TORONTO—The fans left happy after a back-and-forth game Mike Babcock deemed “way too entertaining for the coach.”
And his team won.
Trailing 2-1, the Maple Leafs scored three goals in four minutes late in the second period last night to pull ahead of the Ottawa Senators.
Auston Matthews—fresh off news of a contract extension—scored what had looked to be the winning goal at 3-2 while Mitch Marner set up two others to press his case for a lucrative new deal.
But Ottawa pulled even at 4-4 early in the third on goals by Thomas Chabot and Magnus Paajarvi, with his second of the night, in a stretch of 3:19.
Morgan Rielly scored the winner midway through the third period for a 5-4 win.
“We were playing well and then we just got careless and we never really seemed to be able to get it back,” lamented Babcock, who liked his team's start.
“At the same time when you're a good team and you win games, sometimes they're not very pretty but you still won them,” he reasoned.
“So at the end when we get up [Thursday], in the standings it's going to look pretty good.”
Rielly started the rush after a Sens' turnover. After racing up the ice, he passed to Zach Hyman, whose backhand pass found Rielly alone in front of the goal for his 14th of the season at 9:12.
It also was Rielly's career-high 53rd point of the season.
“It's a blast playing with him. . . . He's a great guy to go to battle with every day,” said Leafs' centre John Tavares.
The Sens piled on the pressure with their goalie out but could not score the equalizer.
Andreas Johnsson, Hyman, and Tavares also scored for Toronto. Matt Duchene had the other Ottawa goal.
Toronto (33-17-3) won its third-straight and fourth of its last five (4-0-1).
While the Senators (19-29-5) suffered their fifth-straight loss, they did not look like a team last in the standings.
“It's the NHL," said Matthews. ”So it doesn't matter who you're playing on any given night.
“It doesn't matter what the standings are.”
“They pushed back hard. Give them credit,” said Tavares.
Ottawa outshot Toronto 44-30.
“I thought we carried the play for most of the game,” said Senators' coach Guy Boucher.
“Just a few puck management turnovers cost us.”
Boucher thought his team—up 2-1—should have put the game away in the second period but could not convert good scoring chances.
“That was the moment," he remarked. "When you play a team like that and you've got them on the ropes, that's the moment where you've got to bury them.”
The Leafs came into the game flushed with news of Matthews' five-year, $58.2-million contract extension.
“Welcome home Auston," said one sign in the stands. "Drink$ on you?”
Matthews opened his NHL account against the Sens on Oct. 12, 2016 at Ottawa, where he set a league record for goals scored in an NHL debut (four).
Marner, the Leafs' leading scorer with 65 points, upped his assists total to 45.
It was his 14th multi-assist and 20th multi-point game of the season.
The 21-year-old winger, who is eligible to become a restricted free agent July 1, is next on GM Kyle Dubas' to-do list. And Babcock has no doubts it will get done.
“Mitch is a lifetime Leaf,” he said after the morning skate.
Ottawa has contract questions of its own. Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel all are eligible to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Senators' owner Eugene Melnyk said he's prepared to open his wallet.
According to a club release, Melnyk told a Sens' corporate event Tuesday in Toronto that the team's “current rebuild is a blueprint on how to bring the Stanley Cup home to its rightful place in Ottawa.”
He pledged the team will spend close to the NHL's salary cap every year from 2021-25.
The “Battle of Ontario” was a mismatch looking at the numbers. Going into play yesterday, the Leafs ranked sixth in the league while Ottawa was 31st, some 24 points below Toronto.
But Ottawa had won six of its last seven visits to Scotiabank Arena.
It was Craig Anderson versus Freddie Andersen in goal. Ottawa's Anderson was playing his 599th NHL regular-season game.
Last night marked NHL game No. 500 for newly-acquired Leafs' defenceman Jake Muzzin, who has won over fans in Toronto with his physical play and booming shot.
There also was history in the broadcast booth with 85-year-old Bob Cole calling the game.
A video tribute during the first period drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 19,264. It's Cole's 50th and last season.
The N.Y. Rangers edged Boston 4-3 (SO) in the only other NHL game last night.