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Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly celebrates scoring the game winning goal as San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl looks on at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Oct 25, 2019.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Those weren’t so much cheers of celebration as they were of relief at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night.

The Maple Leafs escaped a third successive loss despite playing an uneven and ugly game. They didn’t so much beat San Jose 4-1. The visitors, lifeless from playing one day before, simply wore down.

Morgan Rielly scored the winner with 5:39 remaining in the third period on a sizzling wrist shot after a nice cross-ice pass from William Nylander. It was the third goal of the season for the defenceman and alternate captain.

The victory came in the first of back-to-back games for Toronto and improved its record to 6-4-2. The Maple Leafs play again in Montreal on Saturday night. San Jose fell to 4-6-1.

The Sharks didn’t so much put up a fight as they did play rope-a-dope for 60 minutes. That was good enough to frustrate but not quite upend a Maple Leafs contingent that continues to sputter without its injured captain, John Tavares.

They escaped possibly something worse than a loss when Auston Matthews went down after a hard hit from Brendan Dillon around the eight-minute mark of the second period. Matthews went to the dressing room after being struck in the head but returned for the ice at the start of the third.

The outcome remained in question until Toronto scored twice in the last minute – one an empty-netter by Russian rookie Ilya Mikheyev and Matthews’s ninth goal of the season.

After talking up a storm about the need to get off to a strong start, the Maple Leafs gave up the game’s first goal for the ninth times in 12 games. Kevin Labanc tipped a shot by the hulking Brent Burns passed Frederik Andersen with 8:25 remaining in the first.

It was only San Jose’s fourth shot overall.

Toronto should have had a two- or three-goal lead by then but misfired on a handful of good scoring opportunities. The Leafs had a chance to go up early when Logan Couture of the Sharks was caught slashing 39 seconds into the game.

They muffed that man advantage, and then two more back-to-back in the second period. Martin Jones was okay in San Jose’s goal crease, but mostly the Maple Leafs were the makers of their own misfortune.

In all, Toronto failed to score on five power plays, including the early one and another 30 seconds into the third period. A few times they looked as though they were trying to force the puck through the bars of a shark cage than a mostly wide-open net.

Jake Muzzin scored with 1.9 seconds left in the second period to tie the score 1-1. Jason Spezza and Mikheyev were credited with assists.

Andersen, who entered the game 5-2-1 with a .901 save percentage, made 15 saves. The Maple Leafs outshot the visitors, 27-16.

There was a smidgen of everything, with the exception of good hockey.

The game was the first in Toronto for Patrick Marleau since last season. The 40-year-old spent two years with the Maple Leafs but signed with San Jose early this season.

During a timeout in the first period, spectators rose and applauded Marleau, who was playing in his 1,500th game in a Sharks uniform. He stood and clapped right back at them, returning the favour.

Marleau was as beloved in the dressing room as he was by the team’s ardent fans. He invited Matthews to his house to watch Marleau’s four boys open their presents on Christmas morning.

When Matthews was charged with disorderly conduct in Arizona this summer, it was Marleau he called for advice and not officials from his own team. When Mitch Marner was embroiled in contract negotiations, he likewise called Marleau for guidance.

“He is a special person,” said Matthews, who has a pre-trial conference scheduled on Nov. 27.

The Maple Leafs young star is accused of mooning a female security officer outside the condominium in Scottsdale where he lives. As part of the same incident, he is also alleged to have been among a group of young men who tried to force open a door of the security guard’s vehicle.

The crowd cheered as Toronto FC midfielder Richie Laryea was introduced and oohed with appreciation when Nylander did a fancy pirouette with the puck in the Sharks’ end early in the game. Imagine the reaction if they watched Connor McDavid every night.

The victory will only temporarily satisfy Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. Winning does that – even on a bad night.

“It is crucial to get started on time every night," Babock said earlier Friday. "We have not done a good job at that as a club. We have talked about it and addressed it. Now let’s do something about it.”

Back to the drawing board.

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