes after the Devils took the lead on the first shot of the game, Nylander set a franchise record when he set up the tying goal by Josh Leivo on a power play. Nylander made one of those long, seeing-eye passes all of the Leaf rookies seem to be able to do in the offensive zone that wound up on Matthews' stick. His shot was stopped and then mishandled by Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid, which allowed Leivo to jam the loose puck into the net.
The assist for Nylander marked the 10th consecutive game in which he recorded at least a point, a new record for Leafs rookies. The previous record was shared by three Maple Leafs, the late Gus Bodnar, who did it in 1943, Bob Nevin (1960) and Dan Daoust (1983). Since it was Nylander's 35th assist of the season, that landed him a $212,500 (U.S.) entry-level bonus.
It is safe to say none of the three previous record-holders was making as much as $212,000 for their entire annual salary.
"Playing good against Chicago, Columbus, teams that are up there, gives us confidence and helps us on the push," Nylander said. "It's been special. Going through everything with a lot of other rookies is special."
After Nylander's big assist, at least Bodnar's descendants could take solace in the fact he had a couple of other Leafs rookie records. Well, not so fast. The present-day Leafs rookies weren't quite finished.
Nylander scored at 18:17 to give the Leafs the lead by the end of the first period and then James van Riemsdyk scored early in the second to given the hosts a 3-1 lead. Matthews assisted on the Nylander goal and Marner set up van Riemsdyk's goal. This really polished up the Leafs' rookie statistics.
Marner's assist was his 40th of the season, which tied him with Bodnar for the most by a Leaf rookie in one season. Well, the Bodnar clan can say his other record is unlikely to be beaten – fastest first NHL goal at 15 seconds into his first shift as a Maple Leaf.
All of the rookie points made for a crowd at the top of the NHL rookie points race at that point, with Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets and Matthews tied at 60, Marner second at 57 and Nylander with 56. But Laine scored his 34th goal later for the Jets to regain the sole lead with 61 points.
"We have so many of us, we can feed off each other, especially towards this part of the season when you body is wearing down," Matthews said. "We're fighting for a spot in the playoffs and I think everybody is in full force right now, making sure each game matters. It goes beyond us three [Matthews, Marner and Nylander]. I think everybody contributes, whether it's offence, defence or in the faceoff circle."
There was also a landmark for a Leaf veteran, centre Tyler Bozak. He drew an assist on van Riemsdyk's goal as well, which gave him 50 points for the season, a career high. It also meant the Leafs had six players with at least 50 points for the first time since 1990 – Matthews, Marner, Nylander, van Riemsdyk (55), Nazem Kadri (54) and Bozak.
However, the Leafs still had to fight their way through the third period, as the Moore scored his second goal of the game on a power-play at 9:04. That one withstood a coach's challenge by Babcock over goaltender interference. Connor Brown ended the Devils' hopes with an empty-net goal in the last minute.