Maple Leafs looking to establish identity at home as struggles continue

Anton Khudobin was heroic against the Maple Leafs in the third period to maintain the Stars’ 2-1 lead for the final.

TORONTO – The best thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs matching a dubious modern National Hockey League record for going five consecutive home games without scoring a goal through the first 40 minutes is they’re hopping on a plane Friday and heading back on the road, where they’re a pristine 5-0.

Curious, isn’t it?

The same Leafs (more or less) that set a franchise record last season with 29 wins in their own building tumbled to 3-5 at Scotiabank Arena in 2018-19 with Thursday’s 2-1 loss at the hands of the Dallas Stars.

Against Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Winnipeg, Calgary and now Dallas, the league’s third-ranked offence has been silenced early and often. Since the forward pass was made legal, only the 1994-95 Florida Panthers have gone this long without potting a first- or second-period goal in their own barn.

To blame these sluggish starts on William Nylander’s contract impasse or Auston Matthews’ banged-up shoulder, or any one thing for that matter, is too simplistic.

Patrick Marleau, the evening’s lone scorer in blue, believes the Leafs deserved a better fate in this one, and considering they outshot their visitors 32-19, we tend to agree.

“Hard workout. Side-to-side passes,” said Khudobin, sporting an exhausted grin and the black Stars logo’d cowboy hat, a team-awarded crown to signify the game’s hero. “I tried to throw everything away and just follow the puck.”

John Tavares perfectly pinged a marksman’s most infuriating target, where the crossbar and far post meet disappointment. Marleau nailed an inside post and watched Khudobin, purposely, adjust his right pad so as to avoid knocking the rebound in:

Impossibly, Tavares and Marner each fanned on a shot during the same odd-man rush. And Stars backup Anton Khudobin, going in cold after two weeks on the bench, stood on his head during the dying moments of an extra-attacker flurry.

“Let’s make it greasy, let’s make it as ugly as possible and find a way to win these games by one goal,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn, unashamed to steal one after Toronto trounced them in Dallas. “It’s nice to limit them to one, and I’m glad we won’t see them for a while now.”

Drawing a tidy narrative linking all those doughnuts in the first and second frames of the past five Maple Leafs home dates is foolish.

“Some of those games, I don’t think we had enough shots or enough chances. I think tonight probably could have been one of those nights where we could have popped one,” Marleau said.

“It’s something we’re talking about. It’s something we want to do a better job of, getting out to good starts.”

Monday’s loss to Calgary could be blamed on soft effort. Saturday’s 2-0 deficit to Winnipeg was overcome by late heroics. And while St. Louis and Pittsburgh each did a superb job of keeping the Leafs to the outside last week, Matt Murray was especially fabulous in pitching a road shutout, in a concussion-return game, no less.

An old adage — Remember, the other guys get paid, too — applies here.

After a favourable early schedule that saw the Leafs pile points in the bank, Toronto has run into desperate, prepared road squads that have needed the two points more.

The Flames described Monday’s victory as their greatest defensive game of the year. The Penguins and Blues each believed they’d save their most complete performances for Toronto. Stars coach Jim Montgomery said the second period Thursday was the first time he felt all of his players embracing their role since he took over.

“I don’t think you ever want to discredit the other team,” coach Mike Babcock warned. “Once they watch ya, they try to defend. They got a coaching staff; we’ve got a coaching staff. You’re trying to make it hard on the opposition to create offence.”

It ain’t all bad, Leafs Nation.

Andreas Johnsson finally showed some jump. Travis Dermott is over his weight-sapping illness. The oft-maligned Marleau did find the net in his first outing since being moved up to the top power-play unit in Matthews’ absence.

And Marner, again, proved that he’s ready and eager to seize the mantle of Best Leafs Forward whenever Matthews sits injured.

Marner led all Leafs, even the D-men, in ice time Thursday at 23:12 — the second-most of his career — and deserved every second. He stole two pucks, took five shots, drew a tripping penalty on Marc Methot, and forced Khudobin to make a brilliant shorthanded save on a sneaky solo effort. He quarterbacked the power play and orchestrated a series of quality chances to nearly tie the game.

In the one game Tavares didn’t have Marner by his side (Monday’s loss to Calgary), he was nearly invisible. During the small stretch Nazem Kadri was reunited with Marner, he was thrilled. He’s that rare winger who can motor a whole line.

“You can kinda sit there and watch him in awe for a bit,” Travis Dermott said.

“He’s just flying around like a little spark plug, but if you actually look at the videos, he’s doing everything pretty much right — even though he’s flyin’ around everywhere.”

Friday, Marner and the Leafs fly to Pittsburgh, giving themselves a one-game respite from these peculiar trials at home, although they know well the importance of holding the fort.

“Teams are doing such a good job at being in the right position. They rely on their structure, so we have to find holes in their structure to get the puck and provide a transition game,” Kadri said.

“We have to establish Toronto as a tough place to play.”

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