OTTAWA — Auston Matthews hasn’t had much luck finding the back of the net in recent weeks.
Still tied for the NHL goal lead, Toronto’s star centre had just three on 43 shots over his last 11 games coming into Thursday.
The frustration started to show with his team mirroring that slump, but the maturation in the 23-year-old’s craft this season has largely come without the puck.
With the Maple Leafs needing someone to step up at a key time against a plucky adversary, their best player delivered.
Matthews made a crucial interception in the neutral zone as part of a stunning sequence that eventually led to Justin Holl’s winner at 4:42 of overtime as the Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-2.
“He’s just elevated his game in so many ways,” Toronto forward Jason Spezza said of Matthews. “The great players have the sense to be big in the big moments.
“Auston has that.”
With the Senators poised to break the other way 3-on-1 with the clock ticking down in the extra period, Matthews knocked Thomas Chabot’s pass out of mid-air with his knee. He then sped the other way, driving hard to the net and nearly beating Ottawa goalie Anton Forsberg before Mitch Marner grabbed the loose puck and fed Holl to bury his second goal of the season into a yawning cage.
“I loved it,” Leafs netminder Jack Campbell, who made 29 saves, said of Matthews’ kick save in the neutral zone. “He’s a phenomenal athlete.
“He probably could play any position he wanted in any sport.”
Spezza and Ilya Mikheyev had the other goals for Toronto (21-10-2), which has won two straight following an ugly 1-6-0 run and sits alone atop the North Division.
Alex Formenton and Connor Brown replied for Ottawa (12-20-4). Forsberg stopped 38 shots in his first appearance with the Senators after being claimed on waivers last Wednesday.
“He was unbelievable,” Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith said. “He gave us every opportunity to win.”
Playing a third game in four nights after beating the Calgary Flames twice earlier in the week, the rebuilding Senators are now 3-3-1 this season against their provincial rival and are on a six-game point streak (3-0-3) for the first time since 2016-17.
“We battled hard,” Smith added. “To get to overtime’s pretty gutsy.”
The Senators got there thanks to puck-handling mistakes from Campbell on both of their goals.
“They just can’t go in,” he said. “Instead of thinking about how bad I feel … it’s about the team. They need the next save and they need better plays from me.
“When they’re playing that strong, all I could think about was shutting the door.”
Campbell, who made 31 saves in Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Calgary in just his second start since the end of January because of a leg injury, is currently Toronto’s best option with the struggling Frederik Andersen out until at least the middle of next week with a lower-body ailment.
“Finding a rhythm’s really huge,” Campbell said after improving to 5-0-0. “I’m just really enjoying whenever my number’s called.”
The Leafs were playing just their third game in the last 11 days to begin a jam-packed part of the schedule that won’t see them get another 48-hour break until the second week of April.
Ottawa’s musical chairs in the crease continued with Forsberg, who watched rookie Filip Gustavsson pick up victories in his first two NHL starts against the Flames, becoming the team’s fifth goalie to see action this season.
The Senators are Forsberg’s fourth organization of the NHL’s pandemic-shortened campaign after signing with Edmonton in October and getting claimed on waivers by Carolina, Winnipeg and Ottawa since January.
“There’s been a lot of practice time,” Forsberg said following his first NHL appearance in more than a year. “It was a lot of fun to go out and play.”
With the teams knotted 1-1 through 40 minutes, Zach Hyman rang a backhand off the crossbar two minutes into the third period after stealing the puck in the offensive zone.
Spezza, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 NHL draft by Ottawa now in the twilight of his career with the Leafs, blasted his eighth _ and third in an as many games _ at 10:41 of the third period on a shot that deflected off Senators defenceman Nikita Zaitsev to give Toronto its first lead at 2-1.
But the home side responded at 13:14 when Campbell made his second gaffe of the night. After the netminder swiped at a loose puck with his stick on a dump in, Formenton was quickest to pounce and scored his first of the campaign — and first in the NHL since Oct. 2018 — to force overtime.
“They play really hard,” Holl said of the Senators. “They’re a lot better team than their record indicates. They’ve been really good as of late.”
The Leafs tied the game 1-1 with 5:20 left in the second when T.J. Brodie’s deflection off a Hyman pass hit Forsberg’s far post before hitting Mikheyev’s shoulder and in for the winger’s fifth.
Both goalies had to be sharp earlier in the period on a flurry of chances.
Campbell made a nice blocker stop on Tim Stutzle seven minutes into the second before also denying Evgenii Dadonov. Josh Norris, who came in with goals in three of his last four games, then saw another chance thwarted after he made a nice move around Morgan Rielly.
Matthews — currently level atop the NHL goal race with Connor McDavid with 21 — then had a great opportunity at the other end off a Rielly feed that Forsberg snagged with his glove.
The well-rested Leafs had a distinct territorial advantage in the opening 20 minutes before Campbell’s error on a Toronto power play gifted Ottawa a 1-0 lead late in the first. Attempting to play the puck behind his net, he got too cute and saw his clearing attempt deflect off the pressuring Chris Tierney’s stick right in front to Brown, who buried his seventh at 18:53.
“We kept our composure,” Spezza said. “That shows a lot about the growth of our club … to stay with it.
“To get the win is huge. Auston makes an elite play by and elite player.”