Auston Matthews had a lot of fingers pointing in his direction following Toronto’s first-round exit last spring.
Monday represented a big step towards making sure there’s no repeat.
Matthews scored his first goal of the playoffs and set up another as the Maple Leafs defeated the Boston Bruins 3-2 to grab a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
Heavily criticized for his performance in Boston’s seven-game victory 12 months ago — he registered just two points, while Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, PatriceBergeron and David Pastrnak combined for 30 — Matthews put Toronto ahead for good on the power play midway through the second period.
The 21-year-old centre had a team-high 17 shots attempts in Games 1 and 2, including one off the post, and was relieved to finally find the back of Boston’s net.
“It’s just another level when you score a goal in the playoffs, especially at home,” Matthews said. “It feels like an earthquake under you.
“The atmosphere tonight was unbelievable and we just want to continue what we built off tonight here on Wednesday [in Game 4].”
Andreas Johnsson, also with a goal and an assist, and Trevor Moore provided the rest of the offence for Toronto, which got 34 saves from Frederik Andersen.
The Leafs downed the Bruins 4-1 in the series opener at TD Garden before falling by the same score in Game 2 on a night where Boston dominated, especially on the physical side.
“We played much harder and we forechecked hard,” Johnsson said. “We were heavier on the puck.”
David Krejci and Charlie Coyle replied for Boston. TuukkaRask stopped 31 shots for visitors in front of a crowd of 19,611 at Scotiabank Arena.
“They upped their compete level,” Marchand said. “Ours wasn’t as good as it needed to be. But we’re right there, we had some opportunities to tie it up.”
The Leafs learned less than an hour before puck drop that Nazem Kadri has been suspended for the rest of the series for the centre’s vicious cross-check to the head of Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk in the third period of Game 2.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s not available,” Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We can’t worry about it. We’ve got to move on, we’ve got to play.”
With the Bruins pressing late, Leafs winger Mitch Marner, who scored twice in Game 1, sacrificed his body on two Pastrnak shots — including one that hit him in the shoulder as he lay on the ice — to preserve the victory.
“That’s what you’ve got to do to win,” head coach Mike Babcock said. “Ideally, all those things are contagious. When you see your teammate do something like that, you’re more likely to do it yourself.”
Scoreless following a spirited first period, the offensive floodgates opened in the second.
Toronto took a 1-0 lead at 2:38 when Moore poked a loose puck home for the rookie’s first career playoff goal as the fourth line that also included Frederik Gauthier and Tyler Ennis were rewarded for their hard work.
“It was amazing,” Moore said. “It was just kind of surreal out there to see the puck go in.”
Boston replied just 52 seconds later when Krejci chipped a bouncing puck past Andersen, but Matthews restored Toronto’s lead 12 seconds after David Backes was whistled for high-sticking, taking a feed from Johnsson and burying a shot beyond Rask to send Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy at 10:12.
Matthews was immediately serenaded by chants of “Aus-ton! Matth-ews!” by the crowd.
“He’s a proud guy who wants to be good every night and wants to score, loves to score,” Babcock said. “Probably relieves a lot of pressure off him.”
Promoted to the first power-play unit because of Kadri’s suspension, Johnsson made it 3-1 with his first-career playoff goal with 2:48 left in the period when he roofed a backhand over Rask after a nice feed from John Tavares as Toronto connected for a second time on the man advantage after going 0 for 4 in the first two games.
“They were coming with more speed,” DeBrusk said. “We brought the speed in Game 2 and they brought the speed in [Games] 1 and 3.
“Those are the results.”
Boston responded on a power play of its own with 37.3 seconds left in the period when Coyle collected a puck off the end boards to score his second of the series.
After both Matthews and Johnsson had chances to put the Leafs up 4-2 in the third, Andersen made a diving stop with the knob of his stick on Krejci to keep his team ahead.
“Doing whatever it takes to try to save it,” Andersen said. “He waited me out a little bit and had a nice move, but you just try to do whatever you can to get something on it.”
Boston kept up the pressure with Rask on the bench for the extra attacker, but Toronto held on despite some tense moments — including Marner’s blocks — to take a 2-1 series lead.
“It was great. I love it,” Rielly said. “There was never a question of the character of our team, but that was just a good display of it.
“That can be good to see and we’ll feed off it.”