After a five-day break, the Toronto Maple Leafs picked up right where they left off in Columbus on Friday night to extend their winning streak to five games with a league-leading 14th road victory of the season.

Prior to puck drop, Leafs PR announced that Patrick Marleau reached yet another milestone in his illustrious career:

Currently playing in his 21st NHL season, Marleau will be passing #9 on the all-time list, Larry Murphy at 1615, in a few games time.

First Period

It would’ve been easy to excuse a slow start from a Leaf team playing its first game in five days coming off the holidays, with Columbus coming off of a win the night prior.

Mike Babcock has spoken about the process of becoming “machine-like” in the team’s approach to games, and the Leafs are getting pretty close to that description as we approach the midway point of the season. Toronto got off to a fast start — resulting in the Blue Jackets taking a penalty after William Nylander drew a call by keeping his feet moving through neutral ice — and it didn’t take long for the Leafs to capitalize on a power play opportunity.

John Tavares — who, as Babcock put it, “knows where the goals are scored” — picked up yet another tally in tight to the net for his 25th of the season, but this was a power play goal that was all about scheme and execution between the Leafs‘ ability to set the zone efficiently and rotate seamlessly into position, with Nazem Kadri getting lost in coverage to tip the puck on net on a high-tip play from Mitch Marner.

Garret Sparks, the Leafs starter in this game, faced a flurry of shots following the opening tally and was beat by Nick Foligno after the Leafs got caught trying to hold their own blue line with a change in progress:

With tons of space between the five-hole on Sparks, it wasn’t the greatest start to his game, but to his credit, he settled right down after conceding early.

From there, both teams traded chances, with each coming close to grabbing the lead on several occasions. As the period wore on, it appeared that the Columbus forecheck was turning the momentum as they hemmed Toronto in their own end — with the Leafs unable to clear successfully despite multiple chances to do so — for quite some time, resulting in a William Nylander penalty after Travis Dermott’s stick broke.

On the penalty kill, the Leafs did a great job at limiting the Blue Jackets chances and got a key stop from Sparks when needed.

The Leafs seemed to collect some momentum off of their kill, leading to some great looks, including this one for Kasperi Kapanen:

Less than a minute later, the Leafs efforts were rewarded thanks to Tavares’ clinical finishing yet again.

After the hard work tracking back through the neutral zone and transitioning back on offense, Tavares caught the pass from Marner on his backhand and snapped it across the net into the top corner with no wind up on his forehand — an absolute goal scorer’s goal for his 26th of the season in just 37 games.

With shots favouring Toronto 13-8 by period’s end and the score 2-0, the Leafs played as good of a first period as Mike Babcock could have hoped for coming off the break against one of the league’s hottest teams.

Second Period

The Leafs picked up where they left off and kept up the offensive pressure early before Columbus pushed back with some chances of their own, with neither team grabbing firm control of the period in the opening stages.

Roughly seven minutes in, the Leafs got their second power-play chance of the night but the execution wasn’t there this team and the Leafs needed a big save to avoid a power-play disaster:

Not long after surviving their own power play, emotions briefly boiled over:

Good on Kasperi Kapanen for stepping in for Patrick Marleau here while also avoiding the extra penalty. The Leafs then took full advantage of some 4-on-4 hockey:

From the defensive play by Jake Gardiner to free up the puck, to Matthews winning the puck battle against Pierre-Luc Dubois, to Matthews’ perfectly-weighted pass to Marner (who outhustled the Blue Jackets’ forwards up ice to create the chance), there were a number of little but critical plays that made this goal possible.

The Leafs appeared to have the game in control for the next few minutes, but they were forced to kill another penalty after Nazem Kadri went to the box for latching a free arm onto his man tracking back through the neutral zone. The Leafs penalty kill put together a business-like two minutes and outchanced the Blue Jackets on their own power play, with Par Lindholm and Connor Brown performing the yeoman’s work:

The score remained 3-1 at the conclusion of the period, although the Leafs were outshot 10-6 in the period and out-possessed 60/40 at 5v5. A few key Garret Sparks saves and the Leafs’ penalty killers deserved the glove taps for keeping the two-goal lead intact.

Third Period

There wasn’t a ton to report on in the third period as the Leafs saw the game out pretty effectively. The Blue Jackets outshot them just 10-9 in the final 20 minutes at 5v5 despite the score effects of the two-goal lead, and Columbus was credited with just three high-danger chances.

A big part of that was that the Leafs’ fourth line came on really strong with 3-4 excellent consecutive shifts late in the second period and early in the third, helping the Leafs to defend with the puck on their stick while pushing to add an additional insurance marker.

A few minutes later, the line’s hard work was rewarded as they converted to extend Toronto’s lead, all but putting the game to bed.

A blind pass from Igor Ozhiganov aside, the Leafs played a relatively mistake-free final 20 minutes to see out a well-earned two points.

“Lost Shift” Clip of the Night

Notable Stats

Post Game Notes

– The Leafs have now limited the opposition to 30 shots or fewer in five of their last seven games (six if you include the Detroit game that was sub-30 until overtime). This was the one box the Leafs were leaving unchecked in the first 30 or so games of the season. On pace for 117 points currently, “machine-like” are the words that come to mind.

– This was the start Garret Sparks needed; it sounds odd to say given he’s won all but two of his eight starts, but he’s gotten quite a bit of goal support from his teammates so far this season. Coming up with key saves in a game that was 2-1 throughout the second period, with his team second-best during the middle 20, was some of his best hockey as a Leaf so far this year. The timing is also notable as the Leafs have decided Andersen will be getting some more rest in the second half of the season, particularly coming off of extended breaks like the one the team just had.

It’s likely there is a sports science backing to that idea, too, knowing how the Leafs operate. I’ve got nothing to prove it, but starters getting hurt in their first game back after a long layoff is probably more common than you think.

– That’s now seven three+ point games for Mitch Marner in 37 games, and the craziest part: He’s got five in the last 32 days, including three in his last four games.

Frederik Gauthier and Trevor Moore made the most of their 7-8 minutes of 5v5 ice time in this game — they were on the ice for five scoring chances for / 0 against, scored the 4-1 goal, and finished with nearly 80% of the possession.  Thought this was Par Lindholm‘s best game in a Leaf jersey so far, also, when taken in tandem with his work at 4v5. On top of the great effort and setup for Gauthier’s goal, he was covering tons of ice and was really disruptive defensively through the neutral zone. Lindholm on the wing and Gauthier in the middle looks like the way forward for the time being. Moore’s speed with and without the puck really helps this line go also.

– Everyone heading to the game tomorrow should bust out their favourite pair of Leafs PJs for the Isles fans in attendance/watching from home.