Martin Jones and Maple Leafs bounce back from Buffalo buffoonery

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The Maple Leafs didn’t exactly get the low-event night they wanted to take them into a relaxing Christmas break.

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From some early high-danger chances by Columbus, including its opening goal, to a scary medical episode for the Blue Jackets and ending with self-inflicted penalty problems it was a challenge at times for the Leafs to get past another bottom-five NHL side.

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But unlike Thursday in Buffalo, where the Leafs fished the puck out of their net nine times, Martin Jones had a solid start, while league-leading scorer Auston Matthews and the Core Four forwards provided the finish in a 4-1 decision.

“You want to go into the break feeling good, especially with how things went the other night,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We wanted to make it harder of them to get out of their zone and manage their rush. We took some late penalties that could’ve flipped the game, but ended up adding to the lead (William Nylander’s second short-handed goal this season).”   

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Toronto now has three days off, with the division-leading Boston Bruins only four points ahead of them, while it’s hoped during the brief respite that their other goaltender, Ilya Samsonov, gets his act together. 

First, however, to Sean Kuraly of the Jackets, whom it was feared was having a respiratory episode in the dressing room late in the first period. The 30-year-old centre was pursuing a puck behind the Toronto net, chased by Matthews who steered him into a check by teammate Jake McCabe. Kuraly was struck by a puck in the chest seconds later. 

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After getting slowly to the bench in a hunched position and being attended to by the team therapist, suddenly Columbus players were frantically signalling for a paramedic across the rink to help the team doctor in the room. It was decided to end the period there with less than 19 seconds remaining.

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The Jackets later announced it was an abdominal injury, and while Kuraly was taken to hospital for precautionary purposes, the injury wasn’t believed to be serious. 

Jones had to be alert with sensational rookie Adam Fantilli sniffing around a Leaf turnover on the opening shift, then coolly came out of his net to take away any shooting room for Yegor Chinakhov. He made 27 saves in all. 

The reunion of Matthews and Mitch Marner on a line with Matthew Knies paid first-period dividends. After Matthews made a great backcheck to prevent a Columbus goal, Marner drew a crowd of Jackets his way as he swept around the net to get Matthews open for a one-timer.

Matthews added his 28th on the power play, part of goals in seven straight games, including six multi-goal efforts in December alone – with one flu-related absence. The 28 are the fourth-best total by an NHLer through his first 30 games in the past 30 years.

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“When you get confidence, all of a sudden it feels like you can score every shift,” Keefe said of Matthews. “And a guy of his ability, when he feels that, it’s like he can score any time he touches the puck. It’s fun to watch.” 

Keefe’s biggest takeaway, however, was Toronto scoring 4-on-4, 5-on-5, on the power play and shorthanded.  

When the second period got underway, Justin Danforth escaped McCabe for a breakaway goal, but with the same player given a chance to score two, Jones was in strong position and John Tavares quickly made some nice moves in tight to restore the lead. 

Matthews buried his second with another quick release in the dying moments of the advantage in which the Leafs were lucky to avoid an even-up call. Nylander extended his points streak to 11 games on the play, then late in a Max Domi third-period minor, he recorded his third point of the evening with the shortie, while the Core Four totalled nine points in all.  

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Nylander’s goal made it nine by Toronto versus Columbus in less than three regulation periods, counting their five-goal comeback in an overtime loss earlier this month. 

Helped by the Leafs having a rare full practice the day before to sharpen up defensively, Jones now has a record of 3-0-0 on the road. That’s huge in the wake of Samsonov’s latest letdown in Buffalo that put the team in a crease crisis and another reason for general manager Brad Treliving to be grateful of adding Jones for insurance after the GM chose not to sign Samsonov long term.   

While chances are remote the Leafs let Samsonov and his .871 save percentage, lowest by a Leaf through 14 games since Allan Bester’s .864 in ’88-89, go through waivers for a reboot in the AHL, it’s imperative he use the break constructively. 

Goalies were the story with both teams, in the wake of Elvis Merzlikins’ meltdown against Tom Wilson and the Capitals during a 3-2 overtime loss on Thursday. Merzlikins was given the night off to calm down and rest his sore fists, in favour of Daniil Tarasov. 

Morgan Rielly played in his 750th NHL game, the 12th Leaf and fourth defenceman to that milestone.

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