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Defenceman Rielly has four assists as Maple Leafs hold on to beat Blue Jackets 5-4

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TORONTO — A win salvaged what was otherwise a terrible Tuesday for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

First, the Maple Leafs learned standout forward Mitch Marner's shoulder ailment would keep him out three to four weeks.

Then about the time they entered the final 20 minutes of their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets with a four-goal lead, they discovered the verdict on veteran Jason Spezza's suspension was six games.

The Maple Leafs hung on for a 5-4 win before 18,793 at Scotiabank Arena to end a two-game skid that began with Marner's injury after he collided with teammate Jake Muzzin in practice last Friday.

"That's going to happen over the course of a season," said Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly when asked about the Marner development and the Spezza suspension. Rielly checked in with four assists in the victory.

"(Marner) is a big part of our team. You have to rely on your depth."

The Maple Leafs did receive some big plays from their roster depth. Michael Bunting made a Marner-like pass between his legs to set up Auston Matthews for his first of two goals. First-year Toronto forward Nick Ritchie finally broke through for his first goal of the campaign.

Right-wing Alex Steeves and defenceman Kristians Rubins did not look out of place in their NHL debuts. Wayne Simmonds was promoted to the first line and almost set up Matthews for a hat trick goal in the third period.

The Maple Leafs (18-7-2) did not kick up a fuss about the stiff suspension to Spezza. On Sunday, he went after Winnipeg Jets defencemen Neal Pionk, kneeing the Jets defender in the head after Pionk issued a knee-on-knee hit to Toronto blueliner Rasmus Sandin.

Sandin also was placed on the injured reserve list alongside Marner. Travis Dermott (shoulder) also missed Tuesday's game.

"It's out of our hands," Matthews said, regarding the Spezza suspension.

"It's an opportunity for others to step up."

After Bunting's beauty pass, Ritchie stepped up to give the Maple Leafs a 3-0 lead late in the opening period. He had not scored since the playoff opener for his Boston Bruins last May 15.

His teammates appeared more excited than Ritchie after he scored in his 27th game in a Maple Leafs' sweater.

"It's been a while," said Ritchie, who scored 15 goals for the Bruins last year. "It's almost a better feeling to see how excited your team is for you."

Steeves and Rubins wore ear-to-ear grins after their debuts. Steeves played on the fourth line with Pierre Engvall and Kyle Clifford. His parents were in town and were to fly home on Monday. But after dropping them off at Pearson International Airport and arriving back at his pad, Steeves found out he would be playing his first NHL game on Tuesday.

He was quick enough to call his parents, and they were able to deplane their flight and stay to take the milestone outing.

"It was super special," the native of Bedford, N.H., said. "The entire night was a welcome to the NHL for me."

Rubins is from Latvia. He revealed his family and friends stayed up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the game on television.

"It was a dream come true," he said.

After a power-play goal from William Nylander, the dandy from Bunting to Matthews and Ritchie's breakthrough marker, the Maple Leafs increased their lead to 5-1 in the second period with a power-play goal from captain John Tavares and another from Matthews seven seconds later.

But the Blue Jackets upped the tempo to score three more times. Oliver Bjorkstrand scored his second early in the third, while Sean Kurlay and Max Domi scored late. Domi's goal came with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.

Toronto goalie Jack Campbell registered his league-leading 14th win. The Maple Leafs outshot the visitors 40-32.

The Blue Jackets (13-11-0) were without forward Patrik Laine, out with an oblique strain. They have now dropped five of their last six outings.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2021.

Tim Wharnsby, The Canadian Press

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