MONTREAL – Under the bright lights of a Saturday night in Montreal, thick in a murky playoff hunt, the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared to have uncovered the type of defensive performance Sheldon Keefe has not only been craving but demanding from his hockey team.
Until it all fell apart in the third period, again.
“I had to point out some things this morning that lead to us allowing teams to spend time in our end and get life and get energy,” Keefe said, during his first night coaching in his favourite road rink as a player.
“A lot of it, to me, is about our physicality and just how engaged we are to close defensively and get the puck back quickly. Because when we have the puck, we’re very difficult to play against.”
Barely resembling the club that blew leads to the Panthers, Rangers and Ducks earlier this week, Toronto limited the NHL’s most shot-happy side to a scattered 11 pucks on Jack Campbell’s net through two periods, tilting the ice to Canadiens’ end and hinting at the Leafs’ potential when their effort and patience matches their offensive gifts.
Yet once again, a lack of discipline and a void of killer instinct marked an ugly third period, and a tenuous 1-0 lead swiftly flipped into a 2-1 overtime loss to the resilient Canadiens in the brand of tight-checking contest the Leafs should expect to see plenty of down the stretch.
The suddenly hot John Tavares busted a scoreless tie during the first dangerous rush of the third period, conjuring a rainstorm of “Go! Leafs! Go!” chants in the enemy’s cathedral.
The captain has now found the back of the net five times and has added a pair of assists during a timely four-game goal streak.
But this roster has long been voted “Least Likely to Win Games 1-0.”
Cue the Habs’ inevitable push, which came in fierce, frenzied waves as the clock ticked away and the Leafs slid back on their heels, hoping to keep it out instead of driving for a second goal of their own.
Montreal outshot Toronto 16-1 in the third.
Tavares explains how “human nature” kicks in, that instinct to shot-block and dump-out, to protect what little you have and hope time slips away.
Yet that’s not the identity the Leafs are driving for.
“We did all the things that we don’t want to be as a team, and we just gave it back to them, so we never had a chance to get going,” Keefe said. “You don’t win games when you score one goal; it’s very difficult.
“So we let that team hang around, and when you just have a one-goal cushion like that, you leave the door open for a point shot to catch you.”
Marco Scandella finally bent twine with just 2:33 remaining, and the Leafs never regained control.
“I’m definitely not happy giving that one up, to give them life again and blow that lead in the third,” said Campbell, after battling through both ends of a back-to-back for the first time in his NHL career. “One more save, and we get two points.
“I’ll fix it, and I know I’ll be even better next game.”
A jubilant Ilya Kovalchuk whacked in a rebound for an odd-man-rush overtime winner that felt inevitable after Tyson Barrie decided to take a low-percentage slapshot on a 3-on-2 with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews as passing options.
“I probably should’ve pulled up and waited for something better to present itself,” Barrie regretted. “You gotta be a little smarter sometimes.”
Just as some sloppy periods in this busy four-game week gave evidence as to why a post-season berth is anything but guaranteed, Saturday’s more disciplined, detailed performance reminded that, when the Leafs strap their work boots on, maybe there is reason to dream big.
Blowing leads in four-straight games presents a disturbing trend.
The three points Toronto earned in overtime this weekend feels like a salvage, not a statement.
“During different points during the season you just have different obstacles and different things that become issues,” said Jason Spezza, blessed with the perspective of 1,109 games. “It’s probably good for us that we’re seeing different things and different struggles and we have to come through it.”
After a wild week in Leafland that began with a soul-sucking loss, featured a potentially season-saving trade, and included critical absences of Frederik Andersen (neck) and William Nylander (illness), Toronto has emerged on the right side of the bubble — if barely.
“The whole league is on the bubble,” Spezza said. “I don’t know if anybody’s too confident with where they’re at right now if you look at the standings.
“Since Sheldon’s been our coach, our record’s been good. I think we’re a team that’s trending in the right direction. I think we have our warts like everybody else, and we’re trying to work through it. But for the most part, we’ve done a lot of good things since Sheldon’s been coach, and we need to continue building — and I think we’re in a really good position.”
That position will be improved if Frederik Andersen, who skated for a third consecutive day Saturday, can rejoin for next week’s heavy schedule.
“It’s a really busy time of year for us,” Barrie said, “so there’ll be no time to feel sorry for ourselves.”