Maple Leafs jump Bruins for third in Atlantic after beating Blue Jackets
Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (right) celebrates with forward Mitch Marner after Nylander's goal against the Blue Jackets during second period NHL action in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. (Paul Vernon/AP Photo)
So many things have to go right for an underdog team such as the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs.
And yet the post-season gods are smiling upon them, especially the most recent three games, when they took five of a possible six points against clubs higher in the standings. As of now, they sit third in the Atlantic Division, passing the Boston Bruins in perhaps the least likely match to generate a positive result on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets who harbour Presidents’ Trophy ambitions.
Toronto’s 5-2 win, a slate of 6-1-1 in their last eight with Frederik Andersen in net, included weathering early Jackets’ pressure, losing its two-goal lead then an astounding five-minute penalty kill on a memorable single shift that stretched to 6:54 because the Leafs had no one in the penalty box who could come out.
“This is just the start for us,” promised centre Nazem Kadri, whose 30th goal provided a late two-goal lead before Nikita Zaitsev’s empty netter. “We control our own destiny and we feel comfortable where we’re at. Even if other teams get wins, a little help (on the out of town board as they’re getting in buckets of late) that never hurts.”
After a tie against Chicago and a home win over Boston, Mitch Marner came into this game needing one assist for 40 and a tie of the team record for rookie assists held by Gus Bodnar in 1943-44. But it was William Nylander’s assist on Auston Matthews’ 33rd goal that was noteworthy, his ninth straight game with at least a point, tying the team record, first set by Bodnar and then in ensuing seasons by Bob Nevin and Dan Daoust. After Columbus scored two, Nylander also broke away down the right side and flicked his 20th past Joonas Korpisalo.
That gave he and Matthews 20 goals apiece, the first Leafs rookies since Wendel Clark and Steve Thomas, in 1985-86, to reach that many in the same season. The focus on Thursday back home against New Jersey will be on Marner’s assist mark or Matthews tying Clark’s rookie mark of 34 goals from 1985-86.
Matthews’ goal came with Brandon Dubinsky in the box for roughing, having taken exception to Connor Carrick’s thundering hit on Josh Anderson. The game was already off to an unintentionally rough start when Leo Komarov knocked a rushing Nick Foligno off stride, sending him crashing into the boards and landing on top of the Jackets’ captain.
Toronto coach Mike Babcock put the emphasis on being physical against Columbus, believing his team was pushed around here in its last recent loss. Then came Roman Polak boarding Oliver Bjorkstrand with the Leafs up 3-2. It escaped the notice of the whole Leafs bench that no one was put in the box to serve the ejected Polak’s sentence.
“I’m doing better now, but can you imagine?,” Babcock said. “It’s all my fault, me, the two assistants on the bench, two in the video room and 15 players on the bench. And we can’t get that done right? Often it happens and you just fire a guy in the box. It could have cost you. It will never happen in my lifetime again, I will never wait to put a guy in. But our penalty kill was really good.”
The Leafs desperately tried to ice it once the major was up, but Korpisalo smartly negated them to keep play going so long the Leafs in essence killed another power play. Brian Boyle finally got over the Leaf blueline with enough time and space to fire it in the Jackets’ bench, joking that he gave old friend John Tortorella a warning it was coming. Toronto allowed just one shot on that power play.
“Being persistent, staying with it, trusting the process,” Kadri recited as reasons for the Leafs recent run. “We were on a tough stretch for awhile and fell behind, but we believed in the dressing room.”
There was reason to fear before the game from Tortorella that his team might look past the wildcard Leafs to their Thursday tussle in Washington, vital for Metropolitan Division lead purposes. But Foligno also figured that the April 9 game in Toronto that ends the NHL schedule would have some kind of meaning for both clubs, who were worst in the Eastern Conference last year.
“I think it will, that’s the parity in the league now,” Foligno said before the game. “Just because you’re in doesn’t mean you know where you are going to be seeded. It’s making for great hockey down the stretch, teams are fighting like hell to get in and we’re enjoying it.
“It’s a great feeling for both our clubs. I’m sure they’re feeling good they’ve given themselves a chance and us, it’s knowing we want to be a better team and that last year, we didn’t live up to that. It was coming in here with something to prove. There’s lot’s of moving and shaking still to do.”
ANDERSEN HITS 30-WIN MARK
The last goalie to win 30 games for Toronto could not get them in the playoffs.
But Frederik Andersen isn’t Vesa Toskala and these aren’t the 2007-08 Maple Leafs. In reaching 30 victories Wednesday in Ohio by a 5-2 count, Andersen underlined his role in the past eight games, 6-1-1 with 15 goals against, just the one clunker in Florida to speak of. The Dane made 32 saves, many at gut-check time early in the game and after the Blue Jackets had tied it 2-2. A near seven-minute block of Columbus power-play time with one shot seemed like a coffee break.
“It should go without saying, but I guess you should,” began centre Brian Boyle when Andersen’s name was raised. “It’s not very fair to Freddy, but he has had to play well and he has. We’re going to go as far as he takes us.”
Andersen, meanwhile, wanted to talk more about the penalty kill than any of his highlights.
“So weird, but we did an unbelievable job and they only had the one shot and one chance off an entry into our zone when they missed the net. We did a hell of a job down ice. I’m sure they were frustrated. That’s going to be huge down the stretch if we can come back like that.”
Added Boyle: “We had guys who weren’t selling out (on the kill), blocking shots when they did get a chance and getting it down ice. That’s execution, effort, the two biggest things. There was a lot of courage out there tonight. That’s a good team over there. They pushed back like good teams do and that was a great answer by us. You’re going to have mistakes in a game and the way we responded has been huge.”