Maple Leafs blast Blue Jackets
Don't look now, but the Toronto Maple Leafs Maple are closing the gap a bit in the NHL Eastern Conference.
Phil Kessel and Jason Blake each scored twice in a 6-3 road victory for Toronto over Columbus, while three teams the Maple Leafs are chasing in the standings fell to defeat Thursday night.
Kessel has now scored 10 goals in 15 games for Toronto (8-12-7). The Maple Leafs also got goals from Lee Stempniak and Nikolai Kulemin, who scored a short-handed goal.
Toronto is 5-1-1 in its last seven games, with a road game on tap in Boston on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m . ET).
"We are feeling a lot better about ourselves right now," said coach Ron Wilson.
The Maple Leafs are now six points out of the eighth spot in the East, although there are several teams ahead of them. Montreal, Philadelphia and Florida all lost on Thursday, though, with the Leafs now just three points behind the Canadiens and Panthers.
Columbus has won just once in the last eight games (1-4-3), and Thursday's game was another disappointment for Steve Mason in his sophomore season.
Mason was pulled after the fourth Toronto goal on 14 shots and now has a goals-against average of 3.46 and a .888 save percentage.
"It's easy to blame the goaltenders," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said. "This is all on us, the coaches and the players."
Scoring in cluster
Kristian Huselius scored for the Blue Jackets to cut a Toronto lead to 2-1 in the second, but the Leafs countered with three in a span of less than seven minutes later in the frame.
Leafs goalie Joey MacDonald made 33 saves in net, including several key ones while the game was still close. Playing because of an injury to Vesa Toskala and the heart troubles of Jonas Gustavsson, MacDonald had not allowed a goal in 106 minutes until Huselius struck.
"They had a few odd-man rushes. You have to come up with those saves," said MacDonald. "That's what my job is, to make the big save at the right time. Tonight we put the puck into the net. When you score five or six goals, you should win hockey games."
The Maple Leafs started a game-long trend of pouncing on Blue Jackets turnovers just over four minutes in at Nationwide Arena. Jeff Finger helped cause the turnover and Kessel at the other end lifted the puck over Mason.
For the second straight game, the Leafs got out to a 2-0 lead, substantial considering they allowed the first goal in 20 of their first 25 contests.
Midway through the period, Stempniak wheeled in the slot and fired a low backhander for his first goal since Oct. 31.
Each goalie made impressive saves late in the frame. MacDonald stuck out his right pad to stop Antoine Vermette on a Columbus power-play, while Mason stuffed Matt Stajan as the Leafs completed a nice three-way passing play.
The Leafs blew an assignment just over two minutes into the second period, allowing Columbus star Rick Nash to streak down the right side and test MacDonald.
Not long after hitting the post behind Mason, Stajan took an ill-advised penalty in the Columbus end, giving the Blue Jackets the chance to cut the lead in half.
Nash set up like a point guard in the slot, eventually finding Huselius breaking on the left side to beat MacDonald at the 4:48 mark. The Blue Jackets entered the game with the second-best power play in the NHL.
The Leafs replied just 77 seconds later as Blake broke out of a scoring funk. He jumped on a neutral zone turnover to start the scoring play, receiving Mikhail Grabovski's pass on the doorstep to restore the two-goal lead.
While MacDonald was doing his part with a save on Derek MacKenzie in the crease, Mason was hooked after Kessel's second. Tomas Kaberle sent a pass into the slot for Ponikarovsky, but the puck ended up skidding to Kessel, who fired in one motion past the beleaguered Blue Jackets goalie.
"We're playing well," said Kessel. "Obviously, tonight Mac played unbelievable in net for us. We could have played better. We scored a bunch of goals but we've got to play better defensively and help him out. Hopefully, we can do that next game."
Ponikarovsky got his second assist on the play and now has six points (1G, 5A) in his last four games.
Mathieu Garon surrendered a goal just 1:47 into his night, but it was hardly his fault. Kulemin stripped former Leaf Anton Stralman of the puck near the Toronto blue-line, then skated down the left side before firing an impressive shot past Garon's blocker.
"We didn't do a good job of managing the puck," said Hitchcock. "Tonight it was just careless."
Nash made an athletic play later in the period by catching a puck high in the air but had little room to manoeuvre on MacDonald.
Grabovski leads all Toronto forwards with 14 assists, and he got his second by feeding an uncovered Blake in the slot at 2:04 of the third.
"We're just doing the things that we should do," Blake said. "We use our speed and forecheck and make it tough on defencemen. If we don't do that, we're easy to play against.
"The last few games, we've been doing that. We've been getting rewarded. We've just got to keep doing it."
Just over one minute later, Jason Chimera converted a rush down the right side, turning the puck to his forehand and slipping the puck past MacDonald.
Toronto got increasingly sloppy later in the third, but Columbus (13-10-5) was off the mark on a pair of odd-man rushes.
Jan Hejda got the second power-play goal for the home team, a point shot with just over two minutes left.
The announced attendance at Nationwide Arena was 13,825.
With files from The Associated Press