LOS ANGELES – Over the course of an 82-game season, there are going to be times when the deck is stacked against you. Arriving at Staples Center on the second half of a back-to-back, and playing for the third time in four nights, falls under that category.
This was not one they could simply chalk up to heavy legs and a quality rested opponent. Even pointing to a spotty effort from backup goalie Curtis McElhinney falls short of explaining why the Leafs repeatedly interrupted stretches of strong play by shooting themselves in the foot.
“Turnovers were the key tonight for us,” said Jake Gardiner, the perpetrator on the most egregious one. “Had too many of them and they cost us goals. Other than that, I thought we played well. You can’t play that kind of hockey if you want to win.”
Yes, that’s been a running theme throughout the last few weeks, but this effort stood alone from the poor efforts against San Jose and Carolina. The only similarities were too many goals against.
As Leafs coach Mike Babcock surveyed the night, he concluded, “You feel like you left one out here.”
That speaks to how strange and uneven the performance was. For the Leafs, the good play was really good. And the bad? Well, it was brief and … horrible.
Gardiner is one of Toronto’s stronger skaters, but ended up on his butt before Kings forward Michael Amadio opened the scoring. He couldn’t say if it was bad ice or something else that caused him to fall as he skated backwards across his own blue line. That resulted in a panicked clearing attempt and costly turnover.
“I’m not sure what happened there,” said Gardiner.
After Mike Cammalleri made it 2-0, Leafs centre Nazem Kadri attempted to skate the puck out of his own end in the final minute of the first period. He instead coughed it up to Tanner Pearson, who found Trevor Lewis all alone.
“You can’t outscore your turnovers,” said Babcock.
“In the first period we definitely didn’t play smart,” added centre Auston Matthews. “Once we started just keeping it simple, getting the puck in and getting after their D, we started generating some more chances.
“For us, it could have helped if we started that from the time the puck dropped.”
The comedy of errors reappeared briefly in the second period when Tyler Toffoli got free of Nikita Zaitsev on a power play and literally shot the puck through McElhinney. He added his second goal a couple minutes later after a neutral zone turnover by the Leafs sent the Kings off in transition.
That made it 5-0.
Given that Toronto consistently enjoyed stretches of strong play, it wasn’t surprising that it ended up making the Kings sweat a bit.
First Auston Matthews scored on a penalty shot – it’s debateable whether Anze Kopitar actually hit his hands on the breakaway that lead to it – and then he found Morgan Rielly with a spinning pass from the corner just before the second intermission.
When Connor Brown tipped home a shot from the high slot to make it 5-3 with 12 minutes left in regulation, there was plenty of time for a comeback.
Kasperi Kapanen soon had two good chances stopped by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. Matthews shot high after being awarded another penalty shot with 1:19 left when Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin intentionally knocked his net off its moorings.
Time ran out.
There was no surprise in this game for a Leafs team that beat the Kings a couple weeks ago at Air Canada Centre. It always loomed as a tough one on the schedule, but they didn’t do enough to make things a little easier on themselves.
“There shouldn’t be any reason for that,” said Matthews. “Just because it’s a back-to-back, I think it should force us to play a little bit smarter and take care of the puck much more. We definitely didn’t take care of it tonight in the first couple periods.”
Still, the players saw plenty of positives to take from their effort. Los Angeles is now 10-2-1, but the margin between them and the 8-6 Leafs doesn’t appear too vast.
“The game plan was working when we executed it,” said Rielly. “We started working down low and moving our feet. I thought we had time where we were controlling the play a little more, but we didn’t do it enough obviously.”
Babcock noted that the turnovers and a couple lost coverages on the penalty kill are “fixable.” They’ll be discussed before this tough four-game road trip wraps in St. Louis on Saturday night.
Of the Kings, Babcock noted, “It’s pretty easy to get a handle on what they’re doing, but they just do it better and longer than most teams.”
That’s the kind of consistency Toronto is still searching for.