The Toronto Maple Leafs have gained and then squandered a 3-1 lead in four of their past five games — but this one hits different.
This one was devoid of a positive post-game spin or excuses about travel or fans or missing bodies.
This one was about a good team losing its structure and its determination, its guts and its goaltending.
“This one should bother us greatly. Because how we played wasn’t nearly good enough,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, after watching a 3-1 lead disintegrate into a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday.
“I just thought we got exposed today for being a team that was just soft. Soft and purposeless and just kind of playing the game and just hoping it was gonna work out.”
Mitch Marner admitted that Toronto took its foot off the gas after flying through the first 20 minutes. After two practice days devoted to protecting their net-front and managing leads by establishing a forecheck, the Leafs deviated from the game plan and tried to make the pretty play.
“It’s like we get these leads, and then go into the second thinking it’s going to be just an easy rest of 40 minutes,” Marner said. “And everything’s coming to bite us in the butt.”
Keefe is typically one to cite the possession metrics and shot data, which both favoured his group, and see a silver lining.
But at Madison Square Garden, his eyes saw what ours did: a group that got pushed around in the puck battles that mattered, that failed to take enough advantage of a 4-2 edge in power plays, and that needs at least one more defenceman who can defend.
“We still carried play in a lot of ways and outshoot them and all of that, but you can’t play soft and purposeless hockey and win. You can’t defend the way we defended here tonight and give them those clean looks at the net,” said Keefe, refusing to blame the L on Jake Muzzin’s absence.
“If we’re going to be a team that accomplishes anything, we’ve got to be able to take that on and find ways to play better as a team. That’s what bothered me the most here today — we were just kind of making it up as we went.”
Maple Leafs defensive depth exposed something awful
Memo to Kyle Dubas: Start working the phones.
Leafs Nation got a peek at what life without Muzzin (concussion) and Justin Holl (COVID protocol) looks like, and it ain’t pretty.
Yes, Toronto’s top pair of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie skated nearly half the game, and was just fine. But the bottom four struggled.
Travis Dermott was a minus-3. Alex Biega and Rasmus Sandin were minus-2. Timothy Liljegren was a minus-1.
All of them looked overwhelmed at stretches. And the maiden voyage of a Sandin-Liljegren “shutdown pair” crashed.
“They had tough nights,” Keefe said, twice. “It’s a lot to ask those guys, and it just goes to show how important Jake Muzzin is. And even Justin Holl. Those guys play very difficult minutes.”
“The type of minutes are different. The responsibilities and the pressures are different. And those guys got a taste of that today, and I didn’t think it went well for them.”
Sandin, who typically is sheltered against the opponent’s bottom six, was taken by the confidence of the top-end forwards on a playoff-bound team.
“They’re just more playful on the ice. They’re jumping around and making really good plays out there,” Sandin explained. “Playing against the third or fourth line all the time, it’s pretty much the same thing — pucks coming down deep, and they’re forechecking on you. And our job for that is just a breakout.
“This time, they’re more confident. They’re making plays on the [blue] line and stuff like that. So, it’s not something that you’re very used to all the time.
“I was on the [ice] for three goals that we let in, so that’s obviously not good,” Sandin added. “So, we learned a lot out there, both me and Timothy.”
Ding, dong, the Mitch drought is dead
Against all odds, Marner went 100 games and 718 days without scoring a power-play goal. This despite being a fixture on the Leafs’ top unit and spending the bulk of his time in a prime shooting position on the flank.
As the unusual dry spell approached triple digits, Keefe said it was something that his staff was monitoring but not something he was concerned about.
“Yeah, I find it odd. We’re aware of it, and we’re trying do different things to help get something to fall for him,” Keefe said last week.
“He’s always a guy that’s gonna facilitate and look to get the puck in other people’s hands. It’s a huge part of who he is as a player — and a number of players benefit from that.
“We’d like him to find ways to be more of a threat and score on the power play, but reality is, or our power play was really rolling for a period of time there as good as anybody in the league.”
