TORONTO – The Columbus Blue Jackets came into the Air Canada Centre with only two regulation wins in all of December.
The Toronto Maple Leafs defence made sure they would end the month with at least one more.
R.J. Umberger scored the game-winner on a third-period power play as the Blue Jackets beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 Thursday in a game highlighted by giveaways and gaffes courtesy of Toronto’s blue-liners.
“Tonight our ‘D’ had a tough night, handling pucks, misreading rushes and some pretty bad giveaways,” said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson.
Umberger’s winner, and 11th of the season, came at 3:34 of the third. With Joey Crabb off for holding, Umberger tipped a Rick Nash wrist shot past Toronto goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.
Kristian Huselius scored the other Columbus goals in front of 19,148 fans at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Antoine Vermette added two assists for Columbus.
Nikolai Kulemin and Tyler Bozak replied for the Maple Leafs, who fell to 13-19-4.
The win was the second in a row for the Blue Jackets, who improved to 19-15-3 on the season but are 5-7-3 so far in December, with one game still to play Friday against visiting Ottawa.
“To come into Toronto and finally win one in regulation with all my friends and family here, it’s pretty special,” said Columbus captain Rick Nash, a native of nearby Brampton, Ont.
Columbus goaltender Steve Mason stopped 20 of 22 shots for the victory, while Gustavsson made 29 saves.
“We needed this,” Blue Jackets coach Scott Arneil said. “We’re leaving on a big road trip out west.To get a road win here kind of helps us a little bit in that direction.”
The game got off to an inauspicious beginning for Toronto when defenceman Mike Komisarek continued his run of sub-par play with a horrendous giveaway in the defensive zone right up the middle of the ice. The puck was easily picked off by Columbus winger Jared Boll, who rang a shot off the post.
Komisarek’s play was indicative a trend that continued much of the night. Toronto defencemen accounted for seven official giveaways and made many more mistakes on top of the official tally. Wilson was quick to point out that the blue-line’s poor play stifled Toronto’s transition game as well.
Adding to the situation was that Toronto’s most dangerous forward of late, Mikhail Grabovski, was out of the lineup. His girlfriend, Kate, gave birth to a baby girl at about 8:30 Thursday night.
It all meant the Leafs spent much of the night hemmed in their own end, especially during a particularly lopsided second period when they were out-shot 11-3 and seemed to check out altogether.
“I thought we let off the gas and they kind of took it to us,” said Toronto winger Clarke MacArthur. “It’s not good enough to go through the motions. We have to be a desperate team. With our record we’ve got to find a way to win.”
Kulemin opened the scoring at the 15:19 mark of the first with his 13th of the season. It came on a 2-on-1 with the patient MacArthur, who held the puck as long as he could before sliding it across the crease to Kulemin, who shovelled it home.
Huselius answered less than 90 seconds later on a clean breakaway from centre ice thanks to a Toronto giveaway, this time by a forward, Phil Kessel. The streaking Huselius took a pass, skated in on Gustavsson alone and beat him through his pads.
“You can’t think much about it,” Gustavsson said of the giveaways. “The second it happens I’m always angered, but when I go home I know it’s going to be like this sometimes for us, sometimes for them. It’s always going to even out.
“You just have to accept it and move on.”
Bozak’s fifth goal of the season on the power play restored Toronto’s one-goal lead with 18 seconds to play in the opening period. With Columbus’ Rostislav Klesla in the box for boarding, Kessel picked up the puck behind Mason and tapped it to Bozak at the side of the net, who caught Mason looking the wrong way and chipped it in.
But the tide shifted quickly once the second period began.
Huselius’ second of the game and eighth of the season tied the contest 2-2 at the 6:47 mark of the second. It was a play that epitomized Toronto’s combination of bad luck and sloppy execution on the night.
The puck took a funny bounce off the boards on a dump around and deflected off defenceman Francois Beauchemin’s skate right onto Huselius’ stick at the right of Gustavsson. The shifty winger made a quick forehand-backhand move and beat the Toronto netminder.
Columbus was 1-for-2 on the power play, while Toronto went 1-for-1 with the man advantage
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf of another one-goal loss. “But at the same time the games we are playing very well in, we’re having a couple mental lapses that are costing us.”
“The last two games we’ve played very well. A couple lapses and a bad bounce tonight, let’s be honest.”
Bad bounces or not, the defence corps was supposed to be one of the few strengths the Maple Leafs could boast this season. But when asked if the blue-line has met his expectations so far this year, Wilson was blunt.
“Probably not. They can play better,” he said.
Notes: Brett Lebda leads all current Toronto players in career assists (8) and points (11) versus Columbus. He was a healthy scratch…the Leafs are now 2-6-0 on Thursdays this season…with two assists Monday against Minnesota, Rick Nash became Columbus’ career leader in that category…