The Maple Leafs coughed up the lead in the third period on Tuesday before losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in overtime at Nationwide Arena. It was Toronto’s third straight defeat and only the second time in 26 games this season where it lost after being ahead after 40 minutes.
Patrik Laine wired a wrist shot past Jack Campbell only 20 seconds into extra time to give Columbus its eighth victory in the last 10 games. The Maple Leafs have now lost five of seven heading into an encounter on Thursday against the Minnesota Wild at Scotiabank Arena.
In an exciting seesaw contest, the Maple Leafs were up 2-1 before 21-year-old defenceman Adam Boqvist tied it early in the third. Centre Brendan Gaunce then put the Blue Jackets ahead with 12:47 remaining and there it stayed until there was only 2:06 left in regulation time.
That’s when Jason Spezza was credited with a goal that tied it at 3-3 with 2:06 left on a play where the puck deflected off his skate and past Columbus goalkeeper Jean-Francois Berube.
Officials reviewed the goal and ruled it was legal, leading to Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen to ask the referees, “Are you kidding me?” as he stood behind the bench.
The Maple Leafs were coming off a 5-2 loss to the Canadiens in Montreal on Monday in one of their worst performances of the season. They trailed 5-0 before they scored twice in the third period to make the outcome look more respectable than it was.
“It was probably as disappointing a game as we have had all year,” Toronto’s John Tavares said. The team’s captain has gone without a goal now for 10 straight games and showed his frustration on Tuesday, once slamming his stick against the ice after a missed opportunity.
“I talked to our guys,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said late Monday. “I told them there are a lot of games ahead and before long nobody will remember this one. Sometimes these games happen and sometimes they are needed as a true wake-up call.”
Berube had 39 saves in his second victory in three days after not playing in an NHL game for four years. Jack Campbell had 26 saves in the loss, only his second in back-to-back starts since October.
Toronto entered Tuesday’s encounter 32-14-3 and behind the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL’s Atlantic Division. Columbus was 25-23-1 and fifth in the Metropolitan but had been playing well of late.
The Maple Leafs scored first on a tap-in by Michael Bunting with 7:10 left in the first period. The goal was set up by a nifty pass from a sprawling Mitch Marner. It was Bunting’s 17th of the season – the most among all NHL rookies – and his 10th in the last 15 games.
Laine knotted the score at 1-1 with 13:47 remaining in the second when he beat Campbell on a hard wrist shot to finish an odd-man rush with Boone Jenner. Laine has 20 points in his last 10 games, including 12 goals.
Auston Matthews rang up his 34th goal later in the period to make it 2-1. It was set up by a sweet back-hand pass from David Kampf. Matthews now trails Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton by just one for the league lead.
Toronto was without defenceman Jake Muzzin, who suffered a concussion during the loss to the Canadiens. Muzzin, who turned 33 on Monday, collided with Chris Wideman of Montreal late in the second period and fell and banged his head against the ice.
Muzzin did not return and was taken to the hospital for tests afterward as his teammates travelled to Columbus. He was sent back to the team’s hotel in the wee hours and flew back to Toronto on Tuesday.
Keefe said Muzzin would be placed in concussion protocol for the second time in about a month. The timeframe for his return is indefinite.
“He has had a good day today,” Keefe said in the afternoon. “All things considered, it is a positive how he has responded.”
Muzzin’s injury made for a quick debut for Ilya Lyubushkin, the defenceman the team acquired late Saturday in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. Lyubushkin joined the club in Columbus and skated in the morning on Tuesday and pronounced himself ready.
“He is a competitive guy and wanted to play today,” Keefe said. “He wanted to step right in and that speaks well to his character.”
Lyubushkin made a fast and fine impression in his appearance in a Toronto uniform. In the first period, the rugged Russian dumped Sean Kuraly along the boards, started a play in his own end and then rushed to the front of the opposing net, and also drew a penalty on Jakub Voracek.
He made a costly turnover later that led to Columbus’s third goal but earnbed praise from Keefe.
“I thought he really stood out in the first period,” the coach said. “He battles and competed really hard. I like how he came in and fit in really well.”
Toronto was outshot 14-10 in the first period but its defence was much improved compared to its losses against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday and Monday against the Canadiens.
“Our team knows how we need to play,” Keefe said during a late-afternoon scrum with journalists. “We have played a lot of good hockey but have slipped here of late.”
The teams had faced off once this year, a 5-4 Maple Leafs victory at Scotiabank Arena on Dec. 7, and will meet again in Columbus on March 7.
With the divisions realigned they did not see one another during the 2020-2021 campaign, but in 2020, the Blue Jackets prevailed in a five-game series in the Stanley Cup qualifying round.
Columbus is not a glitzy outfit but has some top talent. It has six 30-point scorers, which is tied with St. Louis for fourth-most in the NHL and is behind only Florida (nine) and Colorado and Toronto (seven each).
“This was not an easy game to play,” Keefe said. “They play hard, they play with a lot of pace and this is a very loud building.”