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Maple Leafs beat Blue Jackets, but lose Spezza to six-game suspension

Rielly’s four assists, Matthews’ two goals pave way in win

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Jason Spezza had the book thrown at him on Tuesday night.

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At the same time, his Maple Leafs went about taking the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets to school.

For two periods, at least, but we’ll get back to that.

Spezza, the veteran Leafs centre who had no history of being fined or suspended in his 1,200-game career in the National Hockey League, was suspended six games for his hit on Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk on Sunday.

The announcement came during the second intermission of the Leafs’ 5-4 win against Columbus at Scotiabank Arena.

Morgan Rielly tied a career-high with four assists, Auston Matthews scored two goals to run his goal streak to seven games and Nick Ritchie scored his first goal with the Leafs as Toronto won after losing in Minnesota and Winnipeg this past weekend.

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Spezza didn’t play on Tuesday. The NHL department of player safety called the hit “reckless and retaliatory” in its video explaining the suspension decision.

While the NHL considered Spezza’s clean track record, it took into account that Pionk was hurt on the play. He has entered concussion protocol, Jets coach Paul Maurice said on Tuesday.

“It’s a play in which (Spezza) is attempting to enact forceful retribution on a player who is in a vulnerable position,” the NHL said. “The onus is on Spezza to ensure the hit is delivered legally.”

The hit on Pionk came not long after the Jets player kneed Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin. Pionk was suspended two games by the NHL and Sandin is out for up to three weeks.

Expect Spezza, who will forfeit $22,500, to file an appeal, as is his right. There would be an option for an independent arbitrator if there is not satisfaction with a ruling made by commissioner Gary Bettman.

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“We do and always will support him,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said about Spezza’s suspension. “He’s going to weigh his options he has in this process. From our perspective, it’s important we press on here.”

With the injuries to winger Mitch Marner (shoulder) and defencemen Sandin (leg) and Travis Dermott (shoulder), and the absence of Spezza, the Leafs recalled forward Alex Steeves and defencemen Kristians Rubins and Alex Biega from the Toronto Marlies.

Both Steeves and Rubins made their NHL debut, and as such, shared the first lap at the start of warmup.

The Leafs, who outshot the Jackets 40-32, built a 3-0 lead in the first and were up 5-1 after two. Instead of putting the Jackets away, the Leafs gave up three in the third, including goals in the final four minutes by Sean Kuraly and Max Domi.

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“I didn’t like much about the game,” Keefe said. “We found ways to strike offensively … but in terms of how we have played, there was not a lot to like. I’m kind of happy, frankly, the third period catches up to us, because it probably should have. Not a great game for us, but a good result.”

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John Tavares, on a power play, and Matthews scored seven seconds apart late in the second.

Oliver Bjorkstrand scored two goals for Columbus. One of Jack Campbell’s best stops of the season came on Bjorkstrand in the second period when Campbell lunged across the crease to glove the shot.

Though Michael Bunting demonstrated some Marner magic in setting up Matthews for the second Toronto goal, Ritchie had the biggest smile.

Ritchie’s first with the Leafs — on his 41st shot on goal — came at 16:30 of the first. Parked alone in front, Ritchie popped a pass from Ondrej Kase past Elvis Merzlikins to put Toronto up 3-0.

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“Helping the team felt good,” Ritchie said. “It had been a while, probably as long as it has been since I’ve been playing hockey. Feels good to get one and hopefully I can build some confidence and momentum off that.”

Matthews’ first goal came at 15:08 after Bunting put a backhand pass between his legs while holding off defenceman Jake Bean. Matthews easily tapped the puck in.

William Nylander gave the Leafs an early 1-0 lead on a power play.

Before the game, Keefe was asked whether the NHL has to do more to protect the game’s best players, with Matthews in mind.

“If I’m not mistaken, I don’t think Auston has drawn a penalty the entire season, which is strange, considering how much he has the puck (Matthews has drawn one at five on five),” Keefe said. “Those kind of things, I think, are worth looking at, if you’re involved with that.”

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