Maple Leafs running out of time to find best version of themselves

Anthony Duclair scored twice, Craig Anderson made 42 saves and the Ottawa Senators upset the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

KANATA, Ont. – A road trip for naught.

As was the case two weeks ago, the Canadian Tire Centre was awash in enemy blue. It was a beautiful chance on an ugly, stormy night for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs to pile into a friend’s car, gorge on ONroute fast food, score some cheaper tickets and watch their team officially clinch a playoff berth on rival ice.

But, as was the case two weeks ago, it was the bottom-feeding, rebuilding Ottawa Senators who left with the two points, handing their provincial partners a 4-2 loss.

"We did a good job of taking the crowd out of it," deadpanned Sens goaltender Craig Anderson, who was fantastic in the home victory.

Is that something you guys joke about?

"No," Anderson replied.

The Maple Leafs’ ho-hum play of late is no laughing matter, either.

Destined to kick off the post-season in Boston in under two weeks, Toronto has fumbled through a 4-5-3 stretch in its past dozen outings, surrendering at least four goals in seven of its past 10 games.

When the defence smartens up, the goals dry up. And when the offence flows, spotty own-zone play and/or suddenly below-average goaltending does them in.

Unlike their last Kanata adventure — a 6-2 shellacking when hell week hit rock bottom — the Leafs absolutely dominated the run of play Saturday, generating the bulk of high-danger scoring opportunities (11-6), and pelting Anderson with rubber like hail balls on windshields.

Shots were 44-22 Leafs. Scoring chances were 42-21 Leafs.

To no avail.

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"The only reason I’m down is we played a great game and deserved to win," a despondent Garret Sparks said, underneath his toque.

After a scoreless first frame, Auston Matthews lost a puck battle at his blue line, and Oscar Lindberg fed a pretty pass to Anthony Duclair, who one-timed a blast through the legs of Sparks.

The backup was granted an ultra-rare start in a non-back-to-back situation in order to give No. 1 Frederik Andersen some bonus rest ahead of the Boston series.

"That first one is on me," Matthews copped. "I’ve got to make a better play there and take care of the puck."

Following a botched zone clear, Magnus Paajarvi doubled the lead by popping open in the slot, taking a Duclair pass and beating Sparks five-hole, again.

If you closed your eyes and listened hard enough, you could hear the echoes of Sens owner Eugene Melnyk publicly ripping the Leafs defence in the quieted arena.

"Our D corps has been looked at as a weak part for a while, and I know every single guy that’s a part of it likes to push back there," said Travis Dermott, who made his return to action Saturday after missing a little more than a month with a shoulder injury. 

"We’ve had our times where I think we’ve played really well, and coming down to playoff time, that’s where you want to be every game."

The visitors finally solved Anderson in the third period, thanks to a pair of beautifully clean snipes by Matthews in the slot and Connor Brown off the rush, and the crowd erupted with joy.

But Ottawa defenceman Cody Ceci immediately restored the lead on an odd-man rush in the following shift.

"Just have to make more saves. We come roaring back to tie the game, it would have a been a huge save to make on the third one, and obviously, the first two weren’t great either," Sparks said.

"I’ve got to get out more. I’ve got to wear that, got to find a way to get a piece of it and make a save for the team because they were playing so well."

The Leafs pressed, but Anderson slammed the door, and Duclair potted some empty-net insurance for a three-point night.

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Certainly, the effort was far superior compared to Toronto’s last game in this barn, after which Sparks memorably demanded more emotion, but that’s a low bar, and moral victories feel so trite at the end of March.

"Hopefully there’s games when we come out like this and we can jump on teams and get a couple of goals, get a lead ourselves, so you don’t feel like you have to force things or open up and be able to stay patient," John Tavares said. "We could easily be on the other side of some of these."

On talent alone, there’s no way the Maple Leafs should drop consecutive games to a roster that’s been purposely scraped bare over the past 10 months.

Credit Anderson for a brilliant performance. Credit the Sens for finding a way, absolutely. And credit Ottawa’s game ops crew for trolling their out-of-market ticket buyers by cranking Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” — the Leafs’ goal song — with 27 seconds left on the clock.

As for Toronto, the Leafs are down to just four games to fine-tune their roster — AHL stud Calle Rosen will jump into the lineup Monday versus the Islanders, and Jake Gardiner (back) is eyeing a Thursday return —fiddle with their power play (Zach Hyman was tired out net-front on the top unit), and find the best version of themselves.

What does that look like?

“Whether we’re up or down, just coming in waves and waves," Matthews said. "That’s probably the biggest thing for us heading into this last week is finding that consistency and making sure we’re playing a full 60 minutes.”

Four more dress rehearsals before the Leafs’ inconsistencies — be they between the pipes, on special teams, or behind the blue line — will spell real consequences.

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