By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs showed that when you have a team down, even a last-place team like the Columbus Blue Jackets, you simply can’t give them life. If given a chance, any team in the NHL can make you pay for it. The Good, Bad & Ugly I usually write ended pretty Ugly for last night’s game.
This game started well enough. After getting stoned on so many chances by Joonas Korpisalo on Friday night, William Nylander opened the scoring in this game at the 2:39 mark of the first period on a shot that Elvis Merzlikins probably should have stopped. The goal was on an unscreened shot from the top of the faceoff circle. In Merzlikins’ defence, the shot may have ramped off of defenseman Nick Blankenburg’s stick.
It was Nylander’s 29th goal of the season. He needs five more goals in the last 28 games to surpass his career-high 34 goals scored last season. He is also four ahead of Auston Matthews for the team lead in goals.
Nylander also picked up an assist on Morgan Rielly’s power-play goal that tied the game early in the third period. Nylander was one of the few Maple Leafs’ players who were not on the ice for a single Columbus goal in all situations.
Related: Three Takeaways from Maple Leafs’ 4-3 Loss to the Blue Jackets
After scoring two assists in the first game of this home and home, back-to-back series against the Blue Jackets, Mitch Marner repeated that feat with two nice feeds in this game. One assist went to Michael Bunting on the goal that put the Maple Leafs up 2-0 just over halfway through the first period, and another on Rielly’s power-play goal that tied the game early in the third period.
Marner played almost half the game, totalling 28:05 of ice time. He was another Maple Leafs’ player who was not on the ice for a Blue Jackets goal in the game. That included over four minutes of penalty-killing time.
Marner was one of the league’s top point producers last season from the first of January on, scoring 76 points in 48 games. He seems to be picking up steam once again in the new year. Marner has recorded 22 points in 17 games in 2023. If he keeps up that pace, he will surpass his career high 97 points scored last season and break the 100-point barrier for the first time.
For the second night in a row, the Maple Leafs badly outplayed the Blue Jackets in the first period. They outshot them this time 11-4 after outshooting them 14-6 in the opening period Friday night. According to Naturalstattrick.com, Toronto had 14 High-Danger Scoring Chances to just one for Columbus in all situations combined in the two first periods.
I have to admit thinking, with the way their first game ended and the way this one started that this game might just be a rout by the Maple Leafs.
I wonder if the players on the Maple Leafs may have been thinking the same thing because next came……..
Related: Maple Leafs Future Will Determine Dubas’ Deadline Deals
The second period of this game may have been the worst period the Maple Leafs have played this season.
They gave up a season’s worse 21 shots in the period and saw their two-goal lead disappear as the Blue Jackets put three past rookie goalie Joseph Woll. I don’t blame Woll on any of the goals. This is more about how the skaters in front of him performed. Or, more precisely, it was about how they failed to perform.
Coincidently, Merzlikins went from being the worse goalie in the league his stats show him to be in the first period to playing like a Vezina candidate in the second period. Despite being badly outshot according to Naturalstattrick.com, the Maple Leafs had six High-Danger Scoring Chances to the Blue Jackets’ five in the second period. The difference was the Blue Jackets cashed in on three of their five chances while the Maple Leafs failed to get anything past Merzlikins.
Related: Joseph Woll: Best Goalie Developed by Maple Leafs in 35 Years
Even though the Maple Leafs did score a power play goal to tie the game early in the third period, their terrible second period left them in a vulnerable position. A bad bounce one way or the other could make the difference in the game.
And it did.
Upon the expiration of a John Tavares hooking penalty, with the Maple Leafs still unable to get the puck out of their own end, Kent Johnson deflected a Mike Sillnger shot that was going high and wide, into the Maple Leafs’ net. The deflection seemed to catch the down-low referee off guard as it took a second or two for him to signal a goal. The Maple Leafs’ players on the ice all immediately signalled that the puck was knocked in with a high stick.
The replays from different angles showed Johnson’s stick was definitely above the height of the crossbar. However, it was difficult to determine exactly where the puck made contact with the stick. Because the replay was inconclusive and the original call was a goal, it was ruled a good goal. If the call on the ice had been different, the play was close enough that the goal probably would not have counted.
As it was, that goal ended up being the deciding goal. The Maple Leafs were unable to score in the remaining 14 minutes of the game.
All in all, the Maple Leafs didn’t deserve to win this game. After outshooting the Blue Jackets 11-4 in the first period, they were outshot 36-18 in the remaining two periods.
After having nine days off before these two games against Columbus the Maple Leafs now have another three days without games. They next take on the Chicago Blackhawks at home on Wednesday. They then have two more days off before playing back-to-back games next weekend. The first is a home game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. They then fly to Chicago for another game versus the Blackhawks.
Hopefully, Auston Matthews will be able to return as early as Wednesday. The trickle-down effect of one of the league’s elite players returning, at the top of the lineup, and the removal of a player the calibre of Alex Steeves or Joey Anderson, from the bottom of the roster, should make a huge difference in this team’s performance.
The loss to Columbus Saturday night leaves the Maple Leafs in a dogfight for second place in the Atlantic Division, and home ice, when these two teams meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning trail the Maple Leafs by just two points and have two games in hand. Tampa Bay is on the road this week with games in Colorado, Arizona, and Las Vegas.