The roller coaster ride of the Toronto Maple Leafs continued on Tuesday, with a bounce back 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena, but the two critical points came at a heavy cost as the Leafs lost defenseman Jake Muzzin with a hand injury.
Muzzin, who signed a four-year, $22.5 Million contract on Monday was injured in the second period blocking a Victor Hedman slap shot. The Leafs reported that the 31-year-old suffered a broken hand and will be lost to the club for four weeks.
“(Jake has) been playing great, no question it's a big loss.” Leafs team captain John Tavares said on Wednesday. “We can't hang our heads and think 'why us?'. As a group we have to step up and fill that void. When (Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren) get more opportunity, that's their chance to relish it."
There is no question that this is a crippling loss for Toronto, as Muzzin has been a top pairing and shutdown defenseman since Morgan Rielly’s injury last month, averaging over 22 minutes per game. With Rielly and Cody Ceci not available until mid-March at the earliest, Muzzin likely out until late March and the injury coming one day after the trade deadline, the Leafs are very short on options on the blueline.
The Leafs recalled defenseman Calle Rosen from the American Hockey League, who skated as the seventh defenseman at practice on Wednesday in preparation for another critical matchup against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.
Travis Dermott took Muzzin’s place on the top pairing with Justin Holl, Sandin was moved up with Tyson Barrie, and Martin Marincin was inserted on the bottom pairing with Timothy Liljegren.
The Leafs built a 4-2 lead through 40 minutes on a pair of goals by Tavares, one from Muzzin and a highlight reel game-winner from William Nylander, but the high-powered Lightning took advantage of Toronto’s inexperienced bottom pairing, as Sandin and Liljegren were on the ice for goals from Nikita Kucherov and Patrick Maroon. The third period may serve as a preview of what a challenge it will be without Muzzin, as the Leafs were outshot 14-3 and held on for dear life after Yanni Gourde narrowed the lead to 4-3.
Frederik Andersen made 26 saves for the victory, which kept Toronto two points ahead of the Panthers in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division.
“I thought we just gathered ourselves and made a couple little tactical adjustments that the guys caught on to quickly. I thought it turned the game for us in the first period.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “We've got ourselves the lead and then gave it up, then came back and built an even bigger lead. Just a lot of really good things. (We) know that (Tampa was) going to have a really strong push and it's important for us to not crack. They (got) the one and we stayed with it even shorthanded on the back end. Some guys battled really hard. A lot of really positive things for us in terms of winning a close game.”
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