While the surging Columbus Blue Jackets, (47-18-6) third place in the Eastern Division and winners of their last five games trail the Pittsburgh Penguins by one point and the Washington Capitals by 2 points for the division lead, have already clinched a postseason spot, the Toronto Maple Leafs fourth place in the Atlantic Division (33-23-15) are hoping to secure a position in this year’s postseason at the Nationwide Arena.
“It’s just the start of things for us, the start of our new road,” said Columbus left winger Matt Calvert. “We’ve got to finish out the regular season hard and prepare ourselves for the playoffs now.”
Coming into tonight’s face-to-face matchup, the Blue Jackets skated away with a 5-2 victory over the Leafs in their only previous matchup on February 15th.
Leafs Take Early Lead
Despite that advantage, Toronto struck first at 8:55 when centerman Nazem Kadri collected a turnover and sent a great feed to Leo Komarov who notched his 12th goal past goalie Joonas Korpisalo to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.
While on the powerplay, centerman Auston Matthews assisted by winger William Nylander and defenseman Jake Gardiner buried the rebound to make it 2-0. With the assist, Nylander tied a Leafs rookie record with points in nine straight games.
After 20 minutes of play which featured fast-paced end-to-end action, the Bluejackets outshot the Leafs 13-10 but trailed on the scoreboard 2-0.
Columbus hadn’t trailed 2-0 in a game since February 19th versus the Nashville Predators.
Blue Jackets Close the Gap
43 seconds into the second period, defenseman David Savard stepped into a slapper from the right dot off a centerman Brandon Dubinsky feed from down low and netted his 6th goal to make it 2-1.
At 6:58 Zach Werenski wristed one in from the left point, with the help of a Brandon Saad redirection tied it at 2-2. With an assist on the Saad goal, Sam Gagner now has 4G-5A-9P in his last 10 games and 45 overall points this season.
At 13:23, Nylander, assisted by Tyler Bozak, wired a roofer under the bar on a breakaway, for his 20th of the season making it 3-2.
"It's a great answer by us to come back with a push of our own," said Maple Leafs center Brian Boyle. "We didn't expect them to lay down for us."
After 40 minutes of play, the Leafs outshot the Bluejackets 26-24 and lead on the scoreboard by a one-goal margin.
“The last time we came in here they abused us. We didn’t like that very much, and we thought it was important to respond,” said Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
Leafs Kill Third Period Penalty
One minute into the third period, the Maple Leafs were assessed a five-minute boarding penalty when defenseman Roman Polak carelessly hit forward Oliver Bjork from behind into the boards. Polak was suspended for two games for this hit by the NHL.
Columbus could only muster one shot on net on the power play coming close when Jack Johnson squeaked the puck through traffic but Frederick Anderson made the save.
During the penalty to Polak, the Maple Leafs did not have anyone serve his major and since there wasn’t a stoppage during the kill they couldn’t put someone in the box. When the penalty ended, Toronto was forced to play shorthanded for another 1:54 until Boyle shot the puck into the Columbus bench for a whistle.
Babcock said, "That will never happen in my lifetime again. I can tell you that. I'll never wait to put a guy in."
With 4:14 left in the third period Centerman Nazem Kadri made it 4-2, and then with just 2:47 remaining Nikita Zaitsev scored into an empty net.
With the 5-2 win, Toronto surpassed the Boston Bruins, who they beat the other night 4-2, by one point for third place in the Atlantic Division and remained three points ahead of the New York Islanders and six points ahead of Tampa Bay Lightning in the wild-card race.