Sports Hockey

MAPLE LEAFS

Playoffs, baby! Maple Leafs clinch playoff spot with thrilling win over Penguins

By Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun

The Maple Leafs have earned an invitation to the dance.

Whether goaltender Frederik Andersen will come along as a date with his teammates in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs is not yet known.

The Leafs beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, with Connor Brown scoring the winner at 17:12 of the third period to put an exclamation mark on an evening of intense drama.

With 3.4 seconds remaining, Auston Matthews scored into an empty net, and his 40th goal of the season ensured the Leafs would be post-season participants for the first time since 2013.

“It means everything,” Matthews said of making the playoffs in his first NHL season.

“To be able to pull out this one was a pretty good feeling. We still have business to take care of (on Sunday), but a big night for us. Huge to clinch.”

The Leafs, who finish the regular season at home against Columbus on Sunday, will play Washington or Ottawa in the first round.

Andersen was knocked out of the game early in the second period when Penguins forward Tom Sestito, whose participation in NHL games can’t be properly explained by anyone, collided with him in front of the Leafs net. He was assessed a minor penalty for goaltender interference at 2:01.

A woozy Andersen was on the ice for several minutes and when he eventually got up to go to the Leafs dressing room, he did so slowly.

Backup Curtis McElhinney then entered the game.

After the game, Leafs coach Mike Babcock said he had no update on Andersen, saying “ideally he will start (on Sunday).”

The Andersen injury is a potential major concern for obvious reasons: Without him and what he has done in the regular season, the Leafs wouldn’t have been fighting for a playoff spot on the final weekend.

And when Andersen was with Anaheim, he suffered a concussion last season.

Two weeks ago in Buffalo, Andersen also was forced to the leave a game against the Sabres with an upper-body injury. He missed one game before returning to the lineup.

McElhinney was great in relief, stopping Sidney Crosby on a one-timer late in the game to help solidify the victory.

“He has been the heart and soul of this team,” McElhinney said of Andersen. “You don’t want to see him get hurt in a situation like that, but at the same point, (coming into a crucial game), you dream about. It was a great opportunity.”

In the bigger picture, the Leafs’ turnaround has been remarkable. A 30th-place finish last season put them in a great spot to win the draft lottery and select Matthews, but many outside the organization figured more pain was coming, especially with so many rookies in the lineup.

Instead, the Leafs have a shot at third place in the Atlantic Division, never mind a wild-card spot. One point on Sunday would get them third.

“You don’t want to sell yourselves short, ever,” said James van Riemsdyk, one of five current Leafs who were part of that ’13 playoff team.

“That being said, you don’t really know with all the changes and youth and how that is all going to mesh together. You could always see the potential, but it’s nice to see the things coming together this year.

“We have put ourselves into the playoffs and that is a pretty drastic jump from last year.”

Brown scored the decisive goal, his 20th of the season, when he tipped a Jake Gardiner shot past Marc-Andre Fleury, with Nazem Kadri screening the Penguins goalie.

Kasperi Kapanen, on a pass from Matt Hunwick, sent the crowd of 19,561 into a frenzy when he scored at 14:30 of the third period to tie the game 3-3.

It was Kapanen’s first NHL goal, and point, in his 16th game.

The Penguins had taken a 3-2 lead early in the third when a shot by Jake Guentzel bounced off Nikita Zaitsev and Gardiner before dribbling between McElhinney’s legs.

The Leafs, who had been carrying the play to that point, did not wilt as they would have earlier the season.

“(Crap) happens,” forward Leo Komarov said of the Guentzel goal. “That goal was bad luck and we knew it. We did not have any options. We needed to win the game. Kappy scored a big goal and we just went for it.”

Tyler Bozak had given the Leafs a 2-1 lead as Sestito served his minor, but Crosby tied it soon after on a Penguins power-play.

In the first, Phil Kessel opened the scoring. But 29 seconds later, van Riemsdyk, who set the tone with a monstrous first period, tied the game.

“I’m proud of the guys, I’m excited for the guys,” Babcock said. “They’ve done a good job. To be honest with you, I didn’t know the kids could be this good.”

MATTHEWS HITS 40

Did Auston Matthews think 40 goals was a reasonable goal when his rookie season in the National Hockey League started?

“I don’t know,” Matthews said late Saturday night. “I didn’t really put any numbers on that. I just wanted to play hockey.”

Fitting that Matthews’ 40th goal in an eye-popping freshman season clinched a playoff spot for the Maple Leafs, coming with just a few seconds left in a 5-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Matthews, the favourite to win the Calder Trophy, recorded his 29th assist in the game, giving him a shot at 70 points when the Leafs play host to Columbus on Sunday to finish the regular season.

One season does not a career make, of course. But if Matthews, who turns 20 in September, continues on this path, he will become the franchise player the Leafs had an idea they were getting when they drafted him last June in Buffalo.

“He’s a special talent, and more importantly, he is a special person,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.

“That is going to allow him to be a real leader because he does it right every day and in the end that will allow him to drive a franchise and allow him to win.

“I think he is a real good player and a real good man and has a chance to be special.”

Matthews’ play and awareness when he does not have the puck has caught the attention of veterans across the NHL.

“It’s kind of the biggest thing coming in (back in the fall),” Matthews said. “ You’re used to having the puck in junior and in college and even over in Switzerland (last season) where the ice is a little bigger.

“Here, it’s tough to get the puck. Being in good position and making sure you are open for your D or your wingers is pretty important.

“All in all our team has got better, each game and each segment and each month. That has been the goal for everybody.”

Meanwhile, fellow rookie William Nylander broke another team freshman record on Saturday. Nylander recorded his 26th power-play point when he assisted on a goal by Tyler Bozak, setting a record. The old mark of 25 was set by Dan Daoust during the 1982-83 season.