Nazem Kadri called Monday's game a "must-win" for the Maple Leafs if they were to have any hope of chasing down the Boston Bruins for third spot in the Atlantic division.
It took until the 58th minute before the Leafs pulled in front, Tyler Bozak potting the go-ahead power-play goal in Toronto's huge 4-2 victory over Boston at the Air Canada Centre. The regulation win pulled the Leafs (81 points) to within one point of the Bruins (82) with a game in hand.
"It's massive," Kadri said of the win. "Especially to do it in the fashion that we did — in regulation."
Currently holding down the final wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs sit three points up on the New York Islanders (78) and four up on the Tampa Bay Lightning (77) with 11 games to play.
Young group gaining confidence
A mostly young group, the Leafs have looked increasingly comfortable in the unfamiliar terrain of a playoff race where space and goals are at a premium and mistakes are punished in the standings.
"It's that type of playoff hockey where one or two mistakes could cost you the game," Kadri said. "You're not going to see too much open ice out there so it's important when you get those chances you capitalize on them."
There was little separating the Leafs and Bruins. The Original Six foes scored seven minutes apart in the first — on goals from David Backes and Morgan Rielly — and then tussled evenly for the next two periods. There were high-end scoring chances, scrums between whistles, hard checks into the endboards, big saves, and wars of words between the benches.
Leo Komarov and Brad Marchand were often at the centre of the action. Marchand, the emerging Hart Trophy candidate, got under Toronto's skin at times, luring rookie defenceman Nikita Zaitsev into taking a penalty at one point and later drawing fire from Komarov for his generally irritating ways.
"He loves to talk and I love to talk," Komarov said afterward. "We were made for each other."
The testiness of their duels — later including Patrice Bergeron — was emblematic of the playoff-type atmosphere evident all evening long. Even a malfunctioning clock that failed to track time for the first two periods couldn't bring down the emotion.
Many members of the Leafs are new to the NHL playoff race, seven rookies suiting up against the Bruins and one, Mitch Marner, setting up the Rielly goal which tied the game at one. Marner nearly scored himself moments before dishing to Rielly, whose persistence eventually gave way to a game-tying goal against Tuukka Rask.
'This was a big one'
Quiet in recent weeks — he broke a seven-game point drought over the weekend with his 32nd goal of the season — Auston Matthews was also noticeable in the win, notching his team-leading 57th point on an assist late in regulation.
Matthews's earlier struggles were right in line with those of the team, the Leafs dropping five straight (0-2-3) late last month and into early March. They've since won five of their last seven (5-1-1), sweeping the season series with Boston following Monday's two-goal victory.
A member of the 2013 Leafs, Toronto's one and only playoff squad since 2004, Komarov saw the team's youngest players learning what it took to win games when the stakes rose higher.
"They probably see it's going to be harder every game and every day we play," said the 30-year-old Finn. "In the beginning of the season it was maybe a little bit more space and now it's no space out there. So that's the biggest difference."
Frederik Andersen (31 saves) stood toe-to-toe with Rask to keep the action even until Dominic Moore interfered with rookie Nikita Soshnikov with less than three minutes left in regulation. Bozak, who turned 31 on Sunday and also played on the 2013 playoff squad (which fell in seven games to the Bruins), scored from the slot less than a minute later to put the Leafs in front.
William Nylander and Kadri both added empty-netters, the former extending his point streak to eight games with the goal, his 19th this season.
"It's nice that we're finding ways to win," Bozak said. "That was a big one for us tonight."