COLUMBUS, Ohio – Eight games ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were sagging and the Columbus Blue Jackets were flying.
Now the roles are reversed. Phil Kessel and Jason Blake each scored two goals as the Maple Leafs beat the Blue Jackets 6-3 on Thursday night.
“We are feeling a lot better about ourselves right now,” coach Ron Wilson said of the Leafs, who have picked up points in seven of their past eight games (5-1-2).
Lee Stempniak and Nikolai Kulemin also scored and Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski and Alexei Ponikarovsky each had two assists for the Maple Leafs, who earned their fourth road win in a row.
Joey MacDonald stopped 33 shots to pick up his first win with Toronto.
“They had a few odd-man rushes. You have to come up with those saves,” said MacDonald, thrust into a starting role due to injuries for Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala. “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.”
Kessel has four goals in his past four games and 10 in the past 13 to drive the Leafs.
“We’re playing well,” he said. “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.”
Kristian Huselius, Jason Chimera and Jan Hejda scored for the Blue Jackets, who have lost seven of their past eight. Hejda also had an assist.
“We didn’t do a good job of managing the puck,” Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Tonight it was just careless.”
After Columbus pulled to 2-1 on Huselius’ power-play goal five minutes into the second period, Toronto put the game away. Just over a minute later, Hagman passed cross ice to Grabovski who found Blake on another picture-perfect pass to make it 3-1.
The Maple Leafs made it 4-1 shortly after when Ponikarovsky took a pass and was held up by a defender but kicked the puck to Kessel for a quick shot in the high slot resulting in his second of the night and 10th of the season.
That was it for Columbus goaltender Steve Mason, pulled in favour of Mathieu Garon after allowing four goals on 14 shots.
The change made no difference. With the Blue Jackets again on the power play moments later, Anton Stralman lost the puck at the boards in front of the Toronto bench. Kulemin skated to the left circle and beat Garon stick-side on the first shot the goalie faced to make it 5-1.
That cued an already small crowd to boo the home team.
“It’s easy to blame the goaltenders,” Hitchcock said. “This is all on us, the coaches and the players.”
The Maple Leafs also struck early. From the back boards, Ponikarovsky flipped a no-look, behind-the-back centring pass that went off defenceman Mike Commodore’s stick to Kessel’s. Kessel skated across the slot, pulling the puck back as Mason tried to poke-check it, and slipped it into the net.
Toronto made it 2-0 on a similar play. Stempniak intercepted defenceman Fedor Tyutin’s pass and backhanded the puck past a surprised Mason for his sixth goal.
“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.”
Notes: Chimera hadn’t scored a point in 13 games or had a goal in 14 before his third-period goal. … It was the only meeting of the season between the teams and marked the first time in more than three years that the Maple Leafs had come to Columbus.