TORONTO – “They slapped us,” said Morgan Rielly.
“We got smacked,” said Connor Carrick.
In hockey, some losses linger longer than others. The Toronto Maple Leafs defencemen weren’t referring to Saturday’s 6-3 disappointment in Ottawa, but a game played more than 11 months before it.
Hopes were just starting to take flight around the young Leafs when Los Angeles came to town last Nov. 8. They crashed back to Earth pretty quickly with a 7-0 loss that wound up being the most lopsided of the entire season.
“That one I remember very clearly,” Carrick said ahead of Monday’s rematch at Air Canada Centre. “That was a serious disappointment that night. We had talked about, ‘Hey, we’re playing a team that knows how to win (with) big bodies. We play a little bit more of a speed game. It’s going to be an exertion of will. You know, show up on time and play the game.’
“I don’t think we did that and the score showed it. Everything kind of ended up in our net.”
Rielly labelled it a “reality shot” for a team that had won three straight games beforehand. Those were the early days of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, and no one was quite sure how quickly Toronto might turn things around.
It feels like a lot longer than a year ago.
The Kings went on to miss the playoffs last season – costing head coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi their jobs – but they put on a clinic in the only visit to Toronto. The shot attempts were 75-38 overall, the shots on goal 43-19. They chased Frederik Andersen from the net before the second intermission and still put three more pucks behind Jhonas Enroth for good measure.
“They were experienced. They were established, older. They came in and they kind of took us to school,” said Rielly. “We learned a lot from that game. I think you go through those games and you learn and you get better and you draw from it.”
It’s interesting how much detail athletes can recall from a night like that one. Carrick and former defence partner Martin Marincin saw third-pairing minutes, but were on the ice for four even-strength goals against.
What stands out in Carrick’s mind was the pre-game talk from head coach Mike Babcock about needing to prove themselves against an established team and how badly they failed to execute on the plan.
“There were points in that game where it was 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 – we were still in it; we can score three goals – and it got all the way to seven,” said Carrick. “Nothing went right. We did not play well. We did not show up.”
While the tenor has changed considerably around the Leafs this season, they are coming off a couple sloppy efforts. They didn’t control the puck enough in Wednesday’s visit by Detroit – feeling fortunate to emerge with a 6-3 win – and gave up a season-high 17 scoring chances in Ottawa, according to Babcock.
“(That’s) ridiculous and unfair to your goalie and not right,” he said Sunday.
No one needed to remind him about what happened the last time the Kings were here. It’s clearly something he’ll mention in the dressing room before puck drop.
“Well they smacked us around,” said Babcock. “But I also think you need lessons in your life. When everything goes good all the time that’s not good for you. You need a good tightening every once and awhile – I thought we got it last night – (now) we’ve got the best team in the league coming in. They haven’t lost yet. They’ve got a real good back end, good forwards. They’re playing well. They’ve got good goaltending.
“It’s going to be a real challenge for us and I think that’s what we need. I think we need a real challenge.”
They are still climbing rungs, these 6-2-0 Leafs, even though the expectations have grown considerably around them. Monday looms as another important test with Los Angeles riding high at 6-0-1 and only having surrendered 14 goals.
In the aftermath of the 7-0 loss a year ago, Rielly told reporters that it was evidence the Leafs still had a long way to go. He can look back now and feel some pride about how many steps forward they’ve taken.
“I stand by that,” said Rielly. “When we lost that game, we did have a long way to go. I think we’ve came a long way, but we’re nowhere close to where we want to be. We want to be a really good team for a long time.
“This journey is 100 miles. We’re just starting out.”