TORONTO – There was a look of frustration in Leo Komarov’s eyes and a hint of disdain in his voice.
“It sucks,” he said after another close-but-no-cigar loss for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The feisty Finn is the closest thing to a captain this group has right now and he wasn’t just speaking for himself. The Leafs played plenty well enough to beat the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night – stop us if you’ve heard this before – but crumbled in the third period.
“We just need to keep playing 60 minutes,” said Komarov. “That seems to be our problem this year I think. We’re playing good, but we can’t really keep the whole game together. A couple mistakes and then they score on us.”
It was a punishing loss, a disheartening loss. There’s no wink-wink, nudge-nudge involved here either.
For if the Leafs have learned anything from the Sabres in recent years, it’s that finishing 30th offers no guaranteed path to nirvana.
That’s especially true this season with a changed lottery system that will see the top three picks all determined by random number combinations – a change that leaves the NHL’s worst team with a 47.5 per cent chance of dropping to the No. 4 spot.
Right now the Leafs are comfortably taking up residence in the NHL’s basement, but they won’t do any material damage to their long-term aspirations by finishing strong and reeling in one or more of the teams ahead of them.
Whoever lands Auston Matthews is going to need some good fortune either way.
In fact, with so many players currently getting their first taste of life in the big leagues, the best thing that could happen to Mike Babcock’s team is stringing together some wins. They aren’t very far off. The scorecard shows five straight one-goal losses and counting since the rookies arrived en masse from the Marlies.
“I’d love to tell you that I can go in there and give somebody confidence; I can’t,” said Babcock. “I can’t give it to my kids, I can’t give it to my players. You have to earn the right by doing good things. … It’s like anything, its like a snowball, right? It picks up speed.
“In saying all that, we talked about it, is we can feel sorry for ourselves, complain, whine or we can do something about it.”
What left a particularly bad taste against Buffalo was the goals approximately three minutes apart in the third period that saw a 3-1 lead become a 3-3 tie. On the first, Nazem Kadri let Jack Eichel get position on him after they left the penalty box simultaneously and on the second a Morgan Rielly giveaway quickly went from Sam Reinhart to Evander Kane to the back of the net.
“We’ve got lots of kids in the lineup, but it wasn’t the kids that made mistakes tonight,” said Babcock. “It was two guys that we count on big time there in the third period that cost us.”
The Sabres prevailed in a three-round shootout.
It was a hollow ending to another night with positive vibes in the air, and some bounce in the building. Not that long ago Babcock quipped he’d seen more plays made in four shifts of a Marlies game than he had in a week from the Leafs.
Now some of those plays are being made at Air Canada Centre.
Plays like the deft backhand pass Nikita Soshnikov put on Komarov’s stick for an easy goal just 25 seconds in against Buffalo. Plays like the one Zach Hyman made by willing his way to the top of the crease and beating Chad Johnson for his first NHL goal.
“I don’t really know what was going through my mind,” said Hyman. “Just ecstatic.”
It wasn’t quite enough.
The Sabres have taken big strides since consecutive 30th-place finishes – they lost the lottery both years, drafting Reinhart (2014) and Eichel (2015) at No. 2 – and are certainly ahead of the Leafs in their development curve.
But on Monday you saw some tangible hints of what could eventually blossom into a rivalry between the Atlantic Division foes, with Kadri and Eichel jostling one another repeatedly and plenty of finished bodychecks delivered by others.
“There’s definitely some grit there and some bad blood,” said Kadri.
The Leafs centre even tossed in a playful jab at Eichel, who scored the 20th goal of his rookie season: “He’s a good player. I think he has a hard time in his own end, but definitely special with the puck.”
Maybe one day in the dark, distant future these teams might even meet in a playoff series. That would be something.
However, in Toronto in particular, the goals are obviously much more modest right now – a fact that shouldn’t be confused with the intentions of those involved.
“I don’t think anyone here has lost sight of the plan and where we’re going, but at the same time, when the game starts we’re trying to win every single night,” said Babcock. “Don’t ever kid yourself. We’re playing our players that way, we’re trying to find a way to get two points and feel good about ourselves.”
That’s a difficult thing to do right now and it needs to change.