Maple Leafs still tough to read as pedestrian stretch continues

Sean Couturier scored a beautiful goal against Frederik Andersen in the shootout and the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs.

PHILADELPHIA — The Toronto Maple Leafs had crossed a veritable desert since William Nylander last scored. Out to Western Canada and back, the hell week where defence became optional, the steadying back-to-back in Nashville and Buffalo and, finally, a journey to the city of Brotherly Love.

Thirteen games in all, 39 shots on net and many more attempts high, wide or off iron — matching the longest drought of his NHL career.

Then Auston Matthews batted a Shayne Gostisbehere clearing attempt out of mid-air, the puck found its way to Nylander’s stick in the slot and it soon hit twine behind Carter Hart to send this game past regulation.

“It was nice,” said Nylander, who dialled his celly game up to 10 for the occasion. “It’s been awhile, but the chances have been there so I wasn’t too worried. I’d rather score in the playoffs than now.”

That’s kind of the elephant in the room, right?

This entire stretch of not-quite meaningful hockey is a bit like a kaleidoscope: You can see in it what you want to see. You can highlight the second period, where the Leafs handled the puck as though they were playing with wrong-handed sticks and Philadelphia “got all over us,” in the words of Matthews. You can point to another four goals behind Frederik Andersen and wonder what that says about his playoff readiness.

You can talk about another loss, 5-4 in a shootout to the Philadelphia Flyers, and point out that Boston hammered the New York Rangers 6-3 on Wednesday for its 20th win in the last 26 times out.

But it’s hard to say with any real certainty what it all tells us about the most important thing going this spring: The Leafs-Bruins best-of-seven that starts two weeks from Thursday.

For there’s been a fair bit to like, too, starting with the dominance of the Andreas Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander line. Matthews entered the night with a huge advantage in shots from the slot taken in March, according to SportLogiq data provided to Sportsnet — he had 48, teammate John Tavares had 30 and Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel, San Jose’s Tomas Hertl and Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher each had 29.

Matthews generated several more of those while waging a game-within-the-game battle against Philadelphia’s most-trusted centre, Sean Couturier, and scored a gorgeous goal against Hart while setting up the Nylander strike.

He’s now sitting at a career-best 71 points and becoming even more of a two-way threat with Nylander against stapled to his right side. Matthews didn’t manage a clean sheet here like he did against Florida’s Aleksander Barkov on Monday, but he had a sizeable share of the attempts (58.8 per cent), shots (65.2 per cent) and scoring chances (57.9 per cent) in his minutes against Couturier.

And, with the playoffs in mind, his coach is still demanding more.

“I just thought that the other night when [Matthews] played head-to-head [with Barkov], I thought they did a real good job of being above them,” said Mike Babcock. “Tonight was more run-and-gun and just trading chances. So obviously, I liked the other approach much better because I think you end up on the plus-side and you end up scoring and winning that way.

“This probably was more entertaining for the fans.”

Besides the result, the only true black mark came in that second period when the Flyers turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead. It could have been an even worse than that if not for some Grade-A stops from Andersen.

They stopped pushing play and couldn’t regain control when the defensive zone coverage was being spun ‘round and ‘round.

“I think we kind of lost our focus,” said Nylander. “That’s something, thankfully it happens here and now rather than in the playoffs. It’s something we’ll have to work on.”

That’s been a common sentiment through the March malaise. Earlier in the day, Andersen said he was treating his remaining starts before Boston like pre-season games. At times his teammates seem to have embraced that philosophy, too.

“You’re trying to just fine dial a lot of things to get prepared for the playoffs,” said Nylander. “Other than that, the game, not much is going to change now for your own game. But small things, just the details.”

They’re hoping the small things include the shot of confidence that came from Nylander’s goal, plus the ones scored by Nazem Kadri (his first in 13 games) and Connor Brown (his second in 25).

“For anybody that hasn’t scored in a while, when you score it’s like adrenaline going through your bones and I think that’s a positive thing,” said Babcock. “So, we need a few more guys before we’re done here.”

They’ll be done with this regular season soon enough. Five more games that will be micro-analyzed for clues about whether they’re ready to pass the first-round test that tripped them up in Game 7 last April.

When the big dance arrives, will this pedestrian 3-4-2 stretch have mattered?

We’ll tell you in a couple weeks.

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