TORONTO – We’ll never know if Auston Matthews might have wrapped a bow around his own storybook ending.
That may appear counter-intuitive but it offers a glimpse into just how befuddling the skills competition has been for the local side. The Leafs are now 0-5 on the season and back at the drawing board. After going with Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Nikita Soshnikov on Tuesday against San Jose, Babcock tried Tyler Bozak, Marner, and James van Riemsdyk.
None of them scored. In either game.
“It didn’t work,” Babcock said after a 3-2 loss to the Coyotes. “Their goalie didn’t make one save but he made all three, if that makes any sense. A bar and two posts, that’s just the way it goes.”
Matthews seemed like a natural selection after scoring the opening goal against Arizona – his childhood team – and nearly ending the game three separate times in overtime. He skillfully hammered a waist-high pass on net, tipped a shot just wide, and had another attempt denied by Mike Smith’s blocker.
All in a night’s work.
“Auston’s a heck of a player, he’s a top player,” said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. “He’s going to do well for a long time.”
The best explanation for leaving him on the bench while former teammate Peter Holland scored the winner can be found in the deep dive the Leafs are undertaking on the shootout. Babcock didn’t have his players practice it on Wednesday for fear of it being interpreted as a negative lesson after the loss to the Sharks, but acknowledged to reporters that it had become “way more important, suddenly.”
When the Leafs reported for duty on Thursday morning, they were shown some video of Smith’s shootout tendencies – just in case.
The targeted area appeared to be high glove and each attempt was only a fraction off. As a team, Toronto is now 2-for-15 in shootout attempts on the season.
Marner is the only player to have gone in all five games, which is a big change since he had just one attempt – total – in three years of junior hockey with the London Knights. While he leans on assistant coach Andrew Brewer for a brief scouting report before heading to centre ice, he doesn’t want too much instruction.
“I think they know if they get in your head then you think too much [and] something bad usually happens,” said Marner.
There was an understandably sour mood in the Leafs’ dressing room after losing yet another game where they enjoyed a sizeable territorial advantage. Toronto finished with a 46-30 edge on the shots counter, with 85 attempts fired at Smith overall.
The players are keenly aware of their proximity to the playoff race: six points back of Boston, with three games in hand and all sorts of missed opportunities in the rear-view mirror.
“Just keep grinding,” said Babcock. “Nobody feels sorry for anybody in the National Hockey League. You suck it up and find a way to win games and that’s the bottom line.”
There were certainly plenty of positives to be found for the Leafs, including goals from their two marquee rookies. Matthews picked up his team-best 14th goal and 23rd point in the first period while Marner ended an 11-game scoring drought in the second.
Matthews has exceeded internal expectations so far and is on pace for a 40-goal season but doesn’t seem the least bit surprised with his production.
“I feel I’m capable of doing a lot out there,” he said.
There probably won’t be many shootouts in the future at Air Canada Centre where he plays the part of spectator. That was his role on this night.
The stage was left to Holland, who had been unceremoniously benched for much of this season in Toronto before getting traded to Arizona last Friday. When the final shootout attempt arrived and Tippett called out No. 13 – a tribute to Mats Sundin, Holland’s boyhood hero – the 25-year-old centre was eager to exact a small form of retribution.
He decided on a backhand deke move that he’d never used in any of his 13 shootout attempts with Toronto.
“I know the goalies on the Leafs watch some of the shootout tendencies and obviously going up against Freddie in practice and stuff like that, I’m sure he’s well aware of one of my go-to moves,” said Holland. “I thought I had to change it up on him. I think it just kind of squeaked through so kind of lucky, but it went in and that’s all that matters.”
That was that.