MONTREAL – Every new suit that Mike Babcock purchases comes complete with a second pair of pants and a vest. Backups. Options.
When he first secured the gig as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he’d slip on a vest for Original Six matchups, spiffing up for the occasion, lending a touch of ceremony to the evening.
"And we lost every single one of them," Babcock says. "They’ve been on the shelf now for four years."
With his Maple Leafs — and, by extension, backup goaltender Michael Hutchinson — going 0-fer through the second half of their first three back-to-backs this season and chartering late Friday night for a fourth Saturday at the Bell Centre, Babcock reached into the unused recesses of his wardrobe and pulled out a sleeveless Hail Mary.
He turned his suit into a three-piece.
"Our back-to-backs, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, we haven’t exactly been sailing, so we’re changing it up tonight," a rather formal-looking Babcock announced pre-game.
To be sure, the coach does have a vested interest in the club’s success this season.
Unfortunately, not even the coach’s sartorial superstition could reverse the Leafs’ most disturbing October trends, as the Montreal Canadiens soundly defeated their forever rival 5-2, seizing the first two games of the season series and handing Toronto its third back-to-back loss to a divisional foe.
The Leafs’ head-scratching habit of letting their opponent draw first blood continued when Brendan Gallagher outworked Cody Ceci in the slot and banged the first puck past Hutchinson.
Toronto has now surrendered the first goal in 10 of its 13 games, digging more early deficits than any other team in the NHL.
"There’s really no reason for it. I don’t really have an answer for you," said Auston Matthews. "It’s something we haven’t really done well in, especially in these back-to-backs, and we’ve had plenty of them, so we got to find a way to start better and start on time."
A silky Jonathan Drouin five-hole deke off a breakaway orchestrated by Joel Armia doubled the lead, and Hutchinson spent the opening frame under siege to a near-comical extent.
Through a ridiculously lopsided opening 20 minutes, the Canadiens outshot their visitors 19-5, out-attempted them 34-10 and generated seven high-danger chances to Toronto’s zero.
"The fans feel like they’re on top of you," said Hutchinson, whose father might’ve second-guessed his recent switch of allegiances from his beloved Habs to his son’s Leafs.
"They just seemed to have a lot of zone time, and they threw the puck in from everywhere, and they had good sticks. They tipped some things that were going wide onto the net.
"As a goalie, it’s not always the worst thing in the world to kind of get engaged in the game early on."
So when Jake Muzzin beat Carey Price on a nifty setup by Mitch Marner in the final minute of the period, the defenceman’s late goal served as a critical momentum-shifter, a testament to Hutchinson’s battening of the hatches, and a reminder how quickly and how often Toronto’s talent can cannon the Leafs back into causes that appear lost.
Canadiens have now allowed 8 goals in the final minute of a period this season.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) October 26, 2019
The Leafs came out buzzing in the middle period, Andreas Johnsson tying the contest by winning a puck battle in the slot, but it all unravelled in the final 20 minutes.
Mentally or physically, Toronto was the weaker side.
"For sure it’s an advantage you have to take," Montreal coach Claude Julien would say post-game.
"I still prepared my team and said to them, ‘Listen, even if it’s two-in-two and Toronto played last night, it’s not a big trip to Montreal, and there’s no customs to clear, and I’m not sure they went to bed too late.’
"I said that it could still be a pretty tight game and that we could find ourselves in our room after two periods in a 2-2 tie. I wanted that back, obviously, but I also did mention that if we play the right way in the third period, if we have a good forecheck and finish our checks, eventually we’ll have a chance to finish the game the right way.
"That’s what happened tonight—the fatigue at a certain point, after we put a lot of pressure on their defencemen, bore fruit."
Muzzin got burned immediately off the third-period puck drop by Armia, who scooted in alone and burned Hutchinson seven seconds in.
Drouin was gifted a second breakaway, this time beating Hutchinson clean blocker-side, setting the barn alight, and restoring a two-goal lead. Nick Suzuki added a final blow for kicks.
"You can’t give them two breakaways in the third period if you want to win," said Johnsson, making a valid point.
It would be cruel to pin this loss on a goaltender flipped to the wolves; the Leafs’ besieged backup still made 33 stops, including a number of beauties.
"That’s on us; it’s not on him," Matthews said.
Yet the facts remain.
Hutchinson is still searching for his first win, Toronto has yet to polish off a back-to-back, and it’s costing the club valuable standings points against the very teams they’ll be jostling for playoff positioning down the road.
"It’s the NHL. You gotta show up every game, no matter what the schedule is. Even if you’re not feeling your legs, you gotta find a way to be productive or find a way to help the team in other areas," Matthews said.
"So there’s really no excuse."