Leafs fall just short against Blackhawks in OT; Matthews breaks drought in defeat

Blackhawks top Maple Leafs in OT

TORONTO — James van Riemsdyk had victory on his tape as he raced in alone on Corey Crawford in overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks.

But the 27-year-old’s backhand attempt was kicked away by the right pad of the Canadian goaltender. Ryan Hartman scored about two minutes later to ice it for the Blackhawks, the Leafs coming up just short against the top team in the West, downed 2-1 on Saturday evening.

“The ice was brutal so I was just trying to do something where the puck wouldn’t hop on me,” van Riemsdyk said of his overtime attempt. 

The single point helped the Leafs keep their hold on the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has 79 points with 12 games to play — one up on the New York Islanders and two up on the Tampa Bay Lightning, both teams with one less game to play.

It’s the fifth time in the last six games that the Leafs have picked up at least a point (4-1-1).

“You always take the points you can get and run with them, especially with the race that we’re in,” van Riemsdyk said.

Auston Matthews broke out of his goal drought in defeat for Toronto, which raced back and forth with Chicago all night long at the Air Canada Centre. 

Frederik Andersen had to be sharp to keep his team close, the 27-year-old denying 37 of the 39 shots the Blackhawks pelted his way.

“Every day you talk about how big the game is, but that’s what we’re going to do right ’til the end — you can just tell by looking at it,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of the playoff race out east. “That’s a huge point for us today, an absolutely huge point. But we’ve got to keep getting better.”

Babcock felt his team limited quality chances against the Blackhawks, who have now won four in a row while sitting on top of the Western Conference with 97 points. Andersen, though, did have to come up with big stops throughout the evening, including a blocker save on reigning Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane just before Matthews made it 1-0.

Matthews hadn’t registered a goal or point since Feb. 28 before he redirected a William Nylander pass between the pads of Crawford near the midway point of the opening frame. It was the 32nd goal of the year for the 19-year-old, who inched to within two goals of Wendel Clark’s franchise rookie record (34 in 1985-86).

Nylander set a new career-high, meanwhile, by extending his point streak to seven games on the play. The 20-year-old has seven points in that span and 51 points on the season — tied for fourth on the Leafs and fourth among all NHL rookies.

The Blackhawks have been the NHL’s second-best team since Jan. 1, top stars like Kane and captain Jonathan Toews emerging especially in recent weeks. They looked like a dominant and Stanley Cup contender often against the Leafs, a rush of speed, skill and hearty puck possession.

At one point early in the third Kane and Toews were on the ice together for a shift in the Toronto zone that lingered and lingered, but ultimately failed to result in a goal for the visitors.

Even-strength shot attempts only just favoured Chicago 60-57.

The Leafs of today are often compared to the Blackhawks of earlier years, with the influx of young stars who appear to have them positioned for a potential future of Cup contention. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville even voiced such an opinion in conversation with Babcock on Saturday morning.

Babcock cited Chicago’s three Cups since 2010 and the challenge of reaching that level as he sought to slow comparisons between the two original-six franchises.

“Well, you hope there are similarities,” he said.

Toronto actually held Chicago to eight high-danger scoring chances at evenstrength while managing 11 at Crawford. Nylander notably fired a shot off the crossbar while Matthews had a pair of other prime opportunities in tight around the Blackhawks net, both of which were denied by the Chicago netminder.

“As good as we played at times I thought we were very respectful of them and I would’ve liked to see us go after them a little bit more, but that’s all part of the process too,” Babcock said. 

A third-round pick in 2013, John Hayden scored his first NHL goal to even the game at one midway through the second before Hartman won it in overtime. The 22-year-old, rushing in with Artemi Panarin, pretended to load up for a slapper before sliding a shot past Andersen.

The Leafs wore green and white uniforms that paid tribute to an earlier era (1919-27) when the club was still known as the St. Pats. It’s only the second time since the club became the Maple Leafs in 1927 that the uniforms have been worn — the first time coming in 2002.

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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