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Maple Leafs get late goal to avoid collapse and edge Hawks

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The Maple Leafs leave on a long Western trip with a piece of first place, but not much peace of mind.

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Though defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4, they let a weaker team come back from a three-goal deficit, with more puzzling play on their side of centre. Thankfully for them, a fluke bounce on a dump-in gave ex-Hawk David Kampf an empty net with 1:20 to play and didn’t waste Petr Mrazek’s mid-game heroics and 31 saves in his first start since Halloween.

“Same story, too many chances against, too many freebies, too many guys in behind us,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The same issues that were hurting us when we weren’t winning games earlier this season.”

Keefe said he hopes that being on the road for four games, starting Tuesday in Edmonton, infuses the Leafs with a better protective mindset as in their California trip. They ended up having to score their way out of trouble on Saturday, but that’s where they’re blessed. Even without the injured Mitch Marner, power play goals from Auston Matthews and John Tavares and an even-strength effort from William Nylander provided the first three before fourth-liner Pierre Engvall made it 4-1.

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In between Jonathan Toews’ first-shot goal and Connor Murphy’s late in the second period, Mrazek made 22 saves and survived three power plays.

When defenceman Justin Holl left Dominik Kubalik open early in the third to help rookie Kristians Rubins, Mrazek came right back with a breakaway save on Patrick Kane, before Jake McCabe scored through traffic.

Matthews’ 18th goal also extended his points’ streak to nine games. Alex Steeves, part of the hard-working line with Engvall and Kyle Clifford, had his first NHL point on the Engvall goal.

But the Leafs took their foot off the gas, something the players as well as Keefe have harped on avoiding.

The win tied Toronto with Florida atop the Atlantic with 40 points, while Tampa Bay lost in Ottawa and remains two back.

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SPEZZA’S HOPES FOR BREAK

It’s almost becoming a moot exercise, but Jason Spezza’s appeal of a six-game suspension will be heard by commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday afternoon. By that night in Edmonton, Spezza will have sat four of the six games. Having at least one game shaved off and being ready for Vancouver on Saturday would be the best-case scenario for the 38-year-old, who had an exemplary record of behaving before the suspension for kneeing Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk.

BACK IT UP

Saturday turned into the battle of the back-ups, Marc-Andre Fleury resting after a milestone 500th win in his home province on Thursday for Finnish-born Kevin Lankinen and the Leafs going with Mrazek. Both allowed early goals.

Keefe and goalie coach Steve Briere remains confident that the Czech veteran Mrazek, who signed a three-year deal to challenge Jack Campbell, can resume back-up duties. Joseph Woll was demoted on Saturday after the rookie won three of four NHL starts.

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“Not the start I wanted, but I feel good, I did a lot of cardio while I was off,” said Mrazek. “My lower body (source of two groin injuries) felt really good.”

Campbell gave him a few fist bumps at the bench during a time out.

MARNER WILL TAKE TIME

On Saturday afternoon, the Leafs moved Mitch Marner to long-term injured reserve, which idles him 24 days from a week ago Friday when he crashed into Jake Muzzin and hurt his shoulder. He’ll get an extra few days to recover during Christmas when the Leafs play just once between Dec. 20-26. The move allowed them to activate Mrazek as he came off the injured list.

Other changes for Saturday’s game included Ondrej Kase rewarded for a two-goal night against Tampa Bay with a right-wing spot on Matthews’ line with Michael Bunting.

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“He can bring a lot,” Bunting said of Kase. “He’s a hound on the forecheck, makes really nice plays and can put the puck in the net as he showed in the last game. I’m really excited to have him on our line. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s in the corners, he’s blocking shots, he’s fearless.”

HOME FIT FOR A KING

What a homecoming for the Blackhawks’ Derek King, no matter the result.

The Hamilton-born former Leaf, who scored the last Toronto goal at Maple Leaf Gardens in early 1999 and helped open the new ACC a week later, was also a Marlies’ associate coach and came back as a first-time NHL bench boss after taking over from Jeremy Colliton.

“It was kind of weird stepping on the ice here for morning skate, looking around,” said King, who was trying for a 10th win in 15 games.

The late Bob Probert’s family has his final-goal puck from Chicago’s win that historic night in ’99, but King never did get confirmation that the Hockey Hall of Fame wound up with his disc.

“That always comes up,” he said with a laugh. “It would be nice for me to have it, but I can understand. Maybe the Leafs have some hidden room where they keep all their treasures.”

While the Hawks have spent nine of the past 12 games on the road, King wouldn’t have minded an extra night in Toronto to slip over the Skyway and see the Tiger-Cats in a home Grey Cup with his family.

lhornby@postmedia.com

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