The Leafs head into the holiday off their best pre-Christmas performance since 2003-04 after they used a three-goal first period to beat the New York Islanders 5-3 on Friday night at the Nassau Coliseum.
Goals by Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Carl Gunnarsson gave the Leafs a 3-0 lead just 11:15 into the game, and Joey Crabb added a shorthanded goal midway through the second period as Toronto won for the 18th time in 35 games this season. With an 18-13-4 record and 40 points, Toronto is sixth in the Eastern Conference and has its best record at the Christmas break since going 20-6-6-3 in '03-04 -- the last time the Leafs made the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Needless to say, it's a happy Christmas in Toronto as the Leafs head home for a couple of days before resuming their four-game trip at Florida on Tuesday.
“It's funny how miserable Christmas is when you lose,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “You’re miserable whenever you lose, but you don’t want to be Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time.
“This is nice to get a little bit of a cushion, for our team to relax and get over some of the bumps and bruises that we have.”
Despite struggling to control rebounds for much of the night, James Reimer made 30 saves to improve to 7-3-3 this season. Twelve of those save came in the third period as the Isles pressed for the tie after John Tavares scored at 10:30 to cut the margin to one goal before Joffrey Lupul hit the empty net with 8.9 seconds remaining in the game to give the Leafs wins on back-to-back nights entering the break.
“We said we wanted to focus on winning the two before the break, go in feeling good about ourselves,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We are. We’ll use these couple of days to recharge.
“They call it a break, but it’s not really a break, it’s two days,” he added. “We’ll go enjoy our time away and come back ready to work. It’s a big trip after Christmas.”
The Islanders, who lost 4-2 to the Rangers in New York on Thursday, fell to 11-16-6 and are No. 14 in the East, 11 points out of the last playoff spot. They have not made the playoffs since 2006-07
Both teams were playing for the second time in as many nights, but though the Leafs had to fly to Long Island after winning in Toronto on Thursday, they were by far the more spirited team in the opening period.
"We came out strong," Reimer said. "They may have had some holiday distractions, but I feel we were just more determined."
MacArthur put the Leafs ahead just 1:45 into the game. Tim Connolly carried deep into the Islanders zone before dishing to MacArthur in the right circle. He cut to the net and beat Evgeni Nabokov with a quick, high shot from well below the faceoff dot for his 10th of the season.
Marty Reasoner took a needless tripping penalty at 2:37, and with 15 seconds left on the power play, Kadri got his second goal in two nights to make it 2-0. Nabokov kicked Jake Gardiner's long slapper onto the stick of Josh Bailey, but the Isles' center flubbed his clearing attempt right onto the stick of Kadri, who put home a backhander from the slot through traffic.
A shaky Nabokov had no one but himself to blame at 11:15, when Gunnarson's 55-foot straightaway slapper beat him cleanly for a 3-0 lead. It was Gunnarson's first goal of the season and brought boos from the Nassau Coliseum crowd.
"When you're not moving your feet, good things don't happen," Isles coach Jack Capuano said. "We were flat-footed. We weren't ready to play, and they took advantage of that.
"You can't give a team like that extended time in your zone. We did that in the first period, and they capitalized."
The Isles quieted some of those boos at 15:45 when Mike Mottau's stretch pass caught Kyle Okposo in full flight to set up a 2-on-1 break. Okposo carried well into the left circle before snapping a shot past Reimer's glove into the top right corner for his sixth goal of the season, all of which have come in the past 15 games.
Toronto entered the game with the NHL's worst penalty-killing numbers, and the Islanders made them pay 40 seconds into the second period for an interference call against Keith Aulie with 30.6 seconds left in the first. Frans Nielsen scored his first goal since Nov. 15 when he picked a deflected puck out of a tangle of feet in the slot and zipped it past Reimer to make it 3-2.
But the Leafs' penalty killers struck back at 8:59. With Toronto's Cody Franson in the box for high-sticking, Tyler Bozak stole the puck from PA Parenteau in his own zone and fed Crabb to start a 2-on-1. Crabb and Bozak played give-and-go before Crabb hit the wide-open left side of the net for his sixth of the season and the fourth shorthanded goal by Toronto this season.
Nabokov kept it a two-goal game with big stops on Gardiner and Nikolai Kulemin in the final minute of the second period, then made another 9:32 into the third period when he went left to right and stoned Phil Kessel on a 2-on-1 after a perfect pass from Lupul. That became a big play less than a minute later when Tavares took Parenteau's pass out, stepped to his left in the slot and out-waited Reimer before putting the puck inside the left post for his 11th of the season.
The game marked the return to Long Island of Toronto assistant Scott Gordon, who was fired as Islanders coach last November and hired by Wilson this past summer.