Maple Leafs left to rue missed opportunities in shutout loss

Pekka Rinne made 18 saves for the shutout and the Nashville Predators defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As Auston Matthews reviewed a night where he hit two posts and had a goal called back by an offside review he never saw coming, there was only one conclusion left to draw.

“It’s a game of inches, for sure,” Matthews said Monday.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar and his teammates, that game is being played as much between the ears as on the ice.

It’s been a grind here of late — a test of “the process” this group first talked about on Day 1 of training camp but only started living when the weather turned cold.

The Leafs have generated far greater underlying results in the month since William Nylander re-entered the lineup following his contract standoff, but are just 7-5-2 in those games after a 4-0 loss to the Nashville Predators.

They have controlled a healthy share of the even-strength shot attempts (53.4 per cent), scoring chances (53.6 per cent), high-danger chances (58.6 per cent) and goals scored (57.1 per cent) since Dec. 6.

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Consider those dashboard indicators that suggest the car should be running fairly smoothly. And yet the Leafs haven’t won at the same clip they did in October and November.

“I think certainly we have another level to our game and can find some more consistency,” said John Tavares. “I think there’s really good stretches every game and we do a lot of good things, but to do it in this league consistently and with where we want to get to, we know we can be a lot better and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and we’ve got to dig in.

“I think we know it’s not going to be easy. We’re playing some very good hockey teams, proven teams, teams fighting for their lives. We’ve just got to be prepared and go out there and execute a little bit more consistently.”

They had enough chances to make life more difficult on Nashville.

Matthews beat Pekka Rinne early but rang his rare slapshot off the post. Kasperi Kapanen struck iron with what looked like a tap-in. William Nylander was shown to be a quarter-stride offside on the zone entry before Matthews scored, seeing a potential 1-1 tie quickly become a 2-0 deficit when he then accidentally deflected a P.K. Subban shot behind his own goaltender while checking the point.

“A couple posts, a goal called back, but it’s no excuse in this locker-room,” said Matthews. “We’ve still got to bear down and do our best to capitalize on our opportunities. Definitely if a couple of those maybe go in or the roles are reversed then maybe we’re looking at a different game. But it wasn’t.”

Big picture, it’s pretty clear what details have slowed down the Leafs Express.

A once-scorching power play is suddenly in search of traction, clicking at a paltry 12.2 per cent (5-for-41) this last month. That includes an oh-for-three performance against Nashville, aided by a spinning puck from in-tight that saw Matthews hit his other post in the third period.

“It wasn’t good enough,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “I mean Matty had the wide open net so if you get one, everyone thinks it’s great. He didn’t shoot it in the empty net. But I still didn’t think both our plan and our execution [was] good enough. We weren’t dangerous enough.”

Toronto has also played without Frederik Andersen these last five games and had seen its No. 1 goaltender’s performance dip a little before he went down with a groin injury.

None of these areas are yet larger-scale concerns, not with Toronto still second overall in points percentage (.667) and Andersen expected back soon. You’d also assume a power play featuring Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly is bound to rediscover its lethal form eventually.

In the meantime, Babcock hopes his team is picking up some “lessons.” That’s a phrase he used after a loss to Minnesota last week and again after the defeat to Nashville, which lost in the 2017 Stanley Cup final and won the Presidents’ Trophy last season.

“They were heavy on the puck, heavy on their sticks, detailed, blocked shots, competed,” Babcock said of the Predators. “I thought they were dialed in. I thought their players were playing a real game and it was a competitive game. We didn’t hold our end up through 60 [minutes].”

They were in the general vicinity, just not all the way there.

The Leafs have 40 games left before they’re playing for keeps. The challenge is to grind through the winter blahs and find another level on nights like this one.

“We’re a pretty calm team in here,” said Marner. “We’ve got a lot of belief in each other. We have no doubt that we can score in this room.”

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