Maple Leafs' stunning rally falls short, lose 6-5 to Columbus in overtime

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Five nights after playing their most complete game of the season, the Maple Leafs played one of their poorest.  

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Until the third period.

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Against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night, the Leafs scored five goals in the final 20 minutes, erasing a 5-0 Jackets lead that had been built through two periods. 

The Leafs could not score a goal in overtime and lost 6-5 when Kent Johnson went high on Ilya Samsonov at 3:26 of the extra period. 

Toronto will take the point, which seemed improbable for most of the night. 

Auston Matthews scored the tying goal at 19:15 when he beat Elvis Merzlikins after taking a pass from Mitch Marner. That came 30 seconds after Matthews scored to get the Leafs to within one. 

Both goals came with Samsonov on the bench in favour of an extra skater.

The Leafs were on the way to being embarrassed by one of the worst teams in the NHL before they decided to start playing in the third period.

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Also scoring in the third were William Nylander, Marner and Jake McCabe.

Once upon a time, the game would have served as Mike Babcock’s return to Toronto. But Babcock couldn’t get out of his own way as Jacket coach and resigned in September after privacy concerns involving some Columbus players came to light.

As it happens, the Leafs’ next opponent is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will be in Toronto on Saturday night for the first time with Kyle Dubas running the show in Pittsburgh. 

Last Saturday, the Leafs were in top form when they beat Nashville 4-0. It was more or less the opposite on Thursday.

Samsonov allowed some soft goals but his teammates were not a threat to score, certainly not through the first 40 minutes, on Merzlikins.

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It wasn’t as though Columbus came out and forechecked the Leafs into the ice. This wasn’t like the New York Islanders team that gave the Leafs fits on Monday in Long Island before beating Toronto in overtime. 

In the initial stages, Toronto fought the puck in the defensive zone and the Blue Jackets were happy to take advantage. 

SAMSONOV SHODDY

The up-and-down season for Samsonov hit a low, though we’re not sure what taking him out in favour of Martin Jones would have accomplished.

Best to keep Jones healthy for the visit by the Penguins. Surely Samsonov, who allowed five goals on 26 shots through 40 minutes, can’t be back in net on Saturday. 

Several Columbus goals were ugly, but none as much as the one by Justin Danforth to give the visitors a 3-0 lead at 8:16 of the second period. After a shot went off the end boards, Danforth banked the puck in off Samsonov as the latter scrambled to get back into position. 

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As he has in many of his starts this season, Samsonov didn’t provide much confidence for his teammates. With Joseph Woll out indefinitely as he recovers from a high ankle sprain, Samsonov has to find a way to be better. If not, coach Sheldon Keefe should turn to Jones and let the veteran run with it. 

D-ZONE DUDS

When a Max Domi pass was intercepted behind the Toronto net and the Jackets scored seconds later, it served as an omen of what was to come. 

Johnson took the puck and served it up to Patrik Laine, who would later leave with an apparent shoulder injury when he was tripped by William Lagesson. A quick Laine shot beat Samsonov at 6:19 of the first, and the Jackets were on their way.

Loose defence contributed to several Columbus goals. Combined with Samsonov’s weak night, it was a combination the Leafs couldn’t get past in the end.

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The Leafs weren’t perfect when they beat the New York Rangers on Tuesday, but we could have expected much more against Columbus.

REAVES INJURED

The Leafs lost Ryan Reaves to injury on a bizarre play.

The fourth-line right-winger was hurt in the first period when he lost his footing in the offensive zone and collided with the boards. Reaves was trying to play the puck and no Columbus players were near him when he awkwardly hit the boards midway through the first period. 

Reaves could not put any weight on his left leg as he was being helped off the ice. It appeared that he stumbled and fell once he got to the tunnel leading under the stands on his way to the Leafs dressing room.

Reaves did not return and the Leafs announced it was because of a lower-body injury. 

While the Leafs have had to persevere with injuries to Woll and several defencemen, the forwards have been healthy for the most part. Nine forwards have dressed for all of the Leafs’ first 27 games of the 2023-24 regular season, including Thursday night. 

Rookie winger Matthew Knies, who took part in the morning skate but is not 100% as he battles an illness, was scratched for the second game in a row.

Defenceman Timothy Liljegren, who has been nursing a high ankle sprain since he was hurt on Nov. 2 against Boston, is “close” to returning, Keefe said.

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