Twenty-four hours after the Leafs had arguably their best game of the season the team looked weary in a 5-2 defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday.
Most concerning for Toronto was the loss of their leading scorer, Mitch Marner. The rookie sensation sustained a hit from Columbus forward Boone Jenner and – despite numerous attempts to shake off what appeared to be an arm injury – left the game early in the third period.
Dismissively, Babcock said to reporters on Marner’s status: “I don’t know, we’ll figure that out later.”
Goaltender Curtis McElhinney returned to Nationwide Arena to face the team for whom he played for four seasons and was left with little support from his teammates. Columbus’s Josh Anderson drove to the net and converted a centring pass, jamming the puck from underneath McElhinney to open the scoring.
Jenner put his team up by a pair after pouncing on a rebound, with blueliner Morgan Rielly left having to defend a pair of Columbus forwards.
Things didn’t get better for the Leafs as the second period got underway. Nazem Kadri turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Oliver Bjorkstrand got in behind Toronto’s defence, receiving a breakaway pass and making no mistake with a laser-sharp snipe past McElhinney.
Columbus extended their lead on a power play, Nick Foligno deflecting a point shot from Zach Werenski.
Somewhat miraculously, after the Marner collision, the Leafs showed signs of life. Nazem Kadri registered a pair of goals to bring the Leafs close. Both goals were assisted by Josh Leivo, who showed great work along the boards, picking up his fifth point in the past two games.
But, following a late, unsuccessful, third period Leafs power play, Matt Calvert sealed the win for the home team with an empty netter.
Babcock continued to shuffle the forward lines in the hopes of generating some offence. At one point, James van Riemsdyk and William Nylander were both demoted to the fourth unit centred by Ben Smith, leaving Matt Martin to play with Tyler Bozak, and Marner.
Zach Hyman left the game in the third period after taking a high stick from Lukas Sedlak.
“We kind of left our D out to dry,” Leivo said to reporters. “They came in on us pretty quick on the forecheck and challenged our goalie pretty quick. I think we’ve got to do a better job as far as keeping their forwards off of our D and breaking out quick, then getting in on their D.”
The Leafs’ record fell to 4-8-1 in the second half of back-to-back nights.