Auston Matthews became the first player to reach 40 goals in the NHL this season and the Maple Leafs fended off the pesky Blue Jackets for a 5-4 victory in Columbus on Monday.
Matthews, whose 41 goals were the most in the league during the 2020-21 campaign, scored on a backhand late in the first period to increase his lead to two over Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton. Then latter played later in the night.
It is the third year in a row in which Matthews has reached the 40-goal mark and the fourth time since his rookie season in 2016-17. He had a career-high 47 in 70 games in 2019-20, 41 in 52 last year and netted his 40th in his 53rd game of 2021-22.
The victory was the first in three outings for the Maple Leafs, who play again on Tuesday against the Seattle Kraken at Scotiabank Arena. They had suffered consecutive defeats to Buffalo and Vancouver before turning the tables on a Columbus team that has been playing well recently.
Michael Bunting got the game-winner with 8:39 left in the third period after Toronto had blown a 3-0 lead.
It was the last of three meetings between the two opponents this season with Toronto holding a 2-1 edge. It remains third in the Atlantic Division behind Florida and Tampa Bay and is 36-16-4 overall. The Blue Jackets are 28-26-3 and fifth in the Metropolitan Division.
Toronto dominated the first period from puck drop to horn and held a 33-10 advantage in shot attempts after the first 20 minutes.
Ilya Mikheyev snapped a wrist shot past Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins from seven feet out to put the Maple Leafs ahead 1-0 with 11:54 left, and then Mitch Marner padded the lead with a backhand from close in with six minutes before the first intermission.
It was the 22nd goal of the campaign for Marner, who is already closing in on the career-best 26 he posted in 2018-19.
Petr Mrazek picked up the victory in Toronto’s net. He had 31 saves in a solid performance after giving up five goals in his previous start against the Sabres.
“This gives us and him a lot of confidence,” Matthews said. “Hopefully we can build off this as a whole.”
Mrazek is 10-5 on the year but his save percentage still remains south of the .900 line.
“A win is a win, right?” Mrazek said afterward. “That is what we came here for and that is what we are taking home. Getting a win is the No. 1 thing. That is all that matters for us.”
Jack Campbell, who has allowed four goals or more in nine of his past 15 appearances, will start against the Kraken. He has an .883 save percentage in his past 16 games and Mrazek has been only marginally better.
Toronto plays at home again on Thursday against Arizona before it takes on the Sabres in Hamilton on Sunday in the Heritage Classic.
Sean Kuraly deflected in a shot by Max Domi to get the Blue Jackets on the board early in the second. A bit later Domi tangled with Justin Holl and both were sent to the penalty box for fighting.
In his fifth successive start, Merzlikins did well to keep the the Blue Jackets close. He stopped Matthews with a snow angel and Mikheyev on a two on one – both in the second period with the score 3-1.
Right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand then cut the deficit to 3-2 when he beat Mrazek with 1:11 to go
before the teams headed to their dressing rooms for the second intermission.
Jack Roslovic cashed in on a power play to tie it early in the third with another assist going to Domi. Toronto captain John Tavares was called for holding before Roslovic scored his 10th of the season.
Bunting closed out Toronto’s scoring with 8:39 remaining. It was the rookie’s 20th goal overall. He and Matthews, who got an assist, were laughing on the bench afterward.
“We were actually jokingly arguing over who scored it,” Matthews said.
Said Bunting, “We were chuckling a bit. I don’t want to take a goal away from him when he is in a race for the lead.”
Patrik Laine made it 5-4 with 48 seconds left.
Toronto went into the battle 5-4-1 in its past 10 games and hemorrhaging points against opponents who are already out of the playoff picture.
It jumped all over Columbus from the start, however, which is usually its recipe for success. The Maple Leafs are 24-4-2 when they score first, 22-2-2 when they lead after the first period and 27-1-2 when on top after 40 minutes.
The Blue Jackets have trailed in 18 of their 28 victories and were behind by two in five of those games. The 18 comeback victories are tied for the NHL lead in that category with Colorado and the New York Rangers.
Overall, the Jackets are 10-7 since Jan. 27, including a road win over Toronto, and their last three losses coming all by a goal. They have played the Maple Leafs tough all season – a 5-4 loss at Scotiabank Arena early on and the 4-3 overtime win at home on Feb. 22.
Demoted to the fourth line, Alexander Kerfoot had a goal to put Toronto up 4-3 before Columbus rallied.
“We tried to keep calm, not panic too much and to stick to what was working,” Bunting said. “I think we rebounded really well.”