Foligno makes lasting first impression in Maple Leafs win over Jets

Mitch Marner scored two goals including the game-winner and added an assist while Jack Campbell made 34 saves as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Winnipeg Jets 5-3.

Two weeks removed from game action and 24 hours out of a rink-free quarantine, Nick Foligno vowed to keep the shifts short. And through two periods of his Toronto Maple Leafs debut, he did.

But in the final 20 minutes of a tight game where his team “had to turn the lightbulbs on there,” in the words of head coach Sheldon Keefe, that meant asking a lot more of Foligno to help salt away the lead.

“He’s just a very smart player,” said Keefe. “He does a lot of little things really well that help you win games.”

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It was only fitting that Foligno helped ice Thursday’s 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets by carrying the puck into the offensive zone, spinning off a desperation check from Kyle Connor and finding Mitch Marner for an easy empty netter. Marner immediately scooped up the puck as a souvenir.

That capped a two-minute shift which allowed the Leafs to halt their winless streak at five games and restored their six-point advantage over Winnipeg in the North Division.

It also underscored why management surrendered a haul of draft picks to acquire the heart-and-soul winger at the trade deadline when more dynamic offensive options were available.

Foligno fills a specific role and need. He skated on the left wing beside Auston Matthews and Marner — each of whom had dominant, three-point nights — and wasn’t a drag on two of the NHL’s premier scorers. But much like the injured Zach Hyman, he offered a different element than the superstars with a heavy forecheck, some physicality and situational awareness.

“He’s easy to play with,” said Matthews. “I think you kind of just know what to expect from him every night; he’s going to work really hard, he can make plays, he’s skilled, he’s really good in and around the net. Really good hands.

“He’s just easy. He talks a lot out there.”

The fact Keefe leaned so heavily on Foligno after not even having him participate in a practice yet speaks volumes about how much he’s already trusted. This was a game the Leafs badly needed after blowing consecutive multi-goal leads in Vancouver and seeing an early 2-0 advantage over the Jets shrunk to 4-3 by the second intermission.

Foligno felt “pretty crappy” during his first few shifts following a seven-day quarantine at his summer house in Sudbury, Ont., and was surprised with how out of sync the pre-game routine and warmups felt after nine years with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Where comfort returned was during the seven-plus minutes of ice time he played in a tight third period. The Jets pose a serious threat to the Leafs’ ambitions and it became a battle with the game in the balance. It’s the kind of thing both teams are trying to steel themselves for with the playoffs looming.

For all the warm sentiment baked into this union — with Foligno dusting off his father Mike’s No. 71 Leafs sweater, not to mention a 28-year-old Leafs ballcap for interviews — both parties are in this for the same thing.

“I think what I’ll remember most is the win,” said Foligno. “That’s what I came here to do, and help [with]. It was just so fun to battle with these guys. You could tell their attention to detail, how much they care. It’s fun to be in a room like that where you can tell they’re working towards something.

“I want to help in any way I can be a part of that.”

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In recent days the mood around the team had grown more tense with injuries and losses mounting — “Definitely was weighing on us,” said goaltender Jack Campbell, after a bounce-back 34-save performance of his own. “I mean we’re competitors and we have a high standard in our dressing room. It’s safe to say it wasn’t acceptable” — and introducing Foligno helped change the vibe.

“It put some fire in our belly and we were all ready to go,” said Campbell.

“He did a great job for coming off those seven days [in quarantine],” added Marner. “Played a hell of a game with me and Matts.”

Foligno immediately brings more balance to the top six, with Alex Galchenyuk now dropped to a spot alongside the red-hot John Tavares and William Nylander, and once Hyman returns from his knee sprain they’ll have an awfully deep third line, too.

He doesn’t need to be a game-breaker to make a difference and he’s one more trusted hand for his coach. As far as first impressions go, this was a good one.

“Special just to be out there and have this opportunity,” said Foligno. “I appreciate it so much and I’m going to do whatever I can to make the most of it.”

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