Their roster was riddled with injuries, but it was still good enough for the Maple Leafs to beat the Blue Jackets 5-4 on Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena.
Toronto scored early and in clusters and then held on. Columbus scored twice in the last 3 minutes and 35 seconds, the last one by Max Domi on the buzzer.
It was another big night for Auston Matthews, providing some relief for Nick Ritchie and excitement for rookies Alex Steeves and Kristians Rubins who made their NHL debuts.
Matthews scored twice and extended his career-high seven-game goal streak, a period in which he scored 10 of his 17 for the season. The 24-year-old has scored 72 goals in his last 83 home games.
âIt’s nice,â Matthews said. âI just try to do the same thing and play hard every night. It’s been fun for about a month.
The match was effectively over after the first period. William Nylander scored his 11th goal, Matthews scored his 16th and Ritchie finally entered the scoreboard as Toronto took control.
Nylander scored a clean pass from Matthews within five minutes and Matthews and Ritchie scored 1 minute 22 seconds apart as the Maple Leafs put the visitors in a hole they couldn’t get out of.
Matthews’ night premiere came after a pass through the back and between the legs of Michael Bunting. Ritchie, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason, hadn’t scored any goals in his first 26 games for Toronto.
âIt’s been a while,â Ritchie said. He scored his best 15 career goals for Boston in 2020-21. “I wish it had happened a bit sooner, but it has happened and I hope I can build up my confidence and momentum.”
Ritchie’s teammates erupted in joy when he found the back of the net.
âThe whole bench was excited,â Matthews said. “He had a lot of chances but just got bitten by a snake.”
The victory improved the Maple Leafs’ record to 18-7-2 and kept them in a close race with the Florida Panthers for first place in the Atlantic Division of the NHL. Toronto has home games again on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
Rather than charge, the Maple Leafs hobbled and limped in their 27th game and fielded a mixed roster that could not have been anticipated in October.
Most seriously injured is Mitch Marner, who was placed on the reserve casualty list earlier today. The team’s top playmaker collided with Jake Muzzin in practice on Friday and has a mutilated shoulder. Marner missed the road losses on Saturday and Sunday and is now expected to miss at least three weeks and possibly four.
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said Marner had an MRI on Monday and the damage was worse than expected. Marner was fourth on the team with six goals and 21 points in 24 games.
Defenseman Rasmus Sandin, who was hit knee-to-knee by Neal Pionk of Winnipeg in Sunday’s loss to the Jets, joined Marner on the injured list. He will likely be away for two to three weeks. That’s less than expected as he left the arena on crutches on Sunday and still couldn’t put any weight on his leg on Monday.
“He also had an MRI and the results came back very positive,” Keefe said. âThere is no real structural damage. It will just take a while for the bruising and swelling to set in. “
In addition, defenseman Travis Dermott was excluded from the game against the Blue Jackets also due to a shoulder injury.
At the end of the game, the club learned that Jason Spezza had been suspended for six games for kneeling Pionk in retaliation for the blow that injured Sandin. Spezza, who has seven goals and replaced Marner in the front row on Saturday and Sunday, met with the league’s player safety department on Tuesday.
On Monday, the NHL suspended Pionk for two games.
âThere are things going on in this game – some unfortunate ones – and that’s definitely one of them,â Keefe said. Spezza did not dress on Tuesday night. “Everyone in the game knows Jason Spezza, his character and his integrity.”
With Marner and Spezza out, Wayne Simmonds and Bunting were promoted to the front row along with Matthews – and the other three rows were reshuffled. Alex Steeves, who played in the NCAA at Notre Dame, was promoted from the American Hockey League to the Marlies and played on the fourth line with Pierre Engvall and Kyle Clifford.
His family were in town this weekend to watch him compete for the Marlies and were on their way back to Minnesota the Manday when he was called up. Her father, a doctor, had boarded a flight but had disembarked before takeoff.
âThe whole night was ‘Welcome to the NHL,’ said Steeves. âYou can’t ask for more. “
Toronto also called up defensemen Kristians Rubins and Alex Biega. Like Steeves, Rubins made his NHL debut, while Biega was sacked after pre-game warm-ups.
âIt was a dream come true,â said Rubins, from Latvia. “What I will remember the most is my first shift and my first shot and realizing it was real.”
Toronto has done more than enough to make up for the absences of a handful of its players. Morgan Rielly has four assists and now has 19 with three goals.
John Tavares scored his 12th goal and Jack Campbell made 28 saves as his record improved to 14-4-2. Elvis Merzlikins was in the Columbus fold and made 25 saves in the loss. The Blue Jackets are down to 13-11 on aggregate and have lost five of their last six games.
Oliver Bjorkstrand scored his first two goals, the first on the power play with 8:21 left in the second period, which reduced the deficit to 3-1. Then Tavares took a shot from Rielly and Matthews beat Merzlikins 2-1 to put the game aside. The goals were scored just seven seconds apart.
Bjorkstrand beat Campbell in the 33rd second of the third period, followed by another by Sean Kuraly with 3:35 left. Max Domi added another with half a second to go, but it was too late for the visitors by then.
âWe’re happy with the result, but the process needs some work, especially in the third period,â said Rielly. âWe have to support the goalkeeper at the end. “