COLUMBUS – With all the momentum from a big win the night before swinging in their favour, the Maple Leafs crashed in Columbus on Wednesday night, falling 5-2. Toronto seemingly had no answers for their season-long struggles on the second night of back-to-back games, with the loss moving their record in that game to 4-8-1. The Maple Leafs are still clinging to the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference as their record slides to 26-19-11.
Play fast, play right: Hours after one of the best, if not the best, performance of their season, Toronto fell flat against Columbus out of the gate. Head coach Mike Babcock said on Monday when his team doesn’t play fast they look like “snails,” and that was a fitting descriptor early on Wednesday. Listless and slow in the first period, the Maple Leafs let the Blue Jackets jump out to an early 2-0 lead, allowing the first goal for the seventh time in ten games, and Columbus piled on two more scores by midway through the second. All the things Toronto did right in a 7-1 win over the Islanders on Tuesday – playing with urgency, using the cycle, being responsible in the neutral zone, tightening up defensively – they failed to do for the first 35 minutes one night later. Toronto didn’t become engaged and playing to their tempo until well into the second period. Overall it was a disappointing follow-up for a Toronto team that had every reason to be feeling confident.
No win for Mac: After parts of four seasons in the Blue Jackets’ organization, Curtis McElhinney was claimed off waivers by Toronto in January and had been enjoying a solid run, posting a 2-1-0 record in his first three starts. Returning to face Columbus for the first time, McElhinney’s new teammates didn’t do much to help him out. With the Leafs hemmed into their own zone by the Blue Jackets’ strong cycle, McElhinney was under siege early and often. Columbus’ first goal looked worthy of a challenge, with the goaltender seemingly pushed into the net as the puck slid under his pads, but Babcock said he didn’t get the replay he needed to be confident in initiating a challenge. From there it was too many mistakes, like an ugly turnover by Nazem Kadri in the neutral zone to set up a breakaway goal for Oliver Bjorkstrand that ultimately doomed Toronto. McElhinney finished with 30 saves on 34 shots.
Man down? Mitch Marner left the game Wednesday late in the second period after taking a hard hit along the boards from Boone Jenner. The rookie was immediately in obvious pain while trying to stay on the bench before eventually going down the tunnel to the Maple Leafs' room. He returned for one shift, but still looked off, and went back to the room with 1:30 left in the frame. Marner made a second comeback attempt to start the third period, playing on a blended line with Tyler Bozak and Matt Martin, but after a couple more shifts he was shaking his head in frustration before his last walk down the tunnel. Marner ended the night with a team-low 9:56 TOI. Toronto lost another rookie in the third, when Zach Hyman took a high-stick to the face and had to leave for repairs. Babcock didn’t have an update on Marner’s status after the game, but losing him for any extended period would have a major impact on the Maple Leafs. Marner leads Toronto and all NHL rookies in both points (48) and assists (33).
Moving and shaking: Babcock had his blender going in earnest in the second period, shuffling his lineup as much as he had all season. In some cases it worked - Kadri scored Toronto’s only two goals, and both were set up by new linemate Josh Leivo. It was the second straight game where Leivo posted multiple points and he was the team’s best possession player (74.19 per cent). At the other end, James van Riemsdyk played his second-fewest minutes of the season (12:51) and was mostly on the fourth line in the game’s second half, amassing a team-worst 33.33 per cent possession. Babcock said after he was rewarding his hardest-working players with the most ice time, saying “the guys who don’t [get the time], it’s up to them” to improve.
Next game: Toronto will head home to face the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, the first game in another back-to-back set.