GLENDALE, Ariz. — Two hours before puck drop, Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet let out a long sigh when asked about the challenge of stopping a motivated Auston Matthews.
“I hope he was out late last night,” said Tocchet. “That’s how you defend him.”
As it turns out, he had another trick up his sleeve instead: Brad Richardson, an unheralded veteran centre the vast majority of Toronto Maple Leafs fans who packed Gila River Arena on Saturday couldn’t confidently pick out of a police lineup.
Richardson drew the matchup against Scottsdale’s favourite hockey son and performed exceptionally well — keeping Matthews without a shot in the nearly 10 minutes of even strength time they spent on the ice together.
That about summed up a night where the Leafs fell flat offensively. Not only did they get shut out, 2-0, but they would have been held under 20 shots by the pesky Coyotes if not for a late flurry that came after Frederik Andersen got pulled for an extra attacker.
“It’s frustrating, for sure,” said Matthews, who was second among Toronto skaters with seven total shot attempts. “You obviously want to come back here and, for myself definitely, you want to perform and win the game, most importantly. We really just didn’t have it tonight.
“They outworked us in a lot of different areas and we really didn’t have an answer.”
Mike Babcock tried to find one by dropping his lines in the blender, including a Mitch Marner-Matthews-Kasperi Kapanen trio that produced a couple modest scoring chances against Darcy Kuemper.
But this was several rungs below Toronto’s top effort, a disappointment during a red-hot 7-1-1 stretch that included a dominant performance in Vegas on Thursday. Perhaps it can be chalked up to playing five road games in eight days across three time zones, although neither Babcock nor his players seemed willing to buy into that theory.
Either way, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas spoke recently about analyzing the team’s schedule before the season to establish an expected points outcome for each game and this felt a little like a schedule loss.
That’s not intended to take anything away from the Coyotes, who have weathered an insane number of injuries this season to remain in the hunt for a Western Conference wild-card spot. They are proof that what you lack in star power can be overcome by playing an organized, persistent brand of hockey.
Even the Leafs, who dressed eight (!) players who’ve outscored Arizona’s leading goal man — Alex Galchenyuk at 13 — are susceptible to getting frustrated with the Coyotes’ suffocating style.
“We’re not fearing people, but there is a fear factor [against Toronto] in the sense if we don’t play the system it could get out of hand,” said Tocchet. “I think it’s a good way of approaching the game. But, saying that, we can’t play defensively. You just can’t back in — we’re not preaching that, we’ve just got to be very calculated in our response to when to go and when not to go.”
They also boast the NHL’s best penalty kill and managed to snuff out all four Toronto power plays.
The only brief bit of life enjoyed by the Leafs came and went quickly, when William Nylander expertly knifed the puck out of the air, had it hit his shoulder and bounce past Kuemper. But the referees ruled it a high stick and video review wasn’t conclusive enough to overturn the call.
Asked whether he was satisfied with the explanation attached to that call, Babcock turned it back on his players: “Well this is what I know in life: When you don’t do more than we did tonight it never goes your way. So don’t worry about it and move on.”
As much as the Leafs would like to have performed better with a travelling pack of thousands in the sellout crowd, plus a couple dozen friends and family of Matthews, they didn’t seem overly shaken by it.
“We’ve got that confidence and that swagger to be able to brush ones like these off,” said veteran centre Nazem Kadri.
“We’ve played well on this road trip,” added Babcock. “I’ve liked the way we’ve played. We’ve played with good energy, good detail, good work ethic. We just weren’t as good tonight. The sun is going to get up tomorrow and we’re going to get back to work because obviously, I don’t think anybody … could be feeling that good about it.”
They’ve got a day to relax in the sun and then a practice before travelling to St. Louis to wrap up the season-long, six-game trip on Tuesday. This one will be forgotten easily and quickly.
“One of those nights where it didn’t really go our way and those happen,” said Andersen.