One night after blowing a three-goal lead in the third period, the Toronto Maple Leafs staged a remarkable comeback to even their playoff qualifying series with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday at Scotiabank Arena.
Auston Matthews scored with 6:50 left in the first overtime period to give Toronto the 4-3 victory. The Maple Leafs trailed 3-0 late in the third period before erupting for three goals, the last by Zach Hyman, which tied the game with only 22 seconds remaining.
All of this occurred one night after Toronto blew a 3-0 lead in the third and lost 4-3 in overtime.
The best-of-five series is now tied at two wins each, with the deciding game to be played on Sunday. The winner advances to the opening round of the full 16-team Stanley Cup tournament.
“I can’t say I have ever been part of something like that,” Matthews said afterward. “This group has to be unbelievably proud of each other. I don’t know what to say. What an amazing comeback.”
Toronto was less than four minutes away from elimination when it staged a rally that was as electrifying as Thursday’s meltdown was awful. The team pulled goalie Frederik Andersen to put another attacker on the ice, and then scored three times rapid-fire to force an extra time.
William Nylander beat Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins with 3:57 remaining, and then John Tavares scored 51 seconds later. Zach Hyman tapped in the tying goal with just 22 seconds left.
The Maple Leafs are now one victory from winning a postseason series for the first time since 2004, and still have faint hopes of winning their first Stanley Cup since 1967.
“It was pretty remarkable to be a part of,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said afterward. “We got one [goal] we kept pushing. We’ve got new life right now. We were getting CPR there for a little bit.”
Instead of a victory march, the 2019-20 campaign has been an uphill climb into a stiff wind from the beginning. Mike Babcock was fired as coach after a poor start. The results were slightly better with Keefe in charge but inconsistency remained a problem along with a lack of drive.
Toronto has swung back and forth from being dominating to being dominated even in this series, and at times both in the same game.
A year ago, the Blue Jackets ousted the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had won the President’s Trophy for the most points during the regular season, in a four-game sweep. They had the Maple Leafs so frustrated that Jason Spezza and Alex Kerfoot, neither much of a pugilist, squared off in bouts with opposing players.
Columbus got goals from Cam Atkinson, Vladislav Gavrikov and Boone Jenner.
Atkinson, who scored the winner in Game 1, put the Blue Jackets ahead when he snapped a puck past Andersen from 14 feet away. The goal was set up by a sharp pass across the crease by Pierre-Luc Dubois. Gavrikov found the net from 47 feet away early in the second. David Savard and Alexander Texier had the assists.
Jenner added the third with 5:42 left. At that point, it appeared bleak. After the goal, Toronto’s defenceman Morgan Rielly broke his stick in half on the bench.
Then the magic of the playoffs reared its head.
The Maple Leafs pulled Andersen after Jenner’s goal and put an extra attacker on the ice. Nylander beat Elvis Merzlikins with 3:57 remaining, and then came the goals from Tavares and Hyman.
“They weren’t going to quit,” Keefe said.
Merzlikins was making his first start in the NHL playoffs and picked up right where he left off on Thursday when he entered the game in relief of Joonas Korpisalo. Merzlikins, who made 21 saves in the Blue Jackets 4-3 victory, stopped 15 shots in the first period and 16 more in the second. In the third, he stopped only five of eight attempts. He ended up stopping 49 of 53 on the night.
Early in the game, he was magnificent. At the beginning, he slid across the crease and blocked a shot by Nick Robertson with his pad, another time he dived to cover up a puck that Pierre Engvall nearly tapped into the corner of the net. Near the end of the first period he denied shots on a power play by Mitch Marner and Tavares.
Only 24 hours earlier, the Maple Leafs were on the verge of pushing the Blue Jackets to the brink. Four goals later, their positions were reversed.
“It’s a funny game sometimes,” Keefe said.
Columbus, which would have failed to make the playoffs if the field had not been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, had them on the ropes and then they made a Houdini-like escape.
“There is always a belief on our team,” Nick Foligno, the Blue Jackets captain, said earlier Friday. He was called for a tripping penalty in overtime that led to the Toronto goal. After the game ended, he was shouting at the referees. “You thrive when you feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We embrace that. It is something that drives us every game.”
Perhaps the Maple Leafs have been overcomplicating things. They have a lot of moving parts with all of those high-priced players. The Blue Jackets are not so encumbered.
“We just play,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said. “We don’t overthink things. It is not adjustments and this, that, and the other thing. We just try to go out and play the game the right way.”
Friday night, Toronto did, too. It saved its season.
Matthews had a goal and two assists, Tavares had a goal and an assist, Marner had two assists, and Hyman had a goal and an assist.
“This series is as tight as it can be,” Hyman said.
Looking forward to Sunday, he said, “We have to be ready for a battle.”