‘A win is a win, right?’ Leafs start hot and hang on in Columbus
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For the first time in a long time, the Maple Leafs’ goaltending breathed life into a win when the defence appeared on the verge of another collapse.
Petr Mrázek held the fort, especially in the third period, in a hard-fought 5-4 victory over the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Monday night.
The Leafs blitzed the Jackets in the first period to build a 3-0 lead, including Auston Matthews’s 40th goal — the first to reach that plateau in the NHL this season.
Columbus, though, erased that lead with a much improved second period. After being outshot 13-5 in the first — 33-10 in total shot attempts — the Jackets cut lead to 3-2 after two.
Columbus, which entered the game tied for the NHL lead with 18 comeback wins, came all the way back on a power-play goal early in the third period from Columbus native Jack Roslovic. But Alex Kerfoot put Toronto back up less than two minutes later.
Then it was up to Mrázek to hold off Columbus, which outshot Toronto 14-13 in the second and 16-7 in the third.
“I thought he played a lot better than the stat line will come in as,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said about Mrázek, who made 31 stops in all. “I think he stood strong, especially in the third period, and it was good to see him get that win.”
Mrázek was called on for several key saves in the third as the Columbus forecheck began to wear the Leafs down in their own zone. That bought time for the offence to get back on track, with Michael Bunting rounding out the Toronto scoring after Kerfoot’s goal.
Patrik Laine scored seconds after a Columbus power play to make it interesting at 5-4, but Mrázek sealed the win with two terrific saves in the dying moments.
“A win is a win, right? That’s what matters the most,” Mrázek said. “I felt good out there. There was a lot of good stuff by our forwards and defence. They cleared things out, and I could see a lot of pucks and be aggressive.”
Fine line The line of Matthews, Bunting and Mitch Marner continued to sizzle with three goals and five points — all in the first period. They have 40 points combined over the past seven games.
Matthews tied Darryl Sittler’s franchise record of four seasons with 40 goals or more. Meanwhile, Marner, who also scored in the first, became the first Leaf since Sittler in 1980 to notch 20 points over a span of 10 road games.
“I play with some great players … we’re a very close group. Our line, we feed off each other and we really try to support each out there,” Matthews said.
More on Matthews and Marner: They each have posted 60 points or more in their first five seasons. And Bunting’s goal was his 20th of the season, tops among NHL rookies. Matthews and Bunting were joking with each other on the bench after that one.
“Actually, we were arguing about who put (the puck) in the net, but just jokingly arguing,” Matthews said. “It was a big goal for us and (Bunting) has been huge for us all year. We’ve built a lot of chemistry and we’re getting a sense all the time of where each other is going to be on the ice.”
Added Bunting: “No matter what, it was a big goal. And I don’t want to be taking goals from (Matthews). He’s in a race now (for a second Rocket Richard Trophy).”
Milestone in sight Jason Spezza picked up an assist on Kerfoot’s goal, giving him 990 career points.
Up next The Leafs have a quick turnaround, with the expansion Seattle Kraken paying a visit to Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night.
Mark Zwolinski is a Toronto-based sports reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol