TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs feel like they can keep up with the NHL-leading Boston Bruins. They just need to do it for three consecutive periods.
Pavel Zacha scored twice in the third as Boston surged past the Maple Leafs 5-2 on Wednesday. After a scoreless first period, Toronto trailed 2-1 at the second intermission before the Bruins blew the game open.
"I thought we were with them nearly the whole way," said Leafs forward Mitch Marner, who had a power-play goal in the second. "Just in the third, I don't know if I'd call it cheating but we were pushing hard and gave up a couple of odd-man chances and it cost us."
Calle Jarnkrok had a goal in the third to keep Toronto (31-13-8) in the game. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said that although Boston is 13 points ahead of his team heading into the all-star break, he feels that in a head-to-head matchup, the Atlantic Division rivals are close.
"The margins are thin," said Keefe, who noted that the Bruins' goal differential is 41 goals better than the next best team in the league. "It's a significant gap between them and the rest of the league when you look at the season in its entirety to this point.
"But when you're in the game, you're right there. That's what's tough."
Ilya Samsonov stopped 24 shots in his eighth consecutive game in net for Toronto. He said he has been a little sick recently but Keefe was confident the all-star break would do Samsonov good.
"It's February in Ontario," said Keefe. "Everybody's battling something."
Derek Forbort and Brandon Carlo both had goals in the second as Boston (39-7-5) snapped a three-game winless streak. A.J. Greer's goal early in the third stood as the winner.
Goaltender Linus Ullmark made 33 saves for the win in net.
Of the four Bruins scorers, only Zacha has double digits in goals this season, with his two on Wednesday lifting him to 11. Carlo said it's important for Boston to count on its depth players for offence too.
"We all want to contribute in that aspect when we can," said Carlo, who has two goals on the season. "It's great when you do get the result from it. I think it gives the rest of the guys a boost as well.
"We want to be a great support system to the guys who are scoring all the time and occasionally do our part too."
After a scoreless first period, Forbort snapped home a short-handed goal 6:57 into the second.
Marner replied 2:28 later. After a long leading pass off the boards from Samsonov, Marner skated through the faceoff circle and snapped a shot past Ullmark to tie it 1-1.
Carlo re-established Boston's one-goal lead a little over three minutes later, deflecting a pass by Samsonov from a wide angle.
Early in the third, Toronto centre David Kampf had his arm around a hard-charging Greer and let go of his own stick to avoid taking a penalty. Greer took advantage of the opening and snapped a shot past Samsonov to make it 3-1.
"We've got to be dialed in in every little detail and just a lot of execution is needed," said Leafs captain John Tavares.
Jarnkrok swatted in a rebound off of Ullmark's pads after a shot from Mark Giordano deflected out to the slot at 8:38.
Jarnkrok's goal was still being announced over the public address system when Zacha shed his defender and wired a shot from the point past Samsonov to restore Boston's two-goal lead.
Zacha put away his second of the night 3:11 later. Standing just a few feet from Samsonov's crease, he dropped to a knee to one-time a pass from David Krejci into the net.
"I think that line is very dynamic," said Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery. "It's one of the most creative lines in the league.
"(Zacha's) a little bit of a glue guy that has to do a lot of the dirty work, so to speak, drive the middle lane, be the first guy on the forecheck, first guy in the back check."
TAVARES PUNK'D — Tavares celebrated his 1,000th NHL game on Sunday with two assists in Toronto's 5-1 win over Washington. Timothy Liljegren decided to have a little fun at his captain's expense after the game, awarding the team's MVP belt to Giordano instead of Tavares. Giordano said on Wednesday he had intended to give a long speech to really rub salt in Tavares's wound but when he looked around the room he knew he had to give the belt to its proper recipient.
"The joke got a few guys and they were already pretty upset that we didn't give it to John so I had to turn it over pretty quick," laughed Giordano.
UP NEXT — It was both teams' final game before the all-star break.
Toronto won't play again until Feb. 10 when the Maple Leafs travel to Columbus to face the Blue Jackets.
The Bruins won't play again until Feb. 11 when Boston hosts the Capitals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press