WASHINGTON If there was a way to fast forward to the playoffs, the Maple Leafs probably would have done it.
Still, they’ll return home from a three-game road trip a little worse for wear but with a come-from behind win: 4-3 over the Washington Capitals in a shootout on Sunday night. Alex Kerfoot — the seventh Toronto shooter — got the winner.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty. The Leafs were tired in their third road game in four nights and it showed — trailing 3-1 halfway through the third with Ilya Lyubushkin’s first-period goal the lone marker.
“A real gutsy effort, gritty effort for the guys to find a way,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We didn’t have much. It seemed like we’re playing on fumes most of the night. We were encouraging the guys at 3-1 to not accept their fate, but keep pushing and start with one.”
Ilya Mikheyev got things going. Then Jason Spezza scored to force overtime with the extra attacker and goalie Erik Källgren had the bounceback game he wanted — not just in regulation but seven rounds in the shootout.
Källgren had let in eight goals on Thursday in Tampa, but the Leafs seem intent on making sure starter Jack Campbell isn’t overused down the stretch. So it was on Källgren to prove that he was up to the task as the backup, and he had a terrific game.
“It sure felt a lot better than the Tampa game,” said Källgren. “I can’t change the past. So I just try to look at the video and learn from some mistakes I made and get better.”
His most significant save came in the third period with the game tied and Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway. He stopped the Washington scoring star, and inadvertently tripped him — sending him headfirst into the boards, then to the dressing room for examination. He did not return to the game, but appeared OK after.
“He skated into my stick and tripped on it,” said Källgren. “It was not my intention to trip him. I hope he’s well.”
Marcus Johansson and Lars Eller scored 68 seconds apart shortly after Ovechkin left, with Washington seemingly in control until Mikheyev ignited the comeback.
Two for two
With two games left in the regular season, Leafs centre Auston Matthews remained stuck at 58 goals. He still leads the league in that category, but hasn’t scored since a pair on April 9 in Montreal — a span of five games played, plus three missed with an undisclosed injury.
“It’s obviously not the best time of year to be dealing with something like that,” said defenceman Justin Holl, “but I’m sure he’ll be OK.”
It’s his longest goal drought of the season, and his teammates would love for him to get to 60.
“I think it’d be great,” said Holl. “But at the same time, it’s just a number. I don’t know if he cares about it that much. He’s had an awesome season and he’s a great player, and that’s pretty much all that matters.”
The shootout win salvaged the road trip for the Leafs, who had a chance to clinch second place in the Atlantic Division when it started but still need at least one more point to do so.
They started with an 8-1 loss in Tampa followed by a 3-2 overtime defeat in Florida, one that cost them first-line winger Michael Bunting to injury.
With Bunting unavailable, plus John Tavares and Timothy Liljegren scratched for rest, it meant a night of mixed-up lines and defence pairs. Forward Nick Abruzzese got some time on the top line. And defencemen Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie — once the top pair on the Calgary Flames — were reunited for the first time in Toronto.
So, the lineup coach Sheldon Keefe iced Sunday won’t be the one that debuts in the playoffs in a week.
Plenty of goals were scored in the first two periods, but only half of them counted, with the game tied 1-1 heading into the third and both teams launching successful reviews on plays that led to goals.
Ovechkin had a power-play goal nullified because of a missed hand pass caught by the Leafs video team. That was after Spezza also had a power-play goal called back after the Capitals spotted a missed offside.
That meant first-period goals from Lyubushkin and T.J. Oshie were all the scoresheet had to show through 40 minutes.
Tavares and Liljegren were given the night off. Keefe said in Tavares’s case “it’s just an opportunity for us to give him a breather here. He’s played a lot of hockey in particular.”
Tavares’s time on ice totals 1,412 minutes and nine seconds, 42nd among NHL forwards.
As for Liljegren: “He’s had some bumps along the way here too,” said Keefe.
Defenceman Jake Muzzin (undisclosed) was on the trip but didn’t play, unusual given the team knew it wouldn’t have a practice. Ondrej Kaše (concussion) and Rasmus Sandin (knee) remained in Toronto to practise.
Bunting (undisclosed) will be re-evaluated in Toronto after suffering a game-ending injury Saturday in Florida.
“He woke up this (Sunday) morning feeling a lot better than expected, frankly, based on how he was feeling (Saturday),” said Keefe. “So it’s a really good sign for us. We’ll know more on him when we get home and get a chance for him to get looked at.”
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