Blake, Kessel team up

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ken Hitchcock wasn’t kidding, though the Blue Jackets coach must have wished he was.

Prior to his team’ 6-3 thrashing at the hands of the Maple Leafs Thursday night, Hitchcock said — with a straight face — that Toronto was playing like a playoff squad.

“I look at the big picture — if they continue to play at the pace they are playing at, they are probably going to get into the playoffs,” Hitchcock said before watching the carnage along with 14,825 others at the Nationwide Arena.

“It’s probably shocking to everybody — but they look to me like a team that is starting to figure out the balance between offence and defence.”

Playoffs? Did somebody say playoffs?

With the win Thursday, the Leafs have 23 points. And as incredible as it may have seemed a month ago, they are just six points behind the Islanders, who currently hold down the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“We are feeling a lot better about ourselves right now,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We don’t have to be in a playoffs spot by Christmas or even the Olympic break. Probably for us if we are going to make the playoffs it’s going to come down to the last week of the season.”

Despite some sloppy defence, the Leafs won their second in a row and fifth of their past seven and made Hitchcock sound like a sage.

To wit: Goaltender Joey MacDonald played like a Vezina candidate.

Sniper Phil Kessel scored a pair, his third multiple-goal game to give him 10 on the season. And just for good measure, Kessel held his own in a scrap with Jackets defenceman Kris Russell in the third period. It was his first fight as a pro.

Even Jason Blake found the back of the net twice after going 12 games without a goal.

“I think we’ve played well for about six weeks now, with a couple of exceptions,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. “In general, we’ve played well enough to win most games we are in.

“The guys are making a charge here.”

As a coach who has seen a lot of Leafs coach Ron Wilson’s teams when both were in charge of Western Conference squads, Hitchcock is noticing some familiar signs.

“When you turn down the volume, the team looks a lot like San Jose did when (Wilson) was there, checking-wise,” Hitchcock said.

The Leafs jumped on the Jackets early and without mercy Thursday. Kessel scored the opener 4:32 into the game by parking himself in front of Jackets goaltender Steve Mason and burying the puck when it came to him.

Another in the second allowed him to hit double digits in just his 15th game as a Leaf.

The Leafs held leads of 2-0 and 6-1 before the Jackets mounted a modest comeback.

“Maybe it times we were too confident,” Wilson said. “I thought we were as sloppy as we possibly could be defensively. Thank God Joey MacDonald made some big saves.”


Photos