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By Neil Becker
Defenceman Timothy Liljegren enjoyed his finest moment in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform.
Due to fellow defenceman Justin Holl being put in COVID-19 protocol, Liljegren took his place and didn’t disappoint as he registered three hits, three shots on goal and most importantly scored his first NHL goal.
Liljegren, who was playing his 21st game of the season and first since December 14th in Edmonton, scored that first goal in the second period when he fired a one-timer from the blue line past St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington in what was an eventual 6-5 Leafs win.
Playing a momentum swinging game in what was a noisy Enterprise Center, fans saw the Leafs lose a 3-1 first period and 4-3 second period leads before eventually getting the game winner from Ilya Mikheyev who scored his fifth with only 3:15 remaining in regulation.
Leafs power forward Austin Matthews continues to re-write the franchise record books. Matthews, not only extended his franchise record of scoring in ten straight road games, but also became the first Leaf player to score 25 or more goals in his first six seasons. It wasn’t until the third period when at the 11:24 mark, this rising superstar scored his 25th which proved pivotal as it tied the game at 5-5.
Also having an immediate impact was Matthew’s linemate and friend, forward Mitch Marner who in his first game after coming out of COVID-19 protocol, scored his seventh goal at 7:32 of the first period.
Also having big games for Toronto were the likes of captain John Tavares who scored his 15th goal to break what was a four- game point drought. Meanwhile pesky forward Michael Bunting snapped a 10- game scoring drought when in the first he scored his eighth of the season.
The Blues, who came into action sporting a 15-3-2 home record, were severely shorthanded as they were missing some crucial players in scorers Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, David Perron, Pavel Buchnevich and defenceman Colton Parayko who were in COVID-19 protocol.
However, St. Louis did have star forward Ryan O’Reilly who had a two- goal game with his first being the opening goal which came at 3:58 into regulation.
Toronto would respond with three consecutive first period goals starting with a brilliant face-off play from Matthews. Matthews who was taking an offensive draw against O’Reilly, slapped the puck forward for what turned out to be a shot on goal. Meanwhile Bunting sprinted to the net and scored at the 5:43 mark on a rebound. Less than two minutes later a rejuvenated Marner snapped a rising shot past Binnington which was followed by Tavares scoring his 15th as Toronto carried what seemed like a comfortable 3-1 lead into the second.
St. Louis, who came into action riding a 13- game home point streak showed why they are 6-2-1 on the year when behind heading to the second period. Showing strong character, they rebounded for consecutive goals 1:40 apart starting with O’Reilly with his eighth before Brandon Saad notched his 13th at the 5:20 mark of the second to make it a brand- new game at 3-3.
Once again, the Leafs would have a lead as Liljegren scored the go-ahead goal on a point shot before the Blues rebounded as Robert Thomas with less than four minutes remaining in the period scored his fifth goal to make square things up after 40 minutes of regulation.
Early in the third, St. Louis grabbed momentum when Niko Mikkola tallied his third goal at the 3:25 mark before Toronto pulled off a dramatic win.
Matthews, who is now tied for second with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin in league scoring, tied things up at 5-5 as he scored his 25th goal at the 11:24 mark on the power play.
Overtime was looking like a strong possibility until Mikheyev capitalized on a Blues giveaway and scored his fifth goal in seven games which stood out as the eventual game winner.
The win gives Toronto 51 points which leaves them six points behind the defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers in the race for first place in the Atlantic Division.
The Leafs continue their road trip on Wednesday, January 19th at Madison Square Gardens against the New York Rangers with puck drop scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start.
1st. Period TOR-STL
3:58 Ryan O’Reilly (7) 0- 1
Ivan Barbashev (17), Oskar Sundqvist (4)
5:43 Michael Bunting (8) 1- 1
Austin Matthews (15)
7:32 Mitchell Marner (7) 2-1
9:27 John Tavares (15) 3-1
Alex Kerfoot (20), Morgan Rielly (26)
2nd Period TOR-STL
3:40 Ryan O’Reilly (8) 3- 2
Niko Mikkola (3)
5:20 Brandon Saad (13) 3- 3
Robert Thomas (25)
8:18 Timothy Liljegren (1) 4- 3
Travis Dermott (3), Pierre Engvall (7)
16:13 Robert Thomas (5) 4- 4
Jordan Kyrou (24), Brandon Saad
3rd Period TOR-STL
3:25 Niko Mikkola (3) 4- 5
Jordan Kyrou (25), Justin Faulk (10)
11:24 PPG- Austin Matthews (25) 5- 5
Mitchell Marner (16), Morgan Rielly (27)
16:45 Ilya Mikheyev (5) 6- 5
Pierre Engvall (8)