Leafs lose ugly despite improved defensive play

John Tavares scored his first goal in six games and had an assist to help the New York Islanders to a 6-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.

TORONTO — It felt like a throwback night. Just not the kind of one teams intentionally set out to replicate.

The final Toronto Maple Leafs home game of the calendar year ended in a similar fashion to so many others in 2015 — with the stands at Air Canada Centre half-emptied long before the buzzer sounded on a lopsided loss.

What made it unique, however, is that it’s been a rare sight for Mike Babcock’s Maple Leafs. Even this one wasn’t quite as bad as it may have appeared.

There were numerous signs of life during Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the New York Islanders and, strange as it sounds, it really should have been a better game. The only problem was the puck ended up in the Leafs net just about every time they began to take control.

Jonathan Bernier was beaten on the second, fourth, seventh, 12th, 14th and 15th shots he faced. All of those goals can’t be pinned solely on him – there was a Frans Nielsen breakaway, and sure handed tip-ins by John Tavares and Anders Lee – but when you look at the full body of work it was nowhere near good enough to get two points.

Bernier watched counterpart James Reimer stop six shots in the third period and will likely be relegated to long stretches on the bench now if Reimer’s groin injury is truly behind him.

“I thought we were more than ready to play,” Babcock said in assessing the night. “They dug in harder tonight, the puck went in the net. Let’s get on with it. We’ve got a game against Pittsburgh tomorrow.”

Amazingly, the Leafs head into that one just four points back of the Penguins in the Atlantic Division standings. Who would have called that when the Phil Kessel trade went down on July 1? Or how about when Toronto emerged from October with just one victory?

The bottom line is that the Leafs are playing pretty good hockey – certainly better than they are widely getting credit for.

Even with the Islanders setback, they’re a respectable 12-8-5 over the last two months despite enduring one of the toughest schedules in the NHL. Just as importantly, they’ve largely eliminated the no-show efforts that became commonplace after Peter Horachek replaced coach Randy Carlyle on an interim basis in early January.

The biggest difference is vastly improved play on the defensive side of the puck under Babcock this season – something that could be seen even as they surrendered six goals on Tuesday.

The Leafs, after all, finished with a 33-21 shots advantage over the Isles and controlled more than 60 per cent of shot attempts at even strength. You’ll take your odds with those kind of metrics every night of the week.

They still made their share of mistakes, sure, and didn’t leave Air Canada Centre feeling particularly good. But they weren’t embarrassed – not like they were so often in the past.

“Well I just thought that we weren’t as good as we could have been,” said Babcock. “You can blame our ‘D’ (for breakdowns), but I don’t think our forwards did much to slow them down through the neutral zone.”

A few timely saves would have helped the cause, too. The real back-breaker came when Bernier got too cute with the puck behind his net and allowed Nikolai Kulemin to score just 28 seconds after Toronto had drawn back to 3-2.

It wasn’t long before the Islanders stretched the lead and turned the third period into nothing more than a formality. It brought back faded memories. We’ve certainly seen that before.

However, based on the way things are trending, we should be seeing a lot less of it here in 2016.

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