Matthews, Nylander spark Leafs late to salvage sleepy win over Kings
Toronto captain John Tavares held pointless in return to lineup
Mike Babcock has been looking for a game the Maple Leafs can hang their hat on.
Tuesday night's performance against the Los Angeles Kings wasn't heavy on style points, but for Toronto's head coach, it was a step in the right direction.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander scored 30 seconds apart to snap a third-period tie as the Leafs stayed patient against a plodding opponent to grind out a 3-1 victory.
"Some people would think it was ugly," Babcock said. "I thought it was beautiful."
With a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals on his resume, Babcock has been drilling into his talent-rich roster that skill alone isn't enough to get by.
WATCH | Leafs find late offence to squeak past Kings:
And Toronto's game has, quite frankly, been covered in warts early this season.
There was plenty of change over the summer, but that alone doesn't explain the sloppy defensive zone coverages and mental mistakes.
Against the Kings — an aging prize fighter shifting into rebuild mode — Toronto waited more than 52 minutes for its chance.
That's where Babcock saw beauty.
"We need to go through that," he said. "We need to figure out who we are, and the harder the game is, the better it is for us. Now, would you like to win by a touchdown and everyone relax and all that?
"Yea, but we're not getting anywhere like that."
Alexander Kerfoot had the other goal for Toronto (8-5-3), which got 24 stops from Frederik Andersen. Matthews and Nylander each added an assist for two-point nights.
Alex Iafallo replied for Los Angeles (5-10-0). Jonathan Quick made 20 saves.
"No one in here likes to lose," said Quick, one of the holdovers from the Kings' Cup victories in 2012 and 2014 that's had a front-row seat to the franchise's steep decline. "The only people that can do something about it is us. We've got to keep working."
The Leafs had captain John Tavares back in the lineup after he missed the last seven games with a broken finger.
"Not bad," he said of his performance. "Probably a little bit of rust and just getting back into the rhythm of things."
Matthews snapped a 1-1 tie with 7:24 left in regulation when Andreas Johnsson sent a pass in front that went off Nylander and right to the Leafs' centre, who buried his 12th goal of the season.
With fans at Scotiabank Arena still celebrating, Nylander moved in on a 2-on-1 with Matthews and outwaited Quick and Kings defenceman Sean Walker before roofing his fourth.
"The few mistakes we made ended up in our net," Los Angeles head coach Todd McLellan said. "We checked real well, did what we had to do. We were just a little short."
Toronto, which went 3-2-2 without Tavares, got a power play to start the third after Alec Martinez went off for tripping to end the second, but Quick stretched to rob Matthews on the Leafs' best opportunity.
Quick then snapped out the glove to deny Leafs blue-liner Travis Dermott off a Kasperi Kapanen feed before Matthews finally pushed Toronto ahead on the next shift.
Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin — acquired from the Kings in January for winger Carl Grundstrom, prospect Sean Durzi and a 2019 first-round pick — won a Cup with Los Angeles in 2014.
'Can't force it'
He said the formula that needs to become second nature for the Leafs was laid out for all to see Tuesday.
"Sometimes we try to force plays or force skill plays," Muzzin said. "If we work hard and play solid, our talent will show when the opportunity comes — can't force it."
The Kings opened the scoring at 5:40 of the second with Kerfoot in the penalty box for interference when Anze Kopitar's initial shot off the end boards popped out the other side to Iafallo, who quickly tucked his fifth behind Andersen.
The Leafs got even with 6:31 left in the period when Walker turned the puck over just as teammates Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis collided in the defensive zone. The seas parted for Kerfoot, and he moved in alone before firing home his fifth.
Toronto held a 25-9 edge in shot attempts in a mostly sleepy opening 20 minutes that saw one big hit and one big chance.
Kerfoot was flattened by Jeff Carter and went to the locker room before eventually returning to action.
The home side got a power play later in the period when Tyler Toffoli mugged Dermott, but Tavares somehow scooped his shot up and over the Kings net from in close with Quick at his mercy.
"I'd love to have it back," Tavares said. "Just glad that at the end of the day the result was still two points."