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Counterpunch from Maple Leafs stars provides roadmap to rollicking win over Dallas


TORONTO — When the big boys are firing and the power play is humming, the Toronto Maple Leafs — even if imperfect along the way — can often find the path to a win.

Against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena, the road map to a rollicking 5-4 victory for Toronto included three man-advantage markers and an incredible third-period counterpunch after the Stars had tied the contest 3-3 on a penalty shot.

Yes, the Leafs needed fewer than 60 seconds to completely undo the potentially deflating impact of Evgenii Dadonov’s one-on-one tally against countryman Ilya Samsonov, as Mitch Marner and William Nylander immediately hit back to restore Toronto’s advantage with just over eight minutes to play.

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All that happened from there was Nylander missing an open net for the hat trick, the Stars pulling their goalie and clawing to within one goal and a final 85 seconds of duress the Leafs had to endure before they could finally exhale for good.

Throw in a league-leading 41st tally from Auston Matthews and John Tavares scoring for the third straight game and everybody who turned out to see the Leafs’ highest-paid players perform certainly got their money’s worth.

“If only I had put that one in [with the net empty] from wherever I shot it, it’s a different story at the end,” a grinning Nylander said on a night he scored Toronto’s first and final goals.

Sure, it would have lowered the blood pressure on the Buds bench had Nylander buried his gimmie, but the fact he didn’t just amped up the drama in a game that saw Dallas take it to the Leafs for most of the first period before the home side found its footing.

“I mean, it was an ugly first, but we knew we needed to turn it around,” said Marner, whose team had nine attempts on goal in the opening 20 minutes compared to a whopping 27 for the Stars. “I thought our power play did a great job of capitalizing on our chances. We knew we needed a lot more effort on five-on-five and I thought we did that starting in the second.”

Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said his club was well aware that Dallas — one of the top outfits in the league — would bring the heat, even if it had skated just one night prior in Buffalo. Keefe noted he wasn’t entirely displeased with the opening stages of the first, but thought the Leafs deteriorated in the back half of the period. The bright side, though, was they entered the first intermission still very much in the contest.

“I thought [Dallas] played real hard and I thought we didn’t play through that well and couldn’t really establish anything,” Keefe said. “So the type of team they have, once they get you going like that, they’re controlling the play and we needed to up our intensity and urgency and the way we manage the puck. But, you know, it’s only 2-1 after the first, so we just thought we had an opportunity to just embrace the type of game that it was going to be the rest of the way [knowing] it would be difficult. We had to play a lot harder and I thought we certainly did that.”

It began in the middle frame when Tavares bagged his goal, clapping home a one-timer on a feed from Nylander, who had scored a very similar one-timer power-play marker in the first. Matthews then netted Toronto’s third straight man-advantage marker in fortuitous fashion, as his attempted cross-crease pass to Nylander clanked off the skate of sprawled-out Dallas defenceman Esa Lindell and caromed past goalie Scott Wedgewood.

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And while the power play is certainly firing — the Leafs have converted six of their past eight PP opportunities over three games following a stretch where they went 1-for-20 in eight outings prior to that — the penalty-kill did its part, too. During one shorthanded situation in the second, the Leafs not only thwarted the Stars’ deadly attackers, but racked up a trio of Grade A chances of their own.

“Even if you don’t get those chances but guys have a couple of big blocks out there, good clears and when you kind of stall their power play and their momentum, it obviously brings it over to your side,” Matthews said. “So it’s always good to see and nice to get opportunities on the other side of it as well.”

And as much as this was a star-driven night — three points apiece for Tavares and Nylander, two for Matthews and a huge, game-swinging score for Marner — a fourth line operating without an injured David Kampf more than pulled its weight, too.

“They were unbelievable for us,” Matthews said of the trio that saw Pontus Holmberg between Bobby McMann and Ryan Reaves. “Really consistent. I thought they drove play [in the Dallas zone] and made it hard on the opposing team, especially the their D back there who are very versatile and can get up in the play. I thought they played extremely well and created a lot of really good momentum for us and a lot of really good shifts spent in [the Dallas] end.”

The game was not without some controversy, as Leafs defenceman Jake McCabe was bloodied by what appeared to be a late, if not blindside hit from Dallas forward Mason Marchment in the second period. Marner called it “mind-boggling” that the officials didn’t whistle Marchment for an infraction and Keefe let his feelings be known after the contest.

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“I see a vulnerable player who is targeted,” Keefe said of the play. “I think that’s a hit they do not want to see in the game. [The] guy is bleeding everywhere, needs stiches. I’m sure they’re going to look at it.”

Keefe credited his player for keeping his head in the contest the rest of the way and not letting a potentially upsetting play impact his focus.

“Just like that Jake kept his cool and didn’t hurt the team,” Keefe said. “And I guess as we’re learning — or have already learned — Jake’s an absolute competitor.”

McCabe’s response was just one of a few great ones from the Leafs on this occasion.

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