TORONTO – It was bound to be a memorable night for John Tavares. It turned it to be one the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t soon forget either.
Dwayne Roloson turned aside 58 shots and Josh Bailey scored the overtime winner as the New York Islanders stole a 4-3 victory from the Maple Leafs on a wild Monday night at Air Canada Centre.
The Toronto offence certainly didn’t look like it needed Tavares, who was playing against his boyhood idols for the first time. The Leafs outshot the Islanders 61-21 and were at a loss for words to explain what happened.
“I don’t ever remember a game like that,” said forward Phil Kessel, who had 12 shots himself. “I don’t even know what to say after something like that.”
The game wouldn’t even have been close if not for Roloson, who is enjoying a resurgent season at age 40.
He made several great saves – the most painful of which was No. 52, a hard shot from Mikhail Grabovski that hit him directly in the mask – and improved his record to 7-2-5 on the season. It’s the kind of performance his new team has come to expect.
“Roloson was outstanding,” said Islanders coach Scott Gordon. “We didn’t tell Dwayne, but we figured as long as they didn’t hit 70 shots, we’d be alright.”
Even though the pre-game focus was centred around Tavares getting a chance to play close to home, a couple other local boys grabbed the spotlight.
Bailey, a first-round pick in 2008, grew up about 45 minutes away in Bowmanville. He ended the game with New York’s only shot of overtime, slamming home a pass from Sean Bergenheim after the Leafs were caught scrambling in their own zone.
Then there’s Matt Moulson, the 26-year-old journeyman from North York who finally got his first opportunity to play in front of friends and family at the Air Canada Centre. He looked skyward and pumped his fists after tipping home his team-leading 11th goal of the season in the second period.
“It was pretty amazing when I got that goal,” said Moulson. “It was just a tip-in, but that’s my type of goal. When it went in, I just looked around and thought, ‘Wow, I just scored at the ACC.”‘
Jeff Tambellini and Bergenheim also scored for New York (9-8-7), which wrapped up a seven-game road trip.
Kessel, Wayne Primeau and Niklas Hagman replied for the Maple Leafs (4-11-7).
It was a relatively quiet night for Tavares, who admitted to feeling some nerves before a game that was attended by roughly 100 friends and family. The 19-year-old from nearby Oakville was limited to one quality scoring chance – he roared in off the wing in third period and had a shot stopped by Jonas Gustavsson.
Like his teammates, Tavares left with a big smile on his face.
“I felt pretty good out there,” he said. “I just wanted to play well. It’s the city I grew up in. It was a lot of fun tonight, and a great ending for us.”
These are desperate times in Leafs Nation and the team’s play reflected that. Trade rumours have started to swirl through the city and it appears to be with good reason – 19 different NHL teams had scouts accredited on this night.
Coming off a win over Washington on Saturday, Toronto put in another solid performance.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction here,” said defenceman Ian White.
The Leafs did an excellent job of limiting New York’s opportunities for the first half of the game, but the floodgates opened quickly in the second period as the Islanders went ahead 3-0 over a span of 3:13.
Suddenly, the boos poured down from an Air Canada Centre crowd that has witnessed just two wins in 11 games this season.
A glimpse of hope arrived soon after off the stick of Kessel, who scored for the sixth time in 10 games with the Maple Leafs. He charged hard to the goal and had a tap-in after taking a nice pass from Matt Stajan at 15:32.
Shortly after, Toskala pulled himself from the game because he aggravated a groin injury.
“Just a little tweak,” he said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t take too long (to feel better).”
Gustavsson was rarely tested, watching as his teammates kept the puck in the Islanders zone for long stretches and came back to tie the game.
Primeau scored at 2:10 of the third period from his knees before Hagman roared around Freddy Meyer and made it 3-3 at 9:18.
At that point, all signs pointed to a comeback Leafs victory. Instead, the NHL’s last-place team found itself with an improbable loss.
“It was unbelievable,” said Kessel. “You know again, we didn’t win. We’ve got to bury one more puck. It’s unfortunate. We’re going to keep battling and keep working. We’ve got a good hockey club here – we’re better than our record shows.”
Notes: Leafs forward John Mitchell suffered a knee injury in the first period: “It looks like he’ll be out awhile,” said Wilson… Jeff Finger (lower body) and Rickard Wallin (healthy) were scratched by Toronto … The Islanders sat out Rob Schremp, Andrew MacDonald and Blake Comeau … Toronto took three of four meetings between the teams a year ago … The Leafs had 46 shots against Montreal on opening night … Announced attendance was 19,263.