The Toronto Maple Leafs are getting awfully good at this pick-your-poison game.
One night, it's the Auston Matthews line lighting up the opposition. Then, to give Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander a break, Nazem Kadri's line will go to work.
So it went Wednesday night, 48 hours after Matthews's line led the way against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kadri bagged the fourth hat trick of his NHL career, and his first since March 29, 2016, to spark the Leafs to their fifth consecutive win in as many home games, a 6-3 decision over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Kadri and linemates Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau combined for 10 points against the Blue Jackets with five of them going to Kadri. He has 15 points in the 10 games since Marner joined him and Marleau on that line. Marner has 13 points in the same span.
"Mitchie's special, he's special offensively. We each have that offensive instinct we developed over our years," Kadri said of Marner. "We certainly like to score; we don't want to constantly play defence all the time.
"Obviously sometimes you're going to have to and rely on your defence to win games but when you're hot you've got to continue to go with the flow."
Maybe so, but not if Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has anything to say about it. He was one of the few people unimpressed by the win, mostly because the Leafs – between counter-attacks – allowed the Blue Jackets to fire 57 shots at goaltender Frederik Andersen, who was brilliant once again. The number of shots and the 54 saves were career-highs for him.
Asked about his team's effort, Babcock replied it was "Freddie's effort, anyway. Freddie was real good. We weren't very good for whatever reason. They had jump, we didn't. I didn't think at any time we were really that good, but we battled hard and found a way to get ourselves a win."
The Maple Leafs managed to survive their defensive struggles and the Blue Jackets' love for throwing the puck at the net for the first 40 minutes to carry a 4-3 lead into the third period. The Blue Jackets hit 40 shots with three minutes left in the second period and held a 41-19 edge at the end of the period. They were up 66-41 in shot attempts.
This was in keeping with the previous five games the Blue Jackets played before hitting Toronto. In those games, they took between 37 and 51 shots on goal before hitting 57 in Toronto. Babcock said before the game it is no fun trying to defend that style of play.
"Passes are easier to defend than those throw-ins because throw-ins are random," Babcock said. "They hit something and bounce somewhere, you can't control it. It hits the guys in front and goes somewhere, the goalie doesn't feel it."
While the coach thought his players were seldom in control defensively, they argued a lot of the Columbus shots were lobbed in from the perimeter simply to create rebounds.
"Shots-on-goal is a deceiving stat," Kadri said. "Not necessarily all the time when a team outshoots you they outplay you. You've got to give credit to [the Blue Jackets], they played well and we didn't play our best hockey but we found a way to win.
"They do a good job, especially their D-men, getting pucks through the firing lanes. I do think a lot of shots were from the outside but they did have some Grade A opportunities. Rebounds obviously are good chances, they do a great job at that."
Andersen had the fans chanting his name in the second period and again in the third when he made his best save of the night, just getting his toe on a redirection from point-blank range by Columbus winger Boone Jenner to keep the Leafs ahead 4-3. The Blue Jackets hit 54 shots by the 14-minute mark of the third period but Andersen did not wilt.
The Leafs also had to cope without defenceman Jake Gardiner. He was slashed by Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert midway through the first period and did not return to the game. Babcock said Gardiner had "some sort of lower body thing, some kind of spasm." The Leafs have Thursday off and Babcock said they will know more about Gardiner's condition on Friday.
The game followed a pattern: the Blue Jackets would get a couple of scoring chances when the Leafs were loose defensively and then the Leafs would strike back. It was the way the game opened and then the Leafs came back with some help from Lady Luck on the first goal.
Leafs centre Dominic Moore pounced on a loose puck in the Columbus zone and drove to the net. He threw a backhand shot at the net and Columbus goaltender Joonas Korpisalo simply missed it with his glove hand at 4:38. It was Moore's first goal since Nov. 30, a drought of 22 games.
Three minutes later, the Leafs took a 2-0 lead on a power-play goal by Kadri. But the Blue Jackets duo of centre Alexander Wennberg and Nick Foligno took advantage of lax defensive coverage to tie the score with two goals, both by Foligno.
However, Kadri's line struck back with Kadri's 19th and 20th goals of the season to restore the two-goal lead. Blue Jackets defenceman Jack Johnson cut it to one at 14:35 of the second period but Kadri scored his third at 11:21 of the third period. Marleau joined the scoring party with an empty-net goal in the second-last minute.
"We're just moving off the puck very well," Marner said of the trio's play. "We're creating chances by supporting each other up the ice.
"We're moving our feet a lot in the zone. We're getting our D-men activated, they're getting shots too. When you do that, it's tough on the other team's defensive plan."