TORONTO (AP) — Rookie sensation Auston Matthews scored his team-leading 25th goal and the scuffling Toronto Maple Leafs picked up a much-needed victory by beating the Dallas Stars 3-1 on Tuesday night.
Curtis McElhinney made 39 saves as the Maple Leafs won for the second time in six games (2-3-1). Struggling defensively of late, Toronto held the Stars in check after yielding 22 goals over the previous four games.
Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev also scored for the Maple Leafs, third in the Atlantic Division with 60 points.
Antti Niemi stopped 31 shots and Tyler Seguin scored for Dallas. The Stars haven’t won at Toronto since Dec. 23, 2008.
Both teams entered in the midst of wobbly spells. The Maple Leafs had dropped four of five, including a 6-5 overtime loss to the New York Islanders in Brooklyn on Monday night. The Stars, meanwhile, had fallen in five of seven, with one victory during that stretch coming against Toronto a week earlier in Dallas.
It was the home side that got the early jump off an offensive zone faceoff nine minutes in.
After Tyler Bozak beat Adam Cracknell on the draw, Mitch Marner scooped up the puck and fed Gardiner at the point. The 26-year-old wired a one-timer under the glove of Niemi, who has struggled all season for Dallas.
A Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, Niemi ranks near the bottom of the NHL in save percentage.
Gardiner, who had two points on the night, is up to seven goals on the season, equaling the mark he posted in 79 games last season. Marner added an assist on the play, his 32nd of the season and 46th point, both marks leading the Maple Leafs. The 19-year-old is riding a five-game point streak, during which he’s racked up three goals and four assists.
Dallas outshot Toronto 16-10 over the first 20 minutes, coming close when Esa Lindell fired a shot off the post behind McEhlinney with the Stars pressing.
The Stars had another terrific chance to even things up late in the period when Nazem Kadri was whistled for both hooking and cross-checking, drawing four minutes in the box. The Stars came up with six shots, but every one of them was stopped by McElhinney.
The 33-year-old was making his third start since joining the Maple Leafs off waivers from Columbus in mid-January. The London, Ontario, product was pegged to fill a backup role that shuffled warily between Jhonas Enroth and rookie Antoine Bibeau earlier this season.
McElhinney allowed only two goals in each of his first two starts with the club, and delivered another stable outing on Tuesday.
Toronto increased the lead to two late in the middle frame on a play that mirrored the first goal. Matthews won an offensive zone draw to Gardiner at the point, his shot then redirected past Niemi by the 19-year-old center, who leads NHL rookies in goals this season.
Zach Hyman’s holding penalty in the first few minutes of the third opened the door for Dallas once more and this time the Stars came through. Cody Eakin beat veteran Ben Smith cleanly on the offensive zone draw, feeding it right to Seguin stationed to his left. The winger whistled a one-timer past McElhinney, cutting Toronto’s lead to 2-1.
Dallas nearly scored again short-handed minutes later, but Jamie Benn’s opportunity was denied by McElhinney. The goaltender was subsequently driven to the ice by Cracknell, remaining down for a few moments before ultimately staying in the game.
McElhinney stopped 16 of 17 shots in the third.
The Maple Leafs scored with a 5-on-3 advantage when Zaitsev fired a shot through traffic past Niemi. It was only the second NHL goal this season for the 25-year-old rookie, and first since Dec. 17.
Toronto managed to protect a third-period lead after letting two slip away against the Islanders one night earlier.
NOTES: The Maple Leafs are 3-8-1 when playing on the second night of a back-to-back. … Marner ranks among the NHL scoring leaders since Jan. 1, with 20 points in 17 games.
Stars: Thursday night at Ottawa.
Maple Leafs: Thursday night at home against St. Louis.