The Canadian Press
TORONTO–The jubilant cheers coming from the Maple Leafs’ locker-room very easily could have been swapped out for a collective sigh of relief.
Nazem Kadri recorded his fifth-career hat trick as part of a four-point night, and Auston Matthews snapped the second-longest goal drought of his career, as Toronto doubled the free-falling Washington Capitals 6-3 last night.
William Nylander, who came in with just four points in 20 games since the end of his contract impasse, added three assists as the Leafs picked up a much-needed win heading into the NHL all-star break and their league-mandated bye week.
“We wanted this one,” Kadri said. “We wanted to feel good about ourselves.”
Toronto, which doesn’t play again until Feb. 1, had lost two-straight, five-of-six at Scotiabank Arena (including four in a row), and seven of its last 10 overall.
“We’ve felt like we’ve been trending in the right direction,” Kadri noted.
“It’s definitely nice to play a full 60 [minutes] and beat a good team.”
Nikita Zaitsev and Mitch Marner (empty net) had the other goals for the Leafs (30-17-2) while Morgan Rielly and Connor Brown added two assists each.
“Once we put in that kind of work, we can play with anybody,” said Toronto goalie Frederik Andesen, who stopped 41 shots.
Nicklas Backstrom, with a goal and an assist, Alex Ovechkin, and Matt Niskanen replied for the Capitals (27-17-6).
Playing for a third time in four nights, the defending Stanley Cup champs lost their seventh-straight game (0-5-2).
Braden Holtby, who had allowed 11 goals on his last 54 shots against before last night, finished with 31 saves.
Washington lost 8-6 in Chicago on Sunday and 7-6 to San Jose in overtime on Tuesday.
The Capitals have given up 21 goals in its last three outings and have been outscored 36-17 during their slide.
Kadri also is the third-straight member of the opposition to register a hat trick after Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and San Jose’s Tomas Hertl.
“We can’t give up that number of goals,” stressed head coach Todd Reirden, whose team has eight days to contemplate its latest setback.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to keep the puck out of our net.”
With his goal, Ovechkin, who is skipping the all-star festivities in San Jose and will have to sit out Washington’s game on Feb. 1 as a result, tied Sergei Fedorov for top spot all-time among Russian-born players with 1,179 points.
Matthews, who had gone seven-straight games without a goal and had just one in his last 13, snapped a 2-2 tie with 3:41 left in the second when he ripped his 21st of the season through Holtby’s pads on a Toronto man advantage.
The goal was a huge relief for Matthews and for the Leafs’ power play, which had gone just 6-for-52 since early December.
“It felt pretty good,” said Matthews, who is heading to the all-star game with teammate John Tavares.
“Kind of takes your mind off of it a little bit.”
Matthews played on line at 5-on-5 with Marner for the first time in their two-and-a-half seasons–something he would like see continue.
“We controlled the play a lot,” noted Matthews, before adding with a wry grin, “I’m not sure [head coach Mike Babcock] likes it too much, but I enjoy playing with him.”
Kadri made it 4-2 with his second of the night at 2:10 of the third, blasting a one-timer off the rush.
The Toronto centre then completed the hat trick at 10:15. Nylander carried the puck into the zone before dropping it to Brown, whose one-timer went off the crossbar and post before ricocheting to Kadri.
The Capitals got one back with 2:46 to play when Niskanen’s shot deflected in off a Toronto player but Marner scored his 20th into an empty net.
After Backstrom and Kadri traded goals late in the first, the Capitals pushed ahead at 3:51 of the second when Ovechkin hammered his league-leading 38th past Andersen.
Toronto woke up after that with a couple of spirited shifts before Zaitsev took a pass from Nylander in the slot at 13:11 and fired his first through a screen.
Nylander had his most productive outing of the campaign by far, accented by a nice backcheck on Ovechkin earlier in the shift that led to his pass to Zaitsev.
“I might not have wanted the break right now,” he joked.
Elsewhere in the NHL, Montreal edged Arizona 2-1, Carolina beat Vancouver 5-2, Minnesota downed Colorado 5-2, Nashville nipped Vegas 2-1, and St. Louis dumped Anaheim 5-1.