After piling up the assists during all-star weekend, Mitch Marner returned to lend his Maple Leafs teammates a big hand.
In the Leafs’ first game after the break, Marner twice set up captain John Tavares for a goal, sending the Leafs to a 3-0 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.
Marner had six assists in the Atlantic Division’s games last weekend in Sunrise, Fla., no surprise that his on-ice vision has few equals in the National Hockey League.
Marner fed Tavares with a no-look drop pass in the third after making the play that led to a Tavares goal in the first period.
“Same old, right?” Tavares said of Marner. “He has so many tricks in his bag, the poise and the vision. Always stay ready when he has the puck. Great plays and happy to finish them off.”
The Leafs won’t get many bragging points for beating the worst team in the NHL, but give them credit for this: After Columbus rallied in the second period, the Leafs shrugged the Jackets off in the third, putting the game away with goals 49 seconds apart.
Tavares’ goal came at 8:38, less than a minute after Pierre Engvall made it 2-0 at 7:49.
Ilya Samsonov again shone in goal, making 30 saves for his third shutout of the season and ninth of his NHL career.
“We didn’t cheat for offence, especially when we got the lead,” Marner said. “We played the same way throughout the game and we got rewarded for it near the end. That’s how we have to look at things more often. If we play the way we can for 60 minutes, we’re a hard team to beat.”
Count the Leafs as heavy favourites when the clubs meet again on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The Leafs this season are 5-1-1 in the second game of back-to-back sets.
Toronto hasn’t been consistently great against non-playoff teams, and had been reminded of that by coach Sheldon Keefe.
“We played a pretty solid and patient game,” Keefe said. “Sammy made some good saves for us at key times, but we really didn’t give up a lot. We extended our lead in the third period, which is what you want to do. All in all, for the first game coming out of the break, it was a good night for our guys.”
Samsonov made a crucial save on Vladislav Gavrikov when the Leafs were up 2-0, stopping the defenceman from point-blank range.
After the Leafs play the Blue Jackets on Saturday, they get the similarly bad Chicago Blackhawks twice and also the Montreal Canadiens. There’s no reason the Leafs can’t win all of them.
Tavares presented the post-win belt to Engvall … The goal by Engvall came after the big winger used his body on the forecheck and eventually was set up by Morgan Rielly, who had taken a fine pass from David Kampf … The Leafs did themselves a big favour when they killed off a double minor in the second period. Timothy Liljegren, serving four minutes for cutting Liam Foudy with a high stick, watched from the box as the Jackets registered just two shots on goal. Jackets sharpshooter Patrik Laine was invisible … A William Nylander chance to make it 2-0 early in the second didn’t bear fruit. Nylander, all over the puck all night, shot wide after he stripped Erik Gudbranson and broke in alone. Nylander later was stopped by goaltender Joonas Korpisalo after getting another clear look … Columbus had 10 shots on goal in the final 10 minutes of the second … Tavares’ goal in the first was his 10th power-play goal of the season, tying him with the injured Auston Matthews for the team lead. Tavares’ career high in power-play goals is 13, done in 2014-15 with the New York Islanders … Any little edge to secure a spot on the fourth line would help, so there had to be some frustration on the part of Alex Steeves, who was denied by Korpisalo on a great scoring chance in the first … Rasmus Sandin crunched Kent Johnson with an open-ice hit late in the first, a physical element we’re seeing with more frequency from the 22-year-old defenceman and something that goes a long way with Keefe and his staff. On top of that, Sandin’s hit drew the ire of the Jackets’ Cole Sillinger, who slashed Sandin and was penalized for it.
Assuming that Joe Woll starts in goal on Saturday, and Keefe indicated that was the plan, it will mark Woll’s first home game with the Leafs. When Woll went 3-1-0 in four games with the Leafs during the 2021-22 season, all four were on the road … Don’t expect Johnny Gaudreau to score in the rematch. Johnny Hockey has been Johnny Silent on the road, scoring once in 23 away games for the Jackets. His only road goal came on Dec. 6 in Pittsburgh and he has gone the past 15 away games without one … If you question Matthews’ leadership abilities — and you shouldn’t — consider what he said on Thursday when he was asked about the playoff format. With just over two months remaining in the regular season, it’s all but certain the Leafs will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning (again) in the first round. “I know certain guys have voiced what they believe,” Matthews said. “I’m pretty indifferent. I think the best team usually wins. With our division, it’s a tough group to get out of, but I think the best team usually moves on. So it’s up to the team.” In other words, just win. Matthews knows he is a guy to finally help make that a post-season reality.
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