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Five Takeaways - Leafs vs. Stars - 02/07/17

Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs' 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars Tuesday at Air Canada Centre:

by Adam Proteau / MapleLeafs.com

Gardiner rifles home slap shot

DAL@TOR: Gardiner nets one-time blast to open scoring

Jake Gardiner receives a pass from Mitch Marner at the point and unleashes a blistering one-timer that beats Antti Niemi to open the scoring

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1. Gardiner ends goal drought, puts Leafs ahead midway through first frame. The Leafs entered Tuesday's action looking for vengeance against a Stars squad that beat them 6-3 Jan. 31 in Dallas, and they got some of that at the 9:09 mark of the opening period at the ACC when defenceman Jake Gardiner fired his seventh goal of the season past netminder Antti Niemi.

Gardiner hadn't buried the puck past an opposition goalie since a Dec. 17 tilt against Pittsburgh, but the blueliner has continued to contribute in the assist department, racking up 17 helpers prior to Tuesday's game. The veteran's game has grown at both ends of the ice this season, and his goal was the first part of his first multi-point effort since the Centennial Classic outdoor game against Detroit, in which he had a pair of assists.

Video: DAL@TOR: Matthews redirects puck past Niemi and in

2. Matthews deflects Gardiner blast to start new scoring streak, give Toronto breathing room. The Stars outshot Toronto 16-10 in the first period, but Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney stopped all of them - and in the second frame, it was the Buds who dominated on the shot counter, firing 17 shots at Niemi while Dallas managed just seven against the Leafs.

Toronto's perseverance paid off late in the middle frame when, after Gardiner blasted another shot at Niemi, centre Auston Matthews tipped the puck in for his team-best 25th goal of the year and his second in as many games. Matthews' goal gave him 44 points in 52 games and, more importantly, it increased the Leafs' advantage over a high-octane Dallas team that can score in bunches.

3. Seguin puts Stars on the scoreboard early in third to cut Buds' lead in half. Toronto's penalty kill unit did well to kill off a double-minor penalty to centre Nazem Kadri at the end of the first period, but Dallas took advantage of their next power play opportunity, which came at 3:58 of the third on a Zach Hyman holding call: centre Tyler Seguin beat McElhinney off the draw and just two seconds into the power play for his 20th goal of the year and the Stars' first goal of the night.

Seguin is one of the NHL's most talented players with the puck, and the marker tightened things up in a contest that was the polar opposite of the last time the two teams clashed. You knew Dallas was going to break through eventually, which made it imperative the Leafs continued applying pressure in the offensive zone.

Video: DAL@TOR: Zaistev scores PPG through screen in front

4. Zaitsev makes most of 5-on-3 Leafs power play for Toronto's third of the night. Blueliner Nikita Zaitsev's first NHL season has been a success by anyone's standard, and the 25-year-old's abilities to play big minutes and transition the puck up ice is highly valued by head coach Mike Babcock. Zaitsev has also posted 22 assists in 51 games prior to Tuesday, but he'd only scored one goal - in that same Dec. 17 game in which Gardiner had scored his most recent goal - in his career in hockey's top league.

That changed at the 7:26 mark of the third period when Zaitsev scored his second of the year on a two-man Leafs power play. Zaitsev does so many small things well - his panic threshold is high; he's tough on opponents; he can jump into the rush and find an open teammate - that you don't need him to be scoring each and every night to be effective. But every NHLer with Zaitsev's puck skills eventually gets frustrated if the puck doesn't go in for him after a while, and this goal surely was good for his frame of mind - not to mention, the fact it restored the Leafs' two-goal lead.   

Video: DAL@TOR: McElhinney kicks out pad to stone Benn

5. McElhinney strong between the pipes to pick up his second win as a Leaf. Since he was acquired on waivers from Columbus in January, McElhinney has performed admirably in net for Toronto, but he was still looking for his second win in a Toronto uniform after beating the Ottawa Senators in his Leafs debut Jan. 14. The 33-year-old got it Tuesday via a stellar, 38-save showing against the Stars.

Babcock has told the media earlier this year McElhinney would get the start in all of the second game of Toronto's back-to-back contests the rest of the season, and with the Leafs coming off a 6-5 defeat at the hands of the Islanders Monday, they needed a strong showing from McElhinney. He delivered, and the Buds secured two points as they continued their push for a playoff berth.

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