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Leafs close long trip with a win over Islanders

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The Maple Leafs had seen enough adventure on their six-game roadshow.

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They needed a quiet, controlled textbook visit and delivered in a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday at UBS Arena.

Behind huge evenings from Morgan Rielly and timely stops from No. 2 goalie Petr Mrazek, the Leafs split the trip 3-3 and kept pace in a tightening Atlantic Division.

Toronto had blown four leads of two goals or more on the first five stops, the last of which in Manhattan caused coach Sheldon Keefe to snap post-game. He walked back his specific comment about the Leafs being “soft” that night, but made it clear he expected better situation management if Toronto took a Saturday edge.

It helped. The Isles had to play the night before, a 4-0 win over Arizona, and that they mustered just 13 shots through the first two periods and trailed by two.

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After a moving tribute to the late Clark Gillies, with his No. 9 banner spotlit, the Leafs’ No. 1 power play had two early shots to get a jump, but were over-thinking it. So New York’s first man advantage, with Jason Spezza off, could’ve been bad news.

But despite winning the o-zone draw, the Isles fumbled the puck and Mitch Marner broke away, fooling Semyon Varlamov in tight when it rolled off his stick. It has been a great roadtrip for Marner, coming off a long absence with a shoulder injury.

The Leafs gave that goal back when Timothy Liljegren lost a step on Zach Parise at even strength with a minute to go, Mrazek not getting much work in the period. But a giveaway and dandy deke to the backhand by Pierre Engvall saw him squeeze a puck through Varlamov with three-tenths of a second to go.

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It’s hard to believe the theory that Jack Campbell is badly fatigued, given the Leafs have complained about lack of games in December and January, though it has been a lot of air miles for the team since Jan. 7 and Keefe has been keen to get Mrazek some playing time.

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“With the games being as spaced out as they are, it’s tough to get two guys going,” the coach said before the match. “But Petr’s been patient and continued to work. The (heavy schedule of) games are coming. That’s why we thought this was an important one, not too long a gap since he played in Arizona.

“This team has to get comfortable with him playing in there. He’s been in the league a long time and played well. We’ve got to get him playing well.”          

There was lots of stress on the Toronto defence the past few games, missing their shutdown pair, the concussed Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl coming out of COVID-19 protocol.

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Defenceman Carl Dahlstrom made his Leafs debut, the 6-foot-4 taxi squader paired with Travis Dermott while Alex Biega sat. Rielly, playing in his 610th Leafs’ game to tie Billy Harris for 18th in team history, had a monster night at both ends.

“He’s a horse back here,” Keefe praised Saturday morning. “There’s no real limit to what he can do. But we have to be intelligent about (ice time). His contribution to our chances from the back end is important and he’s still developed his defensive game.”

Another taxi forward, Joey Anderson, went on an effective fourth line with Wayne Simmonds and Spezza. With goalie Michael Hutchinson’s time on the taxi squad maxed out, he returned to the Marlies and made 31 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to Wilkes/Barre, with Erik Kallgren joining the Leafs.

Auston Matthews’ 11-game road streak with a point came to a end one shy of Doug Gilmour’s club record.

lhornby@postmedia.com

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