Maple Leafs continue to spiral under slow starts, bad special teams

Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves on 33 shots against to help the Golden Knights hand the Maple Leafs their sixth straight loss, winning 4-2.

LAS VEGAS — At this stage you have to wonder if we were the ones who miscalculated.

Those of us who looked at the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the season and believed they were worthy of the Stanley Cup expectations that got placed on them.

In dropping a sixth straight game here Tuesday, there were things to like about their play. They tightened up considerably after the debacle in Pittsburgh and didn’t roll over after falling behind to the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the third period. The Leafs certainly didn’t look like a team trying to get their coach fired.

And yet … well, they didn’t generate very much offensively until they got chasing the game in the third period. They’ve now gone more than 427 consecutive minutes (and counting) since playing with a lead.

A dire situation grew just a little more desperate with Tuesday’s 4-2 loss.

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"Definitely a much better effort. It was a good hockey game," said Jason Spezza, who finished with a goal and an assist. "We lost the special teams battle and that ends up being the game. It’s something to build off of, but it’s frustrating.

"We need to get a win here; it doesn’t matter how it is. If it’s ugly, we’ve got to find a way to get a win."

No matter how you slice it, they can’t keep playing from behind. They’ve allowed the first goal in 18 of 23 games, and they’ve trailed at some point in an astounding 21 of them.

That is just not the mark of a good hockey team.

Forget the names, forget some of the gaudy individual numbers, forget all of those market-recalibrating contracts. The Leafs have been so much less than the sum of their individual parts through 23 games that you have to question the roster construction as critically as Mike Babcock’s decisions behind the bench.

It was not the coach, we have to assume, that decided to trade their best-value contract in Nazem Kadri to Colorado for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot. Barrie has not been able to replace what the Leafs lost with Jake Gardiner’s off-season departure, and cruelly he was the one who made the most egregious error in Tuesday’s defeat.

Not even a full minute after Spezza ripped a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury to tie up a tight game in the third period, Barrie skated the puck into the neutral zone and had it stolen by Tomas Nosek.

That left the Vegas fourth-liner with a clear breakaway — his second of the game — and he stuffed it behind Frederik Andersen to restore a lead the Golden Knights wouldn’t squander.

"It seems to be when it rains it pours right now," said Barrie. "It’s going to take some mental toughness to get through that. … I just kind of saw an opportunity to jump and I just went to go to my left and he got a good stick on it and then it just obviously gave him a breakaway.

"Not what you want to do as a defenceman and the last guy back. Yeah, that’s on me. It’s disappointing."

Andersen also shouldered some blame by saying he was outplayed by Fleury, who delivered a save-of-the-year candidate by diving across his crease to snare a high Nic Petan backhander that looked destined to hit the back of the net.

That would have tied the score 3-3.

Instead it stayed out, the Leafs failed to create the tying goal on a power play inside the final three minutes and Cody Eakin scored into an empty net to put this one on ice.

Toronto’s much-maligned penalty kill checked in with an 0-for-2 night — giving up a Cody Glass tap-in after twice failing to clear the puck 200 feet before seeing Mark Stone beat Andersen clean to make it 3-1 — and, my goodness, stop me if you heard this before.

The Leafs power play is now ranked 18th while its penalty kill is 27th.

This group arrived here needing to atone for a flat performance in Pittsburgh — holding a players-only meeting, plus some individual sitdowns with Babcock. They took some steps while generating a healthy share of the scoring chances and high-danger chances, and still fell short.

"The bottom line is we’ve got to stick with it and just keep grinding," said Babcock. "We had a chance on the power play at the end there and we didn’t execute on that. It’s disappointing but I’m always about the process and how hard guys play.

"We played way harder so I thought that was good."

Still, it’s tough not to shake the feeling this season is sliding off the rails.

The Leafs — once considered the Cup favourite by bookies here in Vegas — are now five points from the bottom of the NHL. The list of teams in the Eastern Conference with a worse points percentage is alarmingly short: Ottawa, New Jersey and Detroit.

It’s Nov. 20 and it’s no time to search for silver linings from performances like this one.

"The talk is the talk. Like everyone talks, right?" defenceman Jake Muzzin said this week. "Address what needs to be addressed but then you’ve got to, honestly, you’ve just got to … get to work. It’s what you’ve got to do.

"I mean it’s not X’s and O’s it’s playing with passion and playing with heart. That’s what we need to do."

They need to become the team we thought they were before it’s too late.


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