Marner quenched the famine in fashion, roofing a backdoor beauty past Igor Shesterkin off a slick pass by William Nylander, who notched his 300th career point on the sequence.
Marner wasn’t even certain the puck tucked under the bar in the moment, and he said the PP drought hasn’t been on his mind at all.
“I don’t really care,” Marner dismissed. “You guys have all those stats.”
Ryan Reaves walked the walk, then talked that talk
The Rangers’ fourth line dominated the Maple Leafs’ with their straight-line determination and relentless physical pressure.
Ryan Reaves — an off-season acquisition that signaled a rougher, tougher Rangers — scored his first and second goals in a blue shirt, and 50th and 51st of his career.
“Well, it’s not easy [to defend him]. I mean, he’s a competitive guy. He’s very, very big. So, he’s tough to compete against for sure,” Sandin said.
Both Reaves’ strikes were created from a punishing forecheck that overwhelmed Toronto’s small, inexperienced defenders.
“You’ve got one fourth line that goes out with a ton of purpose and ours, I didn’t think, had the same,” Keefe said. “It ended up turning the hockey game.”
Whether it was open-ice truck Jacob Trouba laying out Rielly in the neutral zone or Reaves launching a game-high five checks, the home side bullied its way to a 31-12 edge in hits.
Physicality impacted this game, just as it will come April.
“It shows that we can hang with the big boys, that we are one of the big boys,” Reaves said. “We’re proving to the league, we’re proving to ourself that we’re a contender.”
With its third consecutive win, New York leaps ahead of Carolina for first in the Metropolitan Division (although the Hurricanes have four games in hand).
“The standings don’t lie,” Reaves said.
Matthews’ comes this close to entering the record book
Only Pavel Bure (1993-94) and Steve Yzerman (1988-89) have scored goals in 11 consecutive away games.
Auston Matthews nearly joined that elite duo, carrying a 10-game road goal streak into MSG.
He appeared to have directed a record-tying goal into the net late in the third period, but the goal was called back due to a kicking motion.
“I was pretty excited for him [at first],” linemate Michael Bunting said, “but I think that’s not going to change his game. I think he’s gonna come back out and keep scoring like he always does.”
Lopsided battle of Vezina candidates
Round 3 of Jack Campbell and Shesterkin going head to head was nothing like the first two rounds, during which the No. 1s traded dialed-in 2-1 victories.
Shesterkin got beat thrice early, the most of any first period this season. He then settled down and was stellar the rest of the way through, turning away Nylander and Pierre Engvall on breakaways and finishing with 35 saves.
Meanwhile, Campbell has shown his first signs of cracking during this prolonged trip.
“Well, he’s not playing to the same level. I think that’s obvious,” said Keefe, adding that the five guys in front of Campbell also need to defend better.
The all-star game invitee allowed five goals for the second time in two starts and has surrendered 18 in his past four.
“Just not good enough,” Campbell admitted. “I just want to be better, and I’ll look at the tape, and I’ll work on it, and I promise I’ll be better.”
Keefe has been reluctant to give well-compensated backup Petr Mrazek much run with crease. But with Campbell’s performance dipping and some softer opponents on the schedule leading up to the all-star break — Islanders, Ducks, Red Wings, and Devils twice — we wonder if it would be wise to give Mrazek a couple starts.
“I expect [Campbell] will bounce back,” Keefe said. “I also expect our team to defend better around him. And when you’re referencing his stats or the number of goals that go in on shots, that’s not just a goaltending thing. It speaks to the quality of chances and how close we’re allowing the opposition to get to our net. So, that’s a team thing.”
One-Timers: Nick Ritchie rejoined the team in New York on Wednesday and is an option to play Saturday on Long Island…. Holl and Ondrej Kase remain in COVID protocol and are still stuck in Arizona…. Marlies forward Josh Ho-Sang is out with a concussion…. Nylander leads the NHL in breakaways (11)…. Mika Zibanejad was voted “Last Man In” for the Metropolitan Division’s all-star squad but declined due to personal reasons. He will not be suspended by the NHL for passing on the showcase.