TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin joked Tuesday morning that Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe's requested he score 10 goals in his return to the NHL.
Two assists and a calm, poised performance from the 19-year-old defenceman looking to plug a hole on Toronto's injury-hit blue line also worked just fine.
Sandin was a key contributor in a quick-strike first period before Auston Matthews scored three times to snap his hat-trick hex as the Leafs beat the New Jersey Devils 7-4.
John Tavares added a goal and two assists, while William Nylander and Zach Hyman, both with two-point nights, and Frederik Gauthier provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (25-16-6), which halted a three-game winless streak accented by Sunday's ugly 8-4 road loss to the Florida Panthers.
Frederik Andersen made 24 saves for the Leafs after getting pulled in two of his team's last three outings.
Sandin, who starred for Sweden at the recent world junior hockey championship, was recalled from the American Hockey League after Toronto lost No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly to a broken foot.
The club's first-round pick in 2018, Sandin made his NHL debut Oct. 2 and had two assists in six games before getting sent down to the minors.
After registering three goals and 10 points to help his country win bronze at the under-20 tournament in the Czech Republic, and three assists in two AHL games over the weekend, he put on a show in his return to the show.
"I feel confident," said Sandin, who was named the top defenceman at the world juniors. "The group is really good and helps me in every way they can."
Blake Coleman, with his first-career hat trick, and P.K. Subban scored for New Jersey (17-22-7). Louis Domingue allowed five goals on 19 shots before getting yanked midway through the second. Cory Schneider, who was only just summoned from the AHL, came on in relief and finished with 13 saves. Will Butcher had three assists.
"We didn't start on time," Coleman said. "We owe Louis a game. That was inexcusable."
Matthews, who came in with eight two-goal contests this season and hadn't scored three since the four-spot he dropped in his NHL curtain-raiser on Oct. 12, 2016, was impressed with Sandin's showing.
"He's fun to watch," Matthews said. "He made an immediate impact."
As for going 257 regular-season games between hat tricks, Matthews wasn't in a joking mood.
"I mean, I figured I'd get one sometime," he said.
But linemate Mitch Marner, who assisted on two of the goals, found a bit of humour in the deadly sniper's unusual streak.
"It's pretty funny," he said. "We've actually talked about it a couple times ... I'm sure that's a big relief."
What also allowed the Leafs to exhale was a decent defensive performance, save for stretches of the second period and a semi meltdown late that allowed the lowly Devils to make the score more respectable, in their first game without Rielly.
The 25-year-old has been battling a suspected lower-body ailment most of the season and hasn't scored since Oct. 25, but his absence for at least the next eight weeks is huge for a team whose back end was already minus the bruising and dependable Jake Muzzin.
"We controlled the puck well," Marner said. "We got away from it a little bit in the second."
Rielly is the latest key piece to go down for the Leafs, who have had to do without Tavares, Marner, Hyman, Alexander Kerfoot, Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott at various points this season.
"The elite teams in the league don't get fazed by these types of situations," Keefe said Tuesday morning of his depleted blue line. "We believe we are an elite team and have the ability to take big steps as a group."
Sandin stepped up early, providing the point shot that Tavares tipped home for his 18th goal of the season at 5:18 of the first.
Toronto made it 2-0 at 9:10 after Jason Spezza won a battle behind New Jersey's net. The puck eventually found its way to Gauthier, and he wheeled in front before firing his sixth.
The Leafs then connected on their second power play of the evening in the dying seconds of the period when Hyman tipped in his 12th off another point shot from Sandin as he was being cross-checked in front.
"The biggest thing about (Sandin's) game is his poise," Keefe said. "He has that in spades."
Nylander got in on the action 2:12 into the second with his 20th to snap a four-game goal drought.
Andersen, who entered with a shaky .880 save percentage over his last eight appearances, made a nice stop on a New Jersey power play later in the period before Coleman muscled his way through score at 6:56.
Toronto, which had given up 17 goals against over a troubling 0-2-1 stretch, got that one back on another man advantage at 10:39 when Matthews redirected a nice pass from Marner for his 32nd to make it 5-1.
Schneider, who spent nearly two months in the AHL, steadied things for a time in New Jersey's crease, but a wide-open Matthews buried his 33rd off another Marner delivery at 3:58.
Coleman scored his second of the evening with eight minutes left and completed his first-career hat trick at 15:36 to give the winger 18 goals.
Subban added his sixth on a 6-on-3 power play with Schneider off for an extra attacker with 1:58 on the clock.
But Matthews put things to bed with 80 seconds remaining when he scored into an empty net for his 34th to match the centre's jersey number.
"Good bounce-back game," said Matthews, who sits just two goals back of Boston's David Pastrnak for the NHL lead. "A little bit of a lull in the second period. Some stuff we'd like to clean up and do better.
"But, all in all, nice to get back in the win column."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press