TORONTO – Curtis McElhinney still feels spry, even as the most senior member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I'm hanging out with 20-year-olds," McElhinney said with a grin. "It's one of those things that keeps you young."
The 33-year-old goalie might be getting up there in age by Maple Leafs standards — he's one of only five Toronto players 30 or older — but his play has been anything but creaky. McElhinney stopped 39 shots in his third start for the Leafs on Tuesday night, helping them to a much-needed 3-1 victory over the Dallas Stars.
It was just the second win in six games (2-3-1) for Toronto, which yielded 22 goals over the previous four.
Dallas got only one past McElhinney, who has delivered exactly what the Maple Leafs were hoping for when they picked him up off waivers from Columbus last month. Toronto wanted someone to solidify the backup goaltending position while providing support to first-year No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen. Jhonas Enroth was expected to fill those duties, but he struggled in only four starts with the team and was placed on waivers himself in early December.
McElhinney is 2-1-0 in three starts for Toronto with a .964 save percentage, yielding no more than two goals in any of those games.
The Maple Leafs will need him to keep that up, intent on playing the veteran on the second night of back-to-back sets — six of which remain — the rest of the way.
Head coach Mike Babcock is pleased with the early returns and complimented McElhinney for the effect he's having on his young group as well as Andersen, who's struggled in the new year amid a heavy workload (43 starts this season).
"He works hard every single day," Babcock said of the London, Ontario, native. "So when it's his turn, it's not lucky that he plays good. He's actually earned the right to play good and feel good about himself."
McElhinney, who posted a .924 save percentage in seven appearances with the Blue Jackets this season, came up big at various points against the Stars. There was the four-minute power play Dallas drew toward the end of the first period, with the Leafs' netminder stopping all six shots that came his way.
He was sturdy, too, as Toronto tried to protect a lead in the third period, turning aside 16 of 17 shots in the final 20 minutes. The only one to beat him was Tyler Seguin's one-timer on a power play. The Stars nearly scored again short-handed minutes later, but Jamie Benn's opportunity was denied by McElhinney, who was subsequently driven to the ice on the play by Adam Cracknell.
McElhinney remained down for a few moments but stayed in the game.
"You just want to be big in there," said McElhinney, who is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, and claimed to be winded from the collision with Cracknell. "Pucks were hitting me and the rebounds were there, too, but the guys were doing a good job of clearing it out."
Clearing foes around the net had been a problem for the Maple Leafs recently, especially Monday night in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Islanders. New York picked Toronto apart in that respect, pouncing on rebound opportunities and loose pucks around Andersen, who yielded six goals on 34 shots.
"I thought we were way harder around our net in our own zone than we were (Monday) night when we were light in that area," Babcock said.
Toronto's coach also saw his team do a better job of protecting a third-period lead after two slipped away one night earlier. The Maple Leafs improved to 20-1-7 when leading after two periods.
"We turn it into something it's not," Babcock said. "It's just a game. Just play like the game's tied and go get the next one. Don't be conservative. Don't back up. Don't protect anything. Just play the damn game."
Auston Matthews scored his team-leading 25th goal — most among NHL rookies — by redirecting Jake Gardiner's point shot past Antti Niemi in the second period for a 2-0 Toronto lead. Gardiner got the first goal in similar fashion, his point drive off an offensive zone faceoff win by Tyler Bozak sailing under the glove of the Stars' goaltender.
Mitch Marner set up the shot with his 32nd assist of the season and 46th point. Both marks lead the Leafs. The 19-year-old is riding a five-game point streak, during which he's racked up three goals and four assists.
Nikita Zaitsev also scored for the Maple Leafs on a 5-on-3 advantage.
NOTES: Dallas has dropped six of eight. ... 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. ... Toronto, which plays seven of the next nine at the Air Canada Centre, hasn't lost to Dallas at home since Dec. 23, 2008.
Stars: Thursday night at Ottawa.
Maple Leafs: Thursday night at home against St. Louis.