LANCE HORNBY, Postmedia Network
, Last Updated: 11:04 PM ET
NASHVILLE – The day began with a tornado warning in this part of Tennessee and ended with the Maple Leafs serving notice they won’t bend under playoff race pressure.
In less than two weeks, Toronto has taken huge points from teams abreast of them in the standings, with another telling effort Thursday, a 3-1 win against the Predators. In what’s becoming their formula — survive a couple of early hiccups thanks to Frederik Andersen, check tight and rely on young snipers and special teams, their record is now 9-2-1 in the past 12 tests.
That includes points taken at the expense of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets and Predators, teams not in their conference, but valuable nonetheless in the air-tight East. The Leafs also passed Boston in that stretch.
Toronto had encouraging news on the out of town board before it hit the ice at Bridgestone Arena, with the New York Islanders taking it on the chin in Philly. That might be it for the Isles, with Boston still the East’s wild-card team and only the Tampa Bay Lightning and long shots Carolina threatening the Leafs and Bruins. Toronto has six games remaining, including final road games Saturday in Detroit and Monday in Buffalo.
A sleepy first period was coming to an end when a couple of Predators took exception to a Matt Martin hit. Austin Watson wound up with the minor for roughing and Toronto’s top ranked road power play quickly went to work. Nikita Zaitsev, who was bailed out by Andersen on an earlier giveway in Toronto’s end, retreated to get a good shot away and just stayed on side before his release. James van Riemsdyk, with his back to goalie Pekka Rinne, re-directed it for his 24th.
It was Zaitsev’s 30th assist and Mitch Marner’s helper on the same goal gave him the 41 required to beat Gus Bodnar’s rookie record that had stood since 1943-44. William Nylander’s 12-game points’ streak, the club’s rookie record, was halted.
Tyler Bozak, who had only 18 penalty minutes all season, was laughing with the off-ice officials when he visited them twice in the same second period. That was part of three straight calls against the Leafs in that frame with Leo Komarov also whistled. Exhausted specialist Zach Hyman couldn’t take his regular shift afterwards, but the Leafs still had plenty of gas for another power-play strike. After being turned back at the blue line a couple of times, they clicked when Connor Brown found Auston Matthews for a high snap, his 36th goal.
Filip Forsberg finally solved Andersen halfway through the third, left alone to snap in his 30th. A big save on Mike Fisher followed, but so did a Roman Polak penalty to give the Preds a last gasp advantage. One puck did get behind Andersen with Polak in the box, but the Leafs survived the crease scramble. Nashville’s late push gave them a 30-17 advantage in shots.
The hard-hitting detail-oriented Preds don’t quite have a playoff spot clinched, but had won seven of the past nine coming in and should wrap up at least a wild-card berth soon. P.K. Subban was warning mates not to let standards slip even when they do get in, but it was a forgettable first period. Viktor Arvidsson swung and missed at the best chance Nashville had with Toronto’s Connor Carrick in the box. He, too, is one goal from 30.
Anderson, back after missing five periods with a suspected head injury, had a couple of heart-skipping moments in the period, the Zaitsev giveaway and when a James Neal shot went high on the glass behind him and bounced back on top of the net. Unsure if it would get knocked loose and drop in, Andersen sprawled to hit his big mitt on it.
Coach Mike Babcock was relieved his No. 1 goalie would not miss any more time in this crucial stretch.
“Let’s not take away anything that (Curtis McElhinney) did, but Freddy wasn’t feeling good for a couple of days. So we had to give him the break. He still practised, so it’s not like he lost anything. We have to play well in front of him and that gives him a chance to be good.”