After quiet first half of the first period, Leafs break out with four goals in less than six minutes. Toronto was looking to rebound from their first loss in six games Tuesday against Washington - and after the first half of the first period Friday, that's precisely what they did, kicking things into high gear with a four-goal burst that began with centre Nazem Kadri's 15th of the season at the 9:26 mark of the opening frame and ended with centre Tyler Bozak's eighth of the year at the 15:15 mark. (In between those points, winger Connor Brown scored his ninth at 13:17, and centre Auston Matthews scored his team-leading 21st at 14:40.)
The flurry of goals not only staked out the Buds to a major advantage - they also chased starting goalie Cory Schneider from the game after Matthews' goal. This was the latest example of the dynamic nature of this season's Leafs squad, which never fails to lack confidence in its talents with the puck.
First-period outburst was all about special teams, spreading out the offence. Two of Toronto's four first-period goals - which came on just nine shots - were power play markers, while Brown's was a shorthanded goal. The Leafs also killed off three Devils man advantages, and limited New Jersey to just seven shots on goalie Frederik Andersen in the first 20 minutes of play.
And while their special teams did a lot of the heavy lifting in the first, the Buds also benefitted from offensive production that was spread throughout the lineup: eight different Leafs had a point in the period, while Kadri had two (a goal and an assist) and winger James van Riemsdyk had a pair of assists. When you've got a balanced attack you make life tremendously difficult for the opposition, and such was the case for Toronto Friday.
Buds don't build on lead in second, but don't allow Devils to score, either. The Leafs roared in the first period, but they were quiet in the middle frame, managing just five shots on netminder Keith Kincaid while allowing another 11 shots on Andersen. But - and thanks in part to a dazzling save blueliner Connor Carrick made during a scramble in front of Toronto's net - the Buds kept New Jersey from generating any offence in the period and headed into the second intermission holding the same lead they did at the end of the first.
The Devils entered the night with the NHL's fourth-worst offence (averaging 2.28 goals-per-game), but given the way the Leafs watched a 4-1 lead to the Capitals disintegrate Tuesday, it was important for Toronto's players to demonstrate they can play well when they're out in front.
New Jersey breaks Andersen's shutout bid with two goals late in third. The Buds continued having issues getting pucks at the Devils' net in the third period - indeed, they didn't get a single shot on net in the third, while New Jersey fired 14 shots in the frame and finished with 32 shots on Andersen. But despite surrendering a pair of goals to the home team in a 55-second span late in the third, Toronto hung on to pull out the win.
The late-game Devils goals made things more tense than they needed to be, but unlike the game against Washington, Toronto found a way to hold off their opponent and win for the sixth time in their past seven contests.
Leafs head home on high note for one more game before bye week break. It certainly wasn't the ideal way for them to finish off the night, but the resilience the Leafs showed against New Jersey is one of the reasons they finished the evening tied with Boston in points (44) - and moved ahead of the Bruins in the Atlantic Division standings due to the three games in hand they hold on the Bs. (Toronto also is tied with Ottawa, although the Senators have a game in hand on the Leafs.)
There's no doubt Leafs Nation has to be ecstatic to see their team in a playoff position with an 18-12-8 record as it nears the midway point of the regular season. The Leafs now head back to Air Canada Centre for a Saturday night showdown with their arch-rivals from Montreal, and if Toronto can beat the Habs, they'll head into a five-day break carrying as much confidence and momentum as any point in recent memory.