ORONTO — Just four shots on goal in the first period. A stretch of 14-plus minutes without one while trailing by two in the third. And a false-start celebration to top it all off at the end of the night.
The 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs got their first look at life without Auston Matthews on Monday and it wasn’t very pretty.
In fact, vast stretches of a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames were downright ugly for a team that still sits atop the NHL standings.
“I just thought they were prepared, I thought they skated, I thought they worked, I thought they sailed out of their zone and beat us up the ice,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “To me, our top group playing against their top groups weren’t good enough.”
It started with Nazem Kadri’s line, which drew a tough assignment against Sean Monahan and Co. and had all kinds of trouble executing a clean breakout. One failed attempt — a bobbled pass from Morgan Rielly to Mitch Marner while Monahan applied pressure — ended with a quick Elias Lindholm goal to put Calgary ahead 2-0 with less than 14 minutes to play.
That about summed up how things went for Toronto.
Matthews watched the game in a sharp green suit and will be unavailable to the team for at least four weeks after suffering an injury to his left shoulder on Saturday night. In his absence, Babcock leaned heavily on his top remaining centres and gave both Kadri (21:14) and John Tavares (21:26) their season high in ice time.
The Zach Hyman-Tavares-Kasperi Kapanen line spent some time in the Flames’ zone, but didn’t generate a significant number of high-danger chances. Their best saw Tavares get the puck behind Mike Smith and across the line just after time expired in the second period.
“We’re learning some good lessons now with how much better we’ve got to be consistently night to night and how well teams are ready to play us,” said Tavares. “They’re coming in trying to do the same things we’re trying to do and get the results that they need. We know we can be a lot better starting with myself.”
There’s no reason to think they won’t be, but this stretch of games without Matthews will come with some big challenges. They’ve got tough road games on the horizon, including visits to Pittsburgh, Boston, Carolina, Columbus and a swing through California.
Among the more interesting thoughts from Babcock in the wake of Matthews’ injury diagnosis was his unwillingness to endorse the prevailing notion that this year’s Leafs are better-equipped to play without No. 34 than last year’s Leafs because of the signing of Tavares.
“Yeah, I don’t know for sure,” said Babcock. “Now, when we’re 20 games in and you ask me that question again, I’ll tell you if we’ve got more depth this year.”
Surely, he’s thinking about the 108 goals out the door with the free-agent departures of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov, plus the William Nylander contract standoff and Matthews injury.
That will put a lot of pressure on the top six to produce in the meantime. The Leafs entered the night with just 56 games of NHL experience total between their third and fourth centres (Par Lindholm and Frederik Gauthier).
Kadri, Marner and Patrick Marleau fuelled Saturday’s comeback win over the Winnipeg Jets, but they were held in check at 5-on-5 against Calgary. That trio had a poor possession night and just seemed to be a step off with passes and reads.
“Their gaps were great,” Kadri said of the Flames. “Right on top of our guys coming through the neutral zone. It just seemed like a pain in the ass every time. They made it tough on us and certainly congested the neutral zone area. That was the difference.”
Still, true to his nature, Kadri didn’t seem concerned about another flat performance at Scotiabank Arena on the night he played his 500th NHL game. The Leafs managed just 15 shots on net in the first 54 minutes before pouring it on following a Kadri power-play goal.
“No, no. We’re more than fine,” said Kadri. “Just a few bad periods. We turned it on late — it was too late — Freddie stood on his head, gave us a chance.”
They even thought they scored the tying goal when Zach Hyman tipped a point shot with 1:28 to play and had the puck land flat on the back of the netting. The goal horn blared while Hyman and teammate Josh Leivo celebrated with a crowd of 18,000 strong — only to find out it wasn’t in.
Matthews could be seen walking the corridors after the final buzzer sounded.
Even though Babcock had noted that “the greatest thing about hockey is it’s a team game and you don’t win by yourself,” it’s impossible to argue that life wouldn’t be better for the Leafs if their 21-year-old game-breaker was playing. He’ll be missed.
“It’s a hole for them, definitely,” said Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk. “I mean he’s one of the best players in the world.”