TORONTO — This is anything but a typical road trip for the St. Louis Blues. They’ll stop by the Hockey Hall of Fame to donate a Stanley Cup ring on Tuesday afternoon and are due to have an audience with the president next week at the White House before turning their attention to the pursuit of another championship.
“When you have the same group you feel like you can do it again,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo. “Same coach, same players. So we’re just trying to leave off the same way we ended.”
Those accomplishments and ambitions made Monday’s visit to Scotiabank Arena a little more meaningful for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are not shying away from their desire to follow the Blues climb to the top of the mountain — with head coach Mike Babcock telling his players “This is our time!” in a post-game speech last week.
The Leafs also made no secret of their appreciation for an early chance to measure progress.
“They beat us twice last year and both times they handled us,” Babcock said before Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Blues. “We weren’t handled by lots of teams last year, but they handled us.”
At least there were encouraging signs baked into a familiar result.
Toronto held the edge in shot attempts (62.6 per cent), high-danger chances (85.7 per cent) and expected goals (65.2 per cent), according to NaturalStatTrick.com. It rang a couple shots off the posts behind Jordan Binnington and had two points well within grasp against the defending champs.
“The game is right there on the line going into the third period and they found a way to get one and we didn’t,” said Babcock. “We had good chances but didn’t. They made a play, they got a nice little pick there and then one seam where we had five guys inside, we should have had it sorted out, but we didn’t.
“In the end, that’s what good teams do. You get a swagger about you — you know you’re going to win and you find a way to win.”
Pietrangelo produced the winning goal at 7:51 of the third period, jumping down off the point to find a window of free real estate behind Kasperi Kapanen before burying a wrist shot off a nice cross-seam pass.
“Same thing we always do,” said Pietrangelo. “You know how resilient we are. We just keep playing.”
This is the kind of maturity the Leafs aspire to. They’ve got a long season ahead to try and develop it before the big test arrives.
When they review tape of this game, they’ll wonder how they lost control for a stretch following a first period that saw them hound the puck and compile a 23-12 edge in even-strength shot attempts.
That allowed Oskar Sundqvist to open the scoring, although Frederik Gauthier and William Nylander soon replied with goals 24 seconds apart. Brayden Schenn tied it 2-2 in the final minute of the second period to create a winner-take-all final 20 minutes.
“They’re the champs. They’re a very patient team, they play a very disciplined game,” said Jason Spezza, who picked up a nice assist on Gauthier’s goal. “I thought we did, too, for the most part. I thought when it got away from us maybe we didn’t get pucks deep as much as we need to.
“For the most part, we hung with them all night. A bounce here or there could have been a different story tonight.”
This was a clash of styles.
St. Louis plays a heavier game and looks to keep opponents away from the most dangerous parts of the ice courtesy of a big blue line and excellent puck protection. By contrast, the Leafs are built on speed and high-end skill and have designs on becoming a possession monster.
“I thought we supported the puck really well. I thought we moved as five-man units,” said Spezza. “We had five guys in all zones, forced them to turn it over — and they don’t turn it over a lot. There was a point there where they kind of turned it over a bit and the game opened up and we could have put ‘em away.
“Like most good teams, they hung around. They’re a tough team to beat, but there was definitely some positive things.”
The first week of the regular season is no place to properly litigate the differing approaches, but they produced an entertaining game here Monday.
Where the Blues excelled in winning Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in June was choking the life out of the Boston Bruins once they got ahead. They did the same late in this game, particularly when Toronto brought a heavy push after Frederik Andersen went to the bench for an extra attacker.
“We just battle,” said Binnington. “In the last minute when we have a one-goal lead, it’s just special. It’s a war zone. The guys are laying it on the line and competing to the buzzer.”
Toronto was taking notes, too.
“They kind of just did everything right, right? I mean defensively solid, goaltending solid, scored big goals,” said Auston Matthews. “Their depth obviously helped them quite a lot throughout the playoffs. All four lines, all three pairs of ‘D.’ I mean you need that. We feel like we have that in this room to accomplish that, what they did.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we’re improving every day.”
If nothing else, this was a place to start.