The Maple Leafs didn’t exactly get the low-event night they wanted to take them into a relaxing Christmas break.
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.
But unlike Thursday in Buffalo where the Leafs fished the puck out of their net nine times, Martin Jones had a solid start and league-leading scorer Auston Matthews and the Core Four forwards provided the finish in a 4-1 decision.
Toronto now has three days off, during which it’s hoped their other goaltender, Ilya Samsonov, gets his act together.
First, however, to Sean Kuraly of the Jackets, whom it was feared was having a serious health 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. The high, but clean hit shook up Kuraly, who was then was struck by a puck in the chest seconds later.
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.
The Jackets reported that the extra attention was for precautionary reasons and that Kuraly was in no danger despite not returning to the game.
Jones, who made 27 saves, had to be alert with rookie Adam Fantilli sniffing around a Leafs turnover on the opening shift, then coolly came out of his net to take away any shooting room for Yegor Chinakhov.
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, giving himself goals in seven straight games — with one flu-related absence — among the most by any NHLer through his team’s first 30 games in close to 30 years.
When the second period got under way, Justin Danforth escaped McCabe for a breakaway goal. But with Danforth given a chance to score two, Jones was in better position before 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 themselves. William 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.
That made it nine goals 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 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.
While chances are remote the Leafs let Samsonov and his .871 save percentage, lowest by a Toronto netminder through 14 games since Allan Bester’s .864 in ’88-89, go through waivers for a reboot in AHL, it’s imperative he use the break constructively.
Goaltenders were the story with both teams, in the wake of Elvis Merzlikins’ meltdown against Tom Wilson and the Capitals before a 3-2 overtime loss on Thursday, he 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.