Jackets, Leafs set to decide back-and-forth series

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One side was left joyous, the other stunned and confused.

Both must now settle in and get ready to stave off elimination from the NHL playoffs.

The eighth-seeded Maple Leafs and the ninth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets meet Sunday in Toronto in the deciding game of their best-of-five Eastern Conference qualifying series. The game became necessary after the Leafs’ 4-3 overtime victory on Friday.

It was a stunner, to be sure. The Leafs mounted a third-period comeback, scoring three goals in the last four minutes of regulation to tie the game and force overtime.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” said Jason Spezza, a 17-year veteran. “With the firepower we have, though, and with these guys, they can put the puck in the net. We’re never out of it. There’s a great sense of belief in our group.”

Spezza has rarely fought throughout his NHL days, and is relied upon more as a playmaker with great vision of the ice. But he dropped the gloves Friday against Dean Kukan around the 14-minute mark of the third period, and lit a fire under his team’s skates.

“I was just trying to spark the guys, show some desperation and have some pushback,” Spezza said. “Sometimes without the crowd, you don’t have that. I was just trying to create some emotion and play the role that I’m in, try to get everyone going.”

Zach Hyman, who scored with 23 seconds left to tie the game at 3-3, appreciated the knocks Spezza took from Kukan.

“He wants it more than anybody,” said Hyman, who’s in his fifth season with the Maple Leafs. “He’s been in the league for so long. He was a first-line player throughout his career, an all-star, probably a Hall of Famer, and now he’s playing on the fourth line, willing to drop the gloves and give our team momentum when we’re down.

“You can’t say enough good things about Spezz. He’s a real leader on our team. We all love him. It was a great play for him and we got going.”

The Leafs got their first and second goals from William Nylander and John Tavares, respectively. Auston Matthews, who had two helpers, potted the game-winner 6 minutes, 50 seconds into overtime.

Matthews said the Leafs have to keep showing the resilience that allowed them to force Game 5.

“You gotta go through ups and downs,” he said. “I feel like we’ve been through our share of ups and downs. We have to stick with it, focus on what we can control, and focus on what we have in the locker room.”

The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, have to recover from the shock of losing a game they thought was in the bag.

“We just stopped moving our feet,” said Seth Jones. “We stayed back and stopped forechecking. They took advantage of it.”

Cam Atkinson scored first and early, getting the Blue Jackets on the board at 3:58 of the first, and Vladislav Gavrikov added a goal in the second. Boone Jenner appeared to put the game out of reach with a goal at 14:18 of the third.

“This is what happens in a series, the ups and downs,” said defenseman David Savard. “It’s a roller coaster. We have to try to stay as even-keeled as we can, deal with these ebbs and flows. We’re not going to dwell on it, we’re going to put it behind us.”

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was tight-lipped after Friday’s game.

“I’m not gonna explain it,” he said.

–Field Level Media

